Tuesday, October 31, 2017

October's Book of the Month: Willow Man by John Inman

Summary:
Woody Stiles has sung his country songs in every city on the map. His life is one long road trip in a never-ending quest for fame and fortune. But when his agent books him into a club in his hometown, a place he swore he would never set foot again, Woody comes face to face with a few old demons. One in particular.

With memories of his childhood bombarding him from every angle, Woody must accept the fact that his old enemy, Willow Man, was not just a figment of childish imagination.

With his friends at his side, now all grown up just like he is, Woody goes to battle with the killer that stole his childhood lover. Woody also learns Willow Man has been busy while he was away, destroying even more of Woody's past. And in the midst of all this drama, Woody is stunned to find himself falling in love—something he never thought he would do again.

As kids, Woody and his friends could not stop the killer who lived in the canyon where they played.  As adults, they might just have a chance.

Or will they?


Woody Stiles is forced to face his past when he's booked to sing at a local club but he swore he'd never return.  With his parents gone and despite his determination to never return Woody was never able to let go of their home so to save some money, he foregoes the usual hotel and stays in his childhood home.  The past he wanted to forget has returned, can Woody and his friends defeat what lurks in the canyon or will they be the next victims?

To followers of my blog and reviews it is no secret how much I enjoy John Inman's creative spookiness, Willow Man is my fourth Inman tale this Halloween season and although I am about to temporarily leave behind the freaky tales for tales of Christmas soon I will definitely be returning to read more from his backlist.  One of the things I like best about John Inman is that no matter how creepified I get, I also am left warm-hearted at the love and friendship that he puts into his characters.

As for Willow Man itself, well when dealing with creepy, freaky, and spooky I find it hard to write a review because I just don't do spoilers and when reading these kinds of tales every little element can be a clue or giveaway.  So let me just say this: WOW! DOUBLE WOW! and HOLY HANNAH BATMAN!  If you're wondering what I'm "WOW-ing" and "BATMAN-ing" about well I could simply say "read for yourself"(I am saying thatπŸ˜‰) but I am also adding that if you are afraid of the dark than be sure you read Willow Man during the day with all the lights on.

I should add that I know a few people who find flashbacks/back story spread throughout to be a little distracting but for me I find it thrilling and a bit exhilarating.  Frankly, if we learned everything from the past all at once the element of surprise would be lacking and heaven knows that in tales of creepiness, anticipation can be everything.  A definite addition to my spooky library.

RATING: 


Chapter One
“WOODY? MY God, is that you? How long has it been?”

Woody wasn’t exactly sure just how long it had been, but to his way of thinking, it certainly hadn’t been long enough.

He remembered Crystal, of course. Hell, who wouldn’t? She had been gorgeous once. Still was, pretty much, although she did appear to have considerably higher mileage on the old odometer these days. Woody could still recall the way she used to whisk her pom-poms around at basketball games, wiggle her tight little butt, and aim her perky pubescent tits up at the grandstand as if to say, “Here they are, boys. Come and get ’em.” Well, it looked as if, at some point between then and now, somebody had indeed come and got ’em, and loosened up the chassis considerably in the process. She was a raging airhead then, and judging by appearances, she was a raging airhead now. Maybe some things you simply don’t grow out of.

“High school?” he said, wishing he had been a little quicker getting to the alley for his after-set cigarette.

Tonight, he knew, his set had been a good one. His voice in tune. His fingers adept on the guitar strings. The crowd congenial. They even seemed to be listening to him, which was a nice change of pace for the club he was currently working. Usually they just sat out there in that dark netherworld behind the spotlight, swilling beers and downing shots of tequila until they didn’t know where the hell they were and certainly didn’t give a shit where the hell Woody was or give two hoots for the fact that he was trying to entertain the ungrateful bastards.

No, it had been a good night. Until now.

The airhead squealed like a pig being disemboweled and gave his arm a playful slap, sloshing the beer from his glass onto his pant leg. “Well, of course it was high school, silly! But what year was that? When did we graduate?”

Woody was wondering if beer would stain khaki. He was also wondering how many shots of tequila this broad had poured down her throat during the course of the evening. “You mean you don’t remember?”

She giggled, like being stupid was the asset she was most proud of. “What year is it now?” she asked, looking honestly thoughtful.

Woody dragged up a smile and pointed it at her like a gun. “Doesn’t matter. Having a good time tonight? You don’t seem to be feeling any pain.”

Ha. Ha. She laughed the same laugh a hyena might laugh after finding a nice tasty zebra carcass lying on the savannah. A long series of hoots and haws with a couple of snorts scattered around to give it texture.

“I’m having a wonderful time! But, I didn’t know you could sing, Woody! Gee, I mean, you’re a real singer!”

“The matter is still up for debate.”

Whoosh. He imagined his words flapping across the top of her head like dying pigeons and splattering in a burst of feathers against the far wall, stunned into oblivion, uncomprehended by anything or anyone in between. Least of all her.

“Really?” she asked, suddenly sincere. “Well, I thought you were great!”

“Thanks,” he said, leaving his smile thumbtacked to his face like a poster.

“Buy me a drink?” Crystal asked with a flirtatious leer that promised more than drinking company if he played his cards right.

Woody was used to that look. It was a look he had seen time and again over the years. He supposed he was handsome enough, coming in at a little under six feet and as trim as a runner, with a sprinkling of soft hair across a well-defined chest and sporting long, elegant fingers—a guitar player’s fingers, his mother once told him. No moles, no scars, no Adonis, but with shoulder-length, reddish-blond hair that framed an open, expressive face, which in moments of repose seemed to wander toward the forlorn side, there was something about him, Woody knew, that certain women, and certain men, seemed to enjoy looking at. Sometimes that knowledge amused him. But not tonight.

Woody’s smile faltered. “Sorry, kid. Not allowed to fraternize with the customers. Club rule.”

It took her a minute to absorb this. “Gee, honey, I’m not asking you to fraternize me, whatever that means. Sounds kinky, though. Oh, wait, I think I know what it means.” Rusty wheels turned inside her tequila-glutted brain for all of five seconds before she said, “Well, maybe I don’t. So how about that drink?”

Woody glanced over her shoulder at nothing whatsoever and announced, “Oops, there’s my boss. Gotta run.” And with that, he took off like a bat out of hell toward the back door, aiming a last “Have fun tonight!” over his shoulder at the decidedly disappointed-looking ex-cheerleader behind him.

Once outside, he breathed in the cool night air and then replaced the freshness of it inside his lungs with a grateful puff from a Pall Mall.

Glad to be alone, Woody gazed up at the moon, which hung like a streetlight above his head. Where the hell was he? Oakland? That’s right, Oakland. His agent had booked him this gig right after Del Cerro, with no waiting in between jobs for a change. That was nice. His three days here ended tonight after his next set. Then he had a two week run in a club called Strikers, which was part of a gigantic bowling complex in San Diego—more than a hundred lanes, or so he’d been told—again without any dead time between gigs.

He supposed he’d be singing to the accompaniment of strikes and spares and rumbling bowling balls, but what the hell, he could always crank up the mike. San Diego, he thought. My hometown. Supposedly every entertainer’s dream, playing their hometown. Woody didn’t quite see it that way, but what the heck. The money was good. Or sort of good. And how many of his old cohorts would be hanging around a bowling alley? Not many, or so he hoped.

He knew he should be happy to be leading the life he’d once dreamed of, but somehow his dream had lost a little of its pizzazz when it made the transition to reality. Maybe they always did. Maybe fiction was always better than fact. Too bad, that. It was a good dream. Not that his life now was bad, exactly. It just wasn’t as good as the dream. After all, two weeks in a bowling alley in San Diego didn’t quite measure up to a run at the Palace, now did it? Actually he didn’t even know if the Palace still existed, or if it was still the holy of holies that up-and-coming young performers aspired to. Maybe it was a Kmart now. Wouldn’t surprise him.

He stomped out the Pall Mall and immediately lit another. Damn cigarettes. Not good for his voice. But he wasn’t exactly doing opera here. Sometimes a little cigarette hack in the middle of “Drop Kick Me, Jesus” added depth to the rendering. Or maybe it didn’t. Who the hell cared anyway? And actually, “Drop Kick Me, Jesus,” even by country-western standards, was a bit too banal for his playlist. He stole most of his material from George Strait, George Jones, and Willie Nelson. Not that they would mind, he was sure, since none of those august entities had ever in their lives heard of Woody Stiles, yours truly, or if they had, they had forgotten about him two minutes later.

He wasn’t exactly in the fast lane to stardom, he had to admit. Here he was, pushing thirty. After years of struggle, his gigs were getting closer together and being fairly well received of late, but that elusive recording contract seemed to be nowhere on the horizon that he could see. Against the advice of his agent, he had dumped his band a couple of years back. He had been soloing ever since. Just him, his God-given voice, and his Gibson acoustic. Without a band, his gigs were a little more limited—no dance clubs to be sure—but on the other hand, he didn’t have to split his pay five ways either. So all in all, going solo was a smart thing to do. Lonely, though. Jeez, it got lonely sometimes. He missed getting drunk with the guys after a show and playing till dawn for no one but themselves in some seedy motel room, surrounded by a mountain of takeout Chinese cartons and empty beer bottles, until the neighbors started pounding on the walls and screaming at them to “Shut the hell up, for Christ’s sake, people are trying to sleep over here!”

The band had picked up another lead singer somewhere, he had heard, but what happened to them after that was anybody’s guess. Flying under the radar somewhere, he supposed. Back to hustling for tips in the dives they had worked themselves out of while he was at the helm, maybe. Or maybe they were finally working themselves up again. He hoped so. They were nice guys. Good musicians. A little too dependent on outside stimulants, maybe, but how many working musicians weren’t?

Woody himself had locked his sorry ass in a hotel room in Dallas for two weeks and weaned himself off crystal meth along about the time he’d dumped the band, and it was the best thing he’d ever done for himself. Wasn’t easy, mind you. He still remembered dropping an issue of Variety on the floor and leaving it there for five days before his petrified muscles limbered up enough to allow him to bend over and pick it up. But there’s no point in plucking away at your guitar strings until your fingers bleed and singing every insipid request that the drunken louts in the audience throw at you if you’re just going to turn right around and suck the night’s proceeds up your nose through a rolled-up dollar bill. No wonder so many country western singers were ex-druggies. It kind of went with the territory.

Lately, Woody had even been trying to wean himself away from country as well, going for a more Jackson Browne sound, but he supposed his voice just wasn’t built for it. He could get an audience jiving pretty good with a little Mel Tillis or Clint Black, but when he shot for Billy Joel or Sting, he could see the bar patrons go glassy-eyed and start fiddling with their car keys. Not a good sign.

Woody had a repertoire of almost six-hundred country western songs under his belt, and maybe another couple of hundred of the more mainstream easy rock stuff, but he was bored with every damn one of them. In fact, Woody was beginning to think this line of work wasn’t exactly a manly sort of business to be in. There is a certain panache to being a recording star, someone with an honest-to-God contract with a legitimate industry label, but to just flit around from one town to the next, following his agent’s leads, singing for a bunch of drunken cowboy wannabe’s in their too tight Levi jeans and overblown cowboy hats, which they only drag out of the closets on Saturday night, with their bleached blonde girlfriends hanging worshipfully on their arms like Cissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter being dragged around by Tommy Lee Jones, just seemed a little—well—demeaning.

But Woody loved to sing. That was the problem. When he sang he did it for himself, not the audience. He could lose himself in the lyrics of a song sometimes, and when he did, those were the moments he most cherished, closing his eyes to the crowd and letting the words and the music carry him to a place where he didn’t have to think of anything at all. A place where he could lose all sense of self completely. The meth had helped carry him to that place too, but at the same time, he knew, it was killing him. On meth he could sometimes lose himself so completely inside a song it was hard to let it end. He would find himself repeating verses over and over until the audience started wondering what the hell was going on. Finally, to bring him out of it, his band would play the closing bars right over him, just to get him to shut up.

It had seemed kind of funny at the time, but looking back on it now, he realized it wasn’t funny at all. The euphoric high that kicked in when he snorted that expensive white powder might be making him happy, or at least making him think he was happy, but it was dragging the band down behind him like an anchor tossed over the side of a ship, sinking farther and farther into the depths until it hit the ocean floor with a resounding clunk. Fact was, they were losing gigs. Word got around. Club owners didn’t want to risk their business to a drugged-out singer who might or might not show up for work, a singer who wore Band-Aids across the end of every finger because he had played them down to the bone the night before while on a high that numbed everything from fingertips to brain.

Another problem with meth was that he smoked constantly while on it. It had affected his voice. Did a real number on it, in fact. An occasional cigarette cough in the middle of a lyric was one thing, but when you started bending over the microphone, gagging and spitting and hacking up a lung, the audience tended to notice.

So Woody gave the drugs up for Lent, metaphorically speaking, and he was glad now he had. For one thing, he was still alive. That was a plus. For another thing, as his body gradually tuned itself up again like an engine coughing out the last drops of water from the gas tank, he found he could still, once in a while, find that euphoric state where he lost himself inside the music. It didn’t happen as often now, but it happened.

And it was a blessed relief when it did.

Woody regretfully stubbed out his second Pall Mall—the one habit he could not break, no matter how many times he tried—drained the last drops of beer from his glass, and did a couple of flaps to his trouser leg, trying to speed up the drying process from the beer the dizzy broad had spilt there earlier. Then, after looking down at himself to make sure everything was properly in place, zipper closed, shirt tucked in, no hawks of phlegm on his boot tops, he headed back inside the bar.

Oakland. There seemed to be a whole lot of cowboy wannabe’s in Oakland. Looking out across the dimly lit club was like looking at a Stetson store closing up for the night. Hats everywhere. The name of the club was Diablo’s. He had worked it once, a year or so back. It wasn’t a bad gig. The owner was a decent enough guy who paid nightly without a fuss, and the clientele, although pretty well sloshed at this late hour on Saturday night, were reasonably well behaved. He hadn’t had to duck any flying beer bottles or watch from the stage as the patrons disassembled the place in a drunken brawl, clutching his beloved Gibson to his chest to keep it out of harm’s way as the furniture went sailing past his head, which had happened more than once in other drinking establishments he had been employed in. So on the whole, it had been a good night. A good run.

In a couple of hours, he would crank up the old Chevy Suburban and head south. Maybe stop somewhere along the way to cop a few zees at the side of the road. Find a Laundromat, do his laundry. Pig out on fast food as he drove along, watching the California countryside unfurl before him, carrying him back to the place he was born, the place he had sworn he would never go back to.

He thought of that place now as he climbed the black wooden steps to the stage and settled himself on the barstool behind the two microphones, one for voice and one for guitar. He heard the noise in the crowded bar lower itself by maybe a decibel and a half as the audience turned their faces to him behind the spotlight that always looked, to Woody, like the critical eye of God, appraising him as he worked. There were drunken faces in the audience now, faces a little like his own but still receptive, once again wanting to be taken to that same place Woody always longed for, that place inside the song where mundane reality fell away and euphoria took over.

It was a nice place to be. A nice place to return to. That place inside the song was always safe. Always free from fear.

Unlike home. Unlike San Diego.

Sipping occasionally at another beer, Woody dutifully played his songs and waited for the night to end, dreading the day ahead.

Dreading the trip south.

THE HOUSE Woody grew up in still sat at the end of a dead-end street in an older section of San Diego known as Park Canyon. The area was aptly named, with one great canyon and multiple small ones slashing through the neighborhood, dividing streets, separating one house number from the next by sometimes as much as a mile. The catchphrase in Park Canyon was “never expect hot pizza,” meaning most delivery drivers found themselves lost four or five times, on the average, before they accidentally stumbled on the destination they were shooting for, if they stumbled on it at all. The “under thirty minutes or your pizza is free” rule was automatically cancelled when the phone-in order came from Park Canyon.

Woody had been paying taxes and utility bills on the house for the past ten years, ever since the stabbing deaths of his mother and father in what the police had called a “robbery attempt” of the mom-and-pop store they had owned and managed since before Woody was born. His parents’ murderer had never been found, and this constantly tortured Woody, sometimes causing him to erupt into such impotent bursts of rage it was all he could do to hold onto his reason. But the thought of selling the house he was raised in, the house his parents loved so much, the house he himself had loved so deeply during the years he grew up there, troubled Woody even more. He had no siblings to fight over the property, so the choice he made to do nothing at all about the house after his parents died was an easy one to make. He had sold the store, of course, and that had given him a few grand to get his life rolling, but the house he had left exactly as it was. A time capsule, holding all his memories. Both the good and the bad. But it was the good ones he wished to protect. The bad ones he could live without.

Woody’s grip tightened on the Suburban’s steering wheel at the first sight of the battered Dead End sign perched up ahead at the end of the street. That sign had been there for as long as Woody could remember. His was the last house on the right. Cut into the hillside, it looked like a one-story Craftsman from the street, but at the back, hidden from view by towering plumes of flowering bougainvillea that climbed into the trees and hung heavy from the eaves, the house was two-story. Back there, in an area passersby never saw, was a small lawn bordered by jade plants and roses, and beyond the border the ground plummeted away into the largest of the many canyons that intersected the area. That canyon had been Woody’s playground until his thirteenth year. After that, he never entered it again.

The house on Highview Lane was surrounded by others like it. Built back in the forties, the homes were a little worse for wear but maintained as well as could be expected, considering the fact that most of the people living on the street were older now. Looking at it as he drove up, Woody could see no signs of children anywhere. No bicycles or skateboards dropped carelessly on lawns. No tires hanging from tree limbs like the ones that were popular when he was a kid. No tree houses, no sound of children’s laughter rising up from the canyon beside the house where Woody and his friends had played that summer so long ago, back when Woody’s body was beginning to change, when manhood was a concept he was just beginning to understand. It was during the summer of Woody’s thirteenth year when the horror actually raised its head from the canyon for the first time. It screamed out its fury at the young interlopers who were trespassing on its territory, disturbing its sleep, causing it to waken, causing it to unsheathe its claws and reach out with gnarled, grasping fingers, and in doing so, giving Woody, and maybe his friends too, something to trouble their dreams for a lifetime to come.

Woody wondered, not for the first time, what had become of those friends he had been so close to that long-ago summer. Cathy. Jeremy. Chuck. And Bobby, of course. Just names now. The faces he remembered would not be the faces they wore today. Except for Bobby, they would be all grown up now, like him. All grown up and probably as far away from this place as their adult lives could carry them. Only he would be dumb enough to return here after everything that had happened, he thought. Jeez, he must be nuts.

Woody parked his Suburban on the macadam driveway and stared at the house for the first time in a decade. It didn’t look too bad, actually. The two ancient palm trees, one at either side of the front porch, were still there, reminding Woody, as they had when he was a child, of towering masts flanking a sail-less ship. The yard had been kept up by a gardener Woody paid once a month by mail, and if the windows were dirty and the paint on the stucco had faded to a rather bilious olive color, which wasn’t at all the cheerful seafoam green he remembered, at least the place was standing. Familiar curtains still hung in the windows, limp now with age, deceiving strangers as to the house’s vacancy, and neighbors had kept a continual eye on the place for him without his requesting them to. His parents had been very popular in the neighborhood, probably because of their willingness to extend credit to those finding themselves a little short in the purse when it came time to buy family groceries at the end of every working month. Upon their deaths, many of those neighbors had come forward at the funeral to press an envelope of money into Woody’s hands, paying as much as they could on their outstanding debt to help the boy, not yet twenty, through his grieving period and give him a better start on his own life, a start which his parents were no longer there to help him with.

Woody could have given that start a considerable boost by selling the property his parents maintained with such love through all the years of his growing up, but he could never quite bring himself to do it. It was not a matter of thinking he might one day return here to live in the house. That was something he never intended to do. Ever. For with all the wonderful memories still living like silent tenants inside the house, it also harbored other memories, memories he spent every waking hour of his adult life trying to forget. It was not so much the house that bore these memories to Woody, but the neighborhood. The sloping hills. The sage- and juniper-padded canyons.

He climbed from the Suburban and walked to the front porch, where he paused to take in the view to the south: the Mexican hills surrounding Tijuana, hazy in the distance. Memories flooded through him as he stood there, looking out across the sun-drenched vista spread out before him. It was a vista he remembered so well as seen through much younger eyes than the ones he looked through now.

God, Woody was suddenly so inundated with memories he could barely contain them all. He had always tried to keep those memories buried, hidden away from himself, stashed away in the darkest cellars of his mind, where he hoped they would languish, forgotten, never to see the light of day again. But he could feel them now, trying to claw their way out of the shadows—trying to gain a foothold on his consciousness. If those fears were allowed to show themselves, Woody knew, they would unleash a flood of terror he had spent a lifetime trying to lose inside his music.

Simply looking at the house now forced the truth to well up in Woody’s mind. His fears were not buried at all. They never had been. They were still waiting for him, right here where he’d left them. On Highview Lane. House number 3436. The house of his childhood. The place where he had once learned what fear was all about, and the place he had been running from ever since. Until today.

He slipped the long-unused key into the front door and entered a different world. Stepping from sunlight into shadow, he could almost smell his mother’s bread pudding bubbling in the oven. Could almost hear Lucy and Ricky going at it in reruns on the old RCA TV in the living room. Could almost hear his father calling out from the back bedroom, wondering where the hell his clean socks were. Could almost see his mother coming out to greet a thirteen-year-old Woody as he plodded in from school, his book bag dangling from one arm and his battered skateboard tucked under the other. Giving him a gentle peck on the cheek, ruffling his hair, telling him he needed a haircut, telling him to go wash up, dinner would be ready soon. Asking him how his day went. Making him feel loved and safe and home. Like she did every day of her life.

Woody propped his Gibson inside the front door. He would bring in the rest of his stuff later. For the moment, he stood in the doorway and breathed in the smell of the house. It smelled just as he remembered it. The air was a little staler perhaps, the place having been shut up for so long, but the aromas inside the house were even now, after all these years, as familiar to him as the scent of his own skin.

Everything had been left in situ, as archaeologists were fond of saying. The furniture still placed exactly as he remembered it. The long sofa against the far wall, his father’s brown recliner set at an angle at the end of it. His mother’s piano parked in the corner by the picture window where she would sometimes look out on the street as she played. The old spinet still sprouted a growth of framed snapshots across the top, like those pictures you used to see of some homesteader’s shelter in the Old West, built into a prairie hillside with maybe a garden or a few stalks of corn shooting up from the roof. The fireplace, long bereft of fire, looked dusty and forlorn, desperately in need of a good cleaning. In fact, the whole house needed a good cleaning. Dust was everywhere, sprinkled across the furniture like powdered sugar on a baker’s tray of goodies. His mother would have had a conniption fit if she saw the house looking this way.

In her day it had been kept spotless. Squeaky clean. The windows gleaming. The furniture polished. The carpets vacuumed daily. Everything in the exact same place it had been the day, the week, the year before.

A surge of sadness threatened to bring tears to Woody’s eyes, thinking of his mother slaving away inside this house for the better part of her adult life. But she had enjoyed it, that was the funny thing. Go figure. Woody never quite understood it. It was like she was born to clean and loved every minute she spent with a rag in one hand and a bottle of 409 in the other, cleaning everything that didn’t clean her first, as his father used to say.

What the hell was he doing here anyway, Woody thought, clearing the emotion from his throat. He could stay in a motel somewhere. He had money. Not a lot, but enough for that. Seemed kind of silly, though, wasting money on a motel when he had free lodgings right here at his fingertips. He didn’t have to start the gig until tomorrow night, and he supposed he’d be spending every minute of his time between now and then making the house livable. He wasn’t a clean freak like his mother, but he sure couldn’t live in the place the way it was.

He took a peek down the long, dimly lit hallway and could almost hear Willie Nelson moaning out the lyrics of one of his old tunes from the Motorola radio that used to sit in Woody’s old room, the nasal twang of Willie’s voice echoing sweetly through the shadows of time and memory. “Turn that blasted thing down,” Woody’s mother used to rail. “I can’t hear myself think!” But he never did, and she never seemed to mind.

Woody approached his room now, wondering if it would look the way he remembered it. The Batman bedspread. Posters of X-Men on the wall. Storm was his favorite. She was hot, with her snow-white hair and a body to die for. Woody used to wonder why real women never looked like that. He made the mistake of asking Cathy once, and he could still remember her rolling her eyes like he was a first class nimrod and telling him real women weren’t “drawn, stupid.”

Good old Cathy. He wondered where she was now. Wondered, too, if she still wore those heavy red pigtails dangling off either side of her head. Probably not. Now she probably had a spiky new do with a few streaks of blonde scattered through it like every other young woman on the planet. Too bad. He used to like watching those pigtails swing around her head when she spun quickly, or bounce up and down like Slinkys when she was pedaling her Sting-ray bike, trying, as always, to keep up with the guys, or better yet, outdo them completely.

She was one of the guys, actually. As tough as a cob, and if mad, as apt to swing a left hook as the rest of them. Until the summer of her thirteenth year, at least. After that, she wasn’t quite as tough. Or as fearless. None of them were. That summer changed them all one way or another. Things were never the same after that.

Woody peered around the doorway of his old bedroom and couldn’t believe his eyes. Everything was exactly the way he had left it. NASCAR, he remembered now, had replaced Batman on the bedspread along about his fifteenth year, and there it still was, a little faded, a little musty smelling, but still the same old red NASCAR spread he had conned his mother into buying for him after explaining to her that he was almost a man now, for God’s sake, and Batman was for kids. “God help us when you get your driver’s license,” his mother had said, but she bought him the bedspread anyway. And curtains to match. They still hung on the windows overlooking the canyon.

Woody stepped to the window and gazed out. The backyard looked just as he remembered it. The grass had been recently mown. The roses on the verge of the canyon were properly manicured, adding a riotous touch of color to the landscape. The flagstone path that meandered through the lawn was neatly swept. His old swing still hung from the jacaranda tree in the corner, but the bare patch of earth under the swing, scraped raw over the years by sliding tennis shoes, had been gradually filled in by the encroaching grass until now the lawn beneath it looked as pristine as it had the day the swing was strung up by his father. It was as if nature had erased all memory of the time Woody had spent there, contentedly swinging back and forth, dragging his feet across the ground, chewing Baby Ruths and contemplating his young existence.

Before his eyes could be drawn farther out, past the lawn toward the depths of the canyon, he turned away from the window and, as an afterthought, drew the curtains closed behind him. Still, in a corner of his mind, deep down in a place where nature had not encroached, he heard the voices of the twins, Jeremy and Chuck, yelling out to him yet again from the stand of willow trees deep in the canyon, their voices practically squeaking with fear. “Jesus, Woody, look at the blood! It’s everywhere!”

Then he heard another voice. A voice from the darkness of a summer night long ago. A voice he had once heard in this very room. A calmer voice. A whisper so filled with longing that even now, it tore at his heart like a knife. “Touch me, Woody. Touch me like I’m touching you.”

Woody closed his eyes to that memory. Trying to squeeze those voices, those echoes, from his mind was like squeezing pus from a wound. But even as they faded in the distance, he knew they were not really gone. They would be back. They always came back. Closing a curtain wouldn’t keep those voices out. And closing his eyes only made the voices louder. The trick was to concentrate on something else. Like cleaning. How many hours had he spent polishing his Gibson, or scrubbing the Suburban, or straightening motel rooms before the maid got there, in his attempt to make those voices, those memories, go away? How many times had he stood in front of a mirror and cut his own hair, usually botching it up pretty good in the process, just to have something to do to tear his mind away from the past?

For the first time, standing in his old room, standing in this place he thought he would never see again, he wondered if maybe that was why his mother would lose herself so completely in the job of keeping this house spotless. Was she trying to escape memories of her own? Did she have fears, or regrets, or true terrors of her own that only the reek of Pine-Sol could wash from her mind? Did her cleaning truly make her happy, or like himself, did it merely keep her sane? Had she known of the horrors surrounding this house, this neighborhood? Surely not. If she had, she would never have let her young son set a foot outside the door.

Shaking his head, trying to clear his mind like an Etch-a-Sketch, he strode purposely from his childhood room and headed for the door that led from the kitchen to the garage. The cleaning supplies were there, or had been once. Maybe they still were. Time to get the house in order. He was here. He might as well stay. He would clean away the cobwebs and the dust and open the windows to air out the miasma of all the empty years, and then he would go to the old market and pick up some groceries and beer. He wondered if Mr. Mendoza still owned the place. Woody remembered how the man had come to his door on the morning after his parents’ funeral, hat in hand, offering condolences, and offering money too. Money for the business. Money that Woody had pretty well gone through by now, but money that, at the time, had been sorely needed. Woody had named a price, and the old Mexican gentleman had whipped out a checkbook and paid him in full. And just like that, a part of Woody’s past had been no longer his own.

Amid the solid clatter of his boot heels on the three concrete steps that led from the kitchen to the garage, worn smooth by a million footsteps over the years, Woody all but clutched his chest and gasped at the sight of his father’s old Fairlane sitting there. God, he had forgotten the car was still here. Old, even when Woody was young, the car had survived the ages almost unscathed thanks to Woody’s dad’s tender care. Woody had not sold the car after the funerals, thinking, he supposed, it might come in handy at some time or other. And here it still sat. Woody tested the driver’s side door to see if it was locked, but of course it wasn’t. He eased himself onto the wide bench seat and saw the keys still hanging in the ignition, right where he had left them after driving the car from the store that day after the police had gone. With a hand that seemed to be trembling, Woody turned the key and was met with total silence. The battery was as dead as Caesar, and why wouldn’t it be? He sat there for a moment in the silence and ran his fingers over the dashboard, thinking of the many times his father had driven him and his friends to the library, to the movies, to the park where they would play until dark, until he returned, hours later, cheerfully blasting his horn, to pick them up.

Woody thought of the way his father sometimes, if the traffic was light, let him snuggle up beside him and steer the monstrous Fairlane down the city streets while his dad worked the pedals. He could still remember the feel of his small hands on the wheel and the car’s rumbling power beneath them. Remembered craning his neck to see above the dashboard while his father draped one arm across his shoulders and let the other rest, bent, in the open window beside him. Remembered, too, the comforting smell of his father’s warm body so close to his, the homey mixture of spearmint gum, tobacco, and Old Spice cologne. Scents that would forever remind Woody of the man who raised him with such love. With such gentle kindness.

It was his father, he remembered now, who had bought him his first guitar. His mother had spent hours with him as Woody sat nailed in misery and guilt to the bench beside her, trying to teach him piano, but much to her disappointment, his heart was never in it. His father had seen the boy’s anguish, taken pity on him, and bought him the guitar instead. He had taken to it like a duck takes to water, his father always said, and even his mother had to agree. They paid for lessons from a man down the street, and Woody had gone faithfully to those lessons every Saturday afternoon for more than two years, until the day the man, Mr. Peters his name was, told him there was nothing more he could teach him. The man had taken the last payment of five dollars from Woody’s hand, wished the boy a terse “good day,” closed his front door behind him, and Woody never saw Mr. Peters again. He found out later the man had died shortly after that. Cancer, his mother said. He had been sick a long time. Woody still wondered if the lessons had stopped because the man wasn’t up to teaching him anymore, or if he truly had learned everything the man had known about guitar. It was one of those questions in life that would never be answered.

Now, approaching thirty, Woody had begun to realize that life dealt out a lot of unanswered questions. Questions that simply would never be answered, no matter how much you fumed and fussed and fretted over them.

Woody stepped from the car, ran a hand lovingly along the sill of the door, and heard the solid, satisfying clunk of it slamming shut. Maybe while he was here he would get the Fairlane running again. Take it out for a spin around the neighborhood. Burn out the kinks. His father would like that, if he was still looking down from whichever celestial plane his murderer had sent him to.

The garage was stifling hot on this summer day and stuffy from being closed up so long. Woody released the simple hook and eye that held the garage door closed and peeled it up into the ceiling, creaking and groaning, to let the air and sunlight stream in for the first time in a decade, replacing the past with the present. Airing out the memories. Shedding light on the darkness of old hurts.

Illuminating Eagle, leaning against the wall in the corner.

His old bike. Woody stood there in the breeze blowing up from the canyon, staring at it with a smile creeping across his face. How many hours had he spent perched high on Eagle’s seat, feeling the wind in his hair and the sun at his back, as his bike carried him to all the places his childhood led him? It had been a damn good bike. A Cannondale. His father and mother had bought it for him on his ninth birthday. It had taken a couple of years for his body to grow into the 26-inch racer, but when it did, he and the bike became inseparable. He had named her Eagle because she could fly, dammit! She could really fly! Cherry red and as sleek as a bird of prey, she had sped him down these neighborhood streets like a steed carrying its warring master into battle. Always faithful. Always there. Always ready for the next adventure.

She had even saved his life once. And not only his life, but Chuck’s too, back on the day when the evil in the canyon had reached out to snatch them both from this world, as Woody’s father had been snatched from it years later. He still remembered Chuck’s arms around his waist, holding on for dear life, practically squeezing Woody’s guts up into his throat. Remembered Chuck screaming into his ear, into the wind, “Faster! Go faster!” as desperate, running footsteps rattled the gravel behind them and cruel fingers strove to reach out to pull them from their seats and tear their young bodies to shreds.

The evil had taken human form that day, if you wanted to call it human. Jesus, he and Chuck were both screaming their heads off by the time the Cannondale bounced out of the canyon and onto Juniper Street. But they had made it. The evil did not leave the canyon, and they had known somehow it wouldn’t. When they realized they were safe, that scrabbling fingers and slavering fangs were no longer reaching out behind them, groping and snapping, eager to rip them off the bike and snatch their lives away, they had howled with joy. Their victorious young voices rang bright in the summer twilight, echoing off the houses, sailing down the street. The sound of simple childish laughter that had only moments before been screams of horror.

They had turned then, with Woody still pumping the pedals like a madman and Chuck still all but strangling him, trying to hang on, as the summer-hot asphalt hummed beneath their wheels. Still screaming, in jubilation now instead of fear, they yelled taunts at the terror that no longer pursued them. And in the distance on that day, from somewhere among the sage and juniper and willow trees that stood like proud sentinels at the base of the canyon, they had heard laughter. A wicked gurgle of sound that once again burned fear into their hearts. But for the moment, they knew they were safe.

Chuck and Woody had gone to their separate homes that night, watched TV with their parents as if nothing strange had happened during the course of the day, and later they had climbed into their beds alone, far away from the comfort of each other, and only then did the terror once again raise its head to bring the darkness crashing down around them like cold black water settling over a drowning man.

Woody wondered now why neither he nor his friends had ever gone to their parents with the news that an evil presence stalked the neighborhood; that a demon lurked in the canyon, waiting to pounce from the underbrush and drag their screaming bodies into oblivion. None of their parents would have believed them, of course, because somehow Woody and his pals knew, as well as they knew their times tables, that the horror was never meant to be seen by adult eyes, was never meant to be grasped by adult minds. The terror was real enough, no two ways around that. But it was real only to them. Which didn’t mean it couldn’t still kill you deader than snake shit. It wasn’t their fault there was too much reality in an adult mind to see it, that something about mortgages and paychecks and the rote of daily grown-up living could block out childish visions. And it sure as hell brought Woody and his friends closer together, knowing the danger was directed toward them alone. In battling their fear, they had no one to turn to but each other, and this made them a unit.

One.

Never again would Woody be as close to anyone as he had been to his friends on that hot, hot summer of his thirteenth year when all hell broke loose and fear was no longer something you caught a glimpse of on a movie screen, but a real live rampaging beast, all fangs and snapping jaws and a mind gnawed by malice and madness that was just as goddamn real as you were.

Poor Eagle. She was looking fairly pathetic these days. Her tires were flat, one of her spokes had popped out of the rim, and she was covered with the same patina of grimy dust as everything in the house. A clothespin was still clamped to the frame beside the back wheel but the Bicycle playing card it once held against the spokes had at some time during the course of the ensuing years drifted to the floor. It had all been illusion, of course, but that playing card had given a pretty good semblance of motorized speed when it bbrapped against the spokes, especially when Eagle was fairly flying beneath him. Woody picked the card up now and looked at it. The ace of spades.

Shit. That wasn’t a good sign.

He let it fall from his fingers and, pushing all thoughts of Eagle and that long-ago summer from his mind, continued his search for cleaning supplies, occasionally turning a leery eye to that ace of spades lying on the garage floor.

He found everything he needed, and after peeling off his sweat-stained shirt and tossing it into a corner, Woody walked back through the kitchen door and set about the awesome task of making the house livable.

As always, the act of cleaning cleared his mind. By the time he finished three hours later, he was surprised to hear himself humming. There might even have been a smile on his face as he looked around at the place, freed now from the residue of ten empty years. Once again, the furniture shone. With all the windows open, the stale air had been swept away, leaving behind only the comforting smells of Lemon Pledge and Comet and the sweet scent of roses wafting in through the back bedroom window, as it had in the days of his childhood.

In his parents’ bedroom, he even imagined a whiff of his mother’s favorite perfume, White Shoulders, reaching out across the years to comfort him. But it was just his imagination, of course. It had to be. There was nothing left of his mother inside this house now but her memory.

Yet somehow, at the moment, memory seemed to be enough.

AT SOME point between then and now, while Woody’s youthful dreams were settling into stark realities, his father’s old store had undergone a change of its own. STILES MARKET was no longer painted on the wall above the front door. Now, high above the street, in Day-Glo neon, it proclaimed itself to be JAYCEES. Woody didn’t know what the hell “Jaycees” was supposed to mean, but it certainly wasn’t the store he remembered. As much as he hated to admit it, the place looked considerably better than it had when his father ran it. It even boasted a butcher shop now, according to the sign, something his father had often talked about but never seemed to find the time or money to initiate.

Woody wasn’t more than two steps inside the front door when Mr. Mendoza, considerably heavier now than he was ten years ago, as if maybe he had been hanging around the potato chip aisle too long, came out of nowhere and started pumping Woody’s hand up and down for all of two full minutes while, in his melodic Hispanic accent, he welcomed Woody back to the neighborhood. He dragged Woody through the store, proudly pointing out all the changes he had made over the years. He had added not only a butcher shop, but also beer and wine and a separate little pharmacy area, and the back of the store had been extended out another ten feet. While Mr. Mendoza was obviously proud of the improvements, Woody thought something had been lost in the renovation. It took him a moment to put his finger on what it was, exactly, that was lost, but when he did, he summed it up in one word. Heart.

Jaycee’s was no longer a simple mom-and-pop store, where people could come not only to shop, but to chat. To visit. To show off their kids and gab about the weather. Now, between the electronic scanners at the checkout counters, the sterile, air-conditioned air, and the efficiently laid out aisles, there was only a sense of commerce. All personality had been swept away. Now the place felt like every other supermarket Woody had ever walked through. Cold, impersonal, and slightly desperate in its desire to lure every shopping dollar from the pocket of every patron that was sucked through the automatic front doors. Woody couldn’t imagine any one of these check-out girls in their crisp yellow uniforms reaching out to the customer with a comforting hand and saying, as he once heard his father say, “That’s okay, Mrs. Chen. Pay me when you can. I’ll not go out of business over a pound of bacon and a dozen eggs.”

Mr. Mendoza seemed to sense Woody’s disappointment.

“Times change, hey, son? The days of the little store are over. Now we have to compete with the big boys up the street. If your papa was still here, he would understand.”

And Woody supposed he would. Business was business.

Too bad.

With a final handshake, Mr. Mendoza scurried off to the front of the store, where one of the clerks was screaming over the screeching intercom for a price check on disposable diapers, and Woody set off in search of what he needed. He gathered up enough food to last a few days, grabbed a 12-pack of beer from the massive cooler on the back wall, and after paying for his purchases with a MasterCard, he headed back out into the California twilight.

Away from the store, away from a past that had already left him far behind, Woody steered the Suburban along the old neighborhood streets, and here, in the growing darkness of evening, he felt more at peace. On the surface, the neighborhood hadn’t changed that much. Every house was still familiar to Woody. Even the faces of some of the people he saw meandering along the sidewalks tugged at his memory. They were older faces now, but, like the houses, still familiar. He knew if he put his mind to it he would be able to add a few names to those faces, but he didn’t really try. It was enough to know everything hadn’t changed while he had been away.

As he drove down Juniper Street, approaching his turnoff on Highview Lane, he pointed out to himself every house where his friends had lived that summer. The twins, Chuck and Jeremy, in that white monstrosity on the corner. Cathy in the house right next to it with the three lean cypress trees towering at the edge of the lawn. Those trees always seemed to be swaying, whether there was a breeze or not, as if trying to keep their precarious balance on the planet. And on Highview after he made the turn, only two blocks down from his own, was Bobby’s house.

Good old Bobby. He had been battling his own demons back then. With alcoholic parents who seemed to be at each other’s throats from the moment they woke up in the morning, day after day after day, Bobby had spent as many nights in Woody’s house as he had ever spent in his own. They were almost brothers, him and Bobby. Even Woody’s mother had said so. She would have been shocked out of her socks to learn that he and Bobby had become considerably more than brothers during that summer of their thirteenth year, when puberty raised its ugly head and brought them closer together than they could ever have imagined. Woody still wondered at times, when sadness and memory combined to take him to that place he was always trying to escape, if he and Bobby would still be together today in the way they had been that long-ago summer.

The summer Bobby would not survive.

That summer, awakening manhood and all the rampaging desires that came with it were suddenly replaced by grief and outrage and a sense of loss so stunning it all but swept Woody away in its wake.

Woody’s parents had tried to comfort him through the aftermath of Bobby’s death, explaining to him that sometimes the world was a cruel place to live, where death sometimes reached out and snatched away even the youngest, the most promising. But there was no way for them to know it was not only the loss of friendship Woody mourned that summer, but the loss of so much more. Woody and Bobby had stirred truths in each other that transcended friendship. Love had been born that summer, and as quickly taken away. And Woody still, sixteen years later, ached with the loss of it.

By the time Woody was once again parked outside his parents’ house—he would never think of it as his own, only theirs—his sadness had crashed down around him like a pall. Again and again he was forced to swallow the emotion that threatened to spill out of him, blinking back tears as he stowed the groceries in the kitchen. A weariness of body unlike any he had ever known made him long for sleep, but he knew mere sleep wouldn’t be enough to still the memories. It never was.

He popped a beer and carried it through the darkening house, sipping as he went, surveying all the work he had done during the afternoon, trying to think of himself as the sole proprietor of this fairly expensive piece of California real estate, this house that after only a few hours of cleaning was once again as he remembered it. But in every room, through every shadowed doorway, the sound of his parents’ absence rang out like an empty echo.

This was no longer his home. He was an interloper, trespassing on the past, intruding into a place that was no longer meant to feel his presence.

And as he sat in the darkness in his father’s recliner, drinking his second, and then third, beer, he felt the deepening night outside pressing against the walls, weighing heavily on the roof over his head, gnawing away at the stucco and tile. In his imagination, he could feel the darkness trying to worm its way into his very heart, bringing with it all the memories he had desperately tried to keep at bay for so many years.

But with the fourth beer, Woody’s memories abated. His fear, and much of his sadness, left him. Alcohol, like music, could sometimes take him to a place where old hurts couldn’t enter, and he was grateful for the comforting emptiness it brought him once again.

A full moon now softened the darkness inside the house with tinges of blue. Through the windows, that big fat moon watched Woody roam from room to room, following along behind him like a trailing spotlight, illuminating his footsteps, dispelling the shadows that, without the beer inside him, might have sent him running from the house forever.

Woody stepped through the back door and felt the night breeze on his face. He could hear soft wind rustling the willows down in the canyon, stirring up the smell of sage and honeysuckle and flowering cactus as well. Scents Woody remembered clearly from his youth. How many times had he stood here with his father, watching the sun set and the moon rise, both at the same time? An anomaly of nature, his father once told him, that some people in other parts of the world never got a chance to witness.

Woody awkwardly slipped his adult body into his childhood swing beneath the jacaranda tree. He could smell its blossoms overhead. In daylight those blossoms were a beautiful blue, as deep as an evening sky. In darkness they were only a scent, invisible to the eye, lost in the evening shadows. The swing creaked beneath his weight. What should have been smooth earth beneath him, but was now grass regrown after his years of absence, felt strange and out of place under his feet.

He pushed himself into a lazy arc, gently swinging back and forth in the darkness. The weight and motion of his body brought a gentle fall of jacaranda blossoms raining down around him as his hands clutched the rusted chains that held him in place.

Woody closed his eyes and, as he had as a child, imagined himself in flight. He was a hawk, soaring high above the canyon, looking down on the world splayed out beneath him, surveying this dominion that was his and his alone.

The wind on his face blew away the years, the soothing motions of the swing rocked away his fears, and once again he was thirteen, with Keds on his feet and patches his mother had sewn on the knees of his jeans. It was the beginning of summer vacation. With nothing but freedom staring him in the face for the next three months, Woody thought of all the ways he and his friends would spend their time. Movies. Bike rides. Days at the park, wandering through the museums, exploring the zoo. The possibilities were endless. With no schoolwork to worry about, his days would be filled with only laughter and adventure and the comfort of good friends.

In the moonlight now, years away from that last remarkable summer, a smile lit Woody’s face as he sat swinging in the cool night air. The beer inside him smoothed out the rough edges of memory he didn’t wish to see.

But the other memories, the good memories, were scooped up in his hawk’s talons and carried to that private place where he always kept them neatly laid out, on display, ready to be sorted through and savored whenever the mood took him, like favorite pieces of art or well-loved books.

Jacaranda blossoms continued to drift down around him, shaken from the tree by the weight of his swinging body. They brushed his face in the darkness with the softness of butterfly wings as his mind carried him back to his thirteenth summer.

The summer of best friends and days that never lasted quite long enough. Days when laughter rang through these canyons like crystal bells, until the terror started. When even the nights in the midst of that terror were filled with wonders that pushed the horror of the Willow Man away, at least for a little while.

Nights with Bobby.

They had come together so slowly, he and Bobby. He wondered now how it had all begun. And then he remembered. It was the first week of vacation. Summer lay before them all like an endless, unknown road, waiting to be explored. Cathy, Chuck and Jeremy, and he and Bobby had all stepped fearlessly onto that road and been swept away to a destination that, but for the innocence of youth, might have destroyed them all.

As it was, it destroyed only one. But that came later.

It was the beginning of their journey together that Woody remembered now. Not just him and Bobby, but all of them. It began with the bones Cathy found among the willows. Human bones. Woody still remembered how they shone like porcelain in the sunlight.

They were almost… beautiful.

Author Bio:
John has been writing fiction for as long as he can remember. Born on a small farm in Indiana, he now resides in San Diego, California where he spends his time gardening, pampering his pets, hiking and biking the trails and canyons of San Diego, and of course, writing. He and his partner share a passion for theater, books, film, and the continuing fight for marriage equality. If you would like to know more about John, check out his website.


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πŸ‘»πŸŽƒπŸ‘» Happy Halloween πŸ‘»πŸŽƒπŸ‘» Spookyness & Mayhem: October 2017 at a Glance


With October nearly over and having posted my last paranormal post this morning, I thought I'd put links to all my October Halloween-ish posts in one place.  So much spookyness to get through so even though November is nearly here, its never too late to get your freak on.  Happy HalloweenπŸ˜ˆπŸŽƒπŸ‘»


Part 1  /  Part 2  /  Part 3  /  Part 4
Part 5  /  Part 6  /  Part 7  /  Part 8
Part 9  /  Part 10  /  Part 11  /  Part 12































Random Paranormal Tales of 2017 Part 12


Willow Man by John Inman
Summary:
Woody Stiles has sung his country songs in every city on the map. His life is one long road trip in a never-ending quest for fame and fortune. But when his agent books him into a club in his hometown, a place he swore he would never set foot again, Woody comes face to face with a few old demons. One in particular.

With memories of his childhood bombarding him from every angle, Woody must accept the fact that his old enemy, Willow Man, was not just a figment of childish imagination.

With his friends at his side, now all grown up just like he is, Woody goes to battle with the killer that stole his childhood lover. Woody also learns Willow Man has been busy while he was away, destroying even more of Woody's past. And in the midst of all this drama, Woody is stunned to find himself falling in love—something he never thought he would do again.

As kids, Woody and his friends could not stop the killer who lived in the canyon where they played.  As adults, they might just have a chance.

Or will they?


Woody Stiles is forced to face his past when he's booked to sing at a local club but he swore he'd never return.  With his parents gone and despite his determination to never return Woody was never able to let go of their home so to save some money, he foregoes the usual hotel and stays in his childhood home.  The past he wanted to forget has returned, can Woody and his friends defeat what lurks in the canyon or will they be the next victims?

To followers of my blog and reviews it is no secret how much I enjoy John Inman's creative spookiness, Willow Man is my fourth Inman tale this Halloween season and although I am about to temporarily leave behind the freaky tales for tales of Christmas soon I will definitely be returning to read more from his backlist.  One of the things I like best about John Inman is that no matter how creepified I get, I also am left warm-hearted at the love and friendship that he puts into his characters.

As for Willow Man itself, well when dealing with creepy, freaky, and spooky I find it hard to write a review because I just don't do spoilers and when reading these kinds of tales every little element can be a clue or giveaway.  So let me just say this: WOW! DOUBLE WOW! and HOLY HANNAH BATMAN!  If you're wondering what I'm "WOW-ing" and "BATMAN-ing" about well I could simply say "read for yourself"(I am saying thatπŸ˜‰) but I am also adding that if you are afraid of the dark than be sure you read Willow Man during the day with all the lights on.

I should add that I know a few people who find flashbacks/back story spread throughout to be a little distracting but for me I find it thrilling and a bit exhilarating.  Frankly, if we learned everything from the past all at once the element of surprise would be lacking and heaven knows that in tales of creepiness, anticipation can be everything.  A definite addition to my spooky library.

RATING: 

The Well by Marie Sexton
Summary:
Twenty years after prom queen Cassie Kennedy is brutally murdered, six teenagers break into the house where she was killed to hold a sΓ©ance. Haven knows his cousin Elise only wants to scare the crap out of him and his friends, but he’s willing to put up with one of her pranks if it means a chance to spend a few hours with the new kid in town, Pierce Hunter.

But when morning comes, Elise has disappeared without a trace.

Twelve years later, Pierce and his twin brother Jordan are professional paranormal investigators, starring in their own ghost-hunting TV show. When Pierce calls Haven, insisting they return to the supposedly haunted building one last time, Haven reluctantly agrees. He’s nervous about seeing Pierce again, but he’s determined to get some answers. Did they really speak to Cassie’s ghost that night? What happened to Elise? And the biggest mystery of all – how did she know the secret of the well?


One night Haven, his cousins Linsey and Elsie, Linsey's boyfriend Craig, and twins Pierce and Jordan, broke into the home where twenty years earlier prom queen Cassie was murdered in the hope of contacting Cassie to learn what happened to her.  Before the night is over Elsie is gone.  Now twelve years later, Haven is contacted by Pierce who with his brother are paranormal investigators on television, about checking out the house again.  Will they find answers or will they meet the same fate as Elsie and Cassie?

To say that The Well scared the stuffing out of me might be a slight overstatement but to say I was on the edge of my seat from beginning to end is exactly right.  Is there a ghost? Is there lots of coincidences that explain what happened to Cassie and Elsie?  Will the answers come from someone they know? Or will they come from beyond the grave?  You know me, for those answers you have to read The Well for yourself but trust me when I say you will definitely want to check it out.

What I loved the most was how the author blended so many elements together to bring us this story.  The romance might be minimal, paranormal is pretty much left open to the reader's interpretation, mystery is everywhere but throughout there is plenty of heart behind the tale molding it all together.  I highly recommend giving The Well a read and its a great addition to my Halloween library.

RATING: 

Lifeline by Brynn Stein
Summary:
Eric Duncan rolls into a quaint Upstate New York town to sell medical supplies. He doesn’t intend to stay long, but an apparently homeless man whom he keeps running into catches his attention. While passersby ignore the man, Eric can’t leave the situation alone.

Dennis Hayden’s last memory is of hiking in the mountains. He doesn't know how he ended up in town, nor how he keeps popping up in various places. He walks around aimlessly, trying to recall something as simple as his name. He’s not sure what to think of the stranger he sees repeatedly, and who keeps trying to talk to him.

While meeting a potential client at the hospital, Eric overhears a young lady looking for her brother who went missing several days ago, while hiking. Eric recognizes the picture of Dennis on the flyer and sets out to reunite him with his sister.


Brynn Stein's Lifeline may be a short story/novella but its long on heart.  Who is Dennis and why does he keep popping up wherever Eric seems to go?  What happens when Eric discovers the truth behind Dennis' appearance?  All these questions will be answered  but not by meπŸ˜‰ There's just so much packed into so few pages that Lifeline makes a great addition to any paranormal library and a definite read for those who love a wonderful story that keeps you on pins and needles.  Could it have been better if we got to see a little more behind the characters?  Perhaps but truthfully, I loved Lifeline just the way it is, a short read that gives you something to think about as well as entertains.

RATING: 

Soul Searching by AJ Rose
Summary:
Something lurks within the walls of the house Trevor Mathews and his best friend Merrick Taylor share. It watches them and their friends. It needs them. It knows their weaknesses.

Trevor’s in love with Merrick and hasn’t got the nerve to tell him. Merrick’s relationship is already failing, but he doesn’t believe he deserves what he truly desires. And the dark presence enjoys their suffering.

The entity wants to exploit them, push Merrick’s boyfriend into fits of jealousy and possessiveness, encourage Trevor to avoid the man he’s stood by most of his life, and frustrate their friend Tempest who’s tired of knowing Trevor and Merrick are perfectly matched souls, but they’re too scared to try.

The entity needs them to fight, to hurt, to scream at each other in anger and pain. It thrives on their helplessness and targets their insecurities. And it won’t stop until it has devoured their joy, destroyed their hope, and eventually, shattered their souls.

Trevor and Merrick have been friends for years and now the home they share is starting to give them the creeps.  It isn't until their friend Tempest suggest something else is living in their home with them that things really start to happen.  Trevor has hid his feelings for Merrick while he watches Merrick's relationship with Will grow.  Will whatever resides in the home win when it starts to create tension between the lifelong friends or will that lifelong friendship blossom into more and overcome their unwanted roommate?

I've only read a few AJ Rose's books but I have loved everyone of them, frankly I am always ready to devour the tale before I even reach chapter 2.  In Soul Searching I can safely say that on the personal front you just want to shake Trevor and Merrick and scream at them to get their act together and talk.  Even though the story is told from Trevor's POV, its pretty obvious that Merrick is less infatuated with Will and wants Trevor too but will either of them be honest about it or will they continue on as usual?  I think you know what's coming: for that you have to read for yourself.

As for whatever is living in the home with the boys, I won't say who or what it is but I will say that it gave me the heebee jeebies.  Soul Searching is the perfect read for Halloween but seeing as its nearly November, I can also recommend this one for any time of the year.  A wonderful mix of creepy, freaky, drama, friendship, and love.  A definite must for the paranormal lover and an absolute must for the lover of great storytelling.

RATING: 

All Hallows' Eve by Annabelle Jacobs
Summary:
Will a centuries-old broken heart ruin the promise of new love?

Dominic Ashworth is descended from a long line of witches, although the family practice of witchcraft died out generations ago. Forever connected to a dark history, the house he grew up in remained in the Ashworth family for generations until his estranged father sold it.

On a mission to check out the new owners, Dominic runs into Caleb Jones and gives the gorgeous man his phone number—but getting a date should be the last thing on Dominic’s agenda.

Caleb and his best friend, Zach Briceworth, are oblivious to the heartache and magic tied to the foundations of their new home. When strange things start to happen, the truth emerges and surprises them both, especially as everything revolves around Caleb’s new love interest.

After a shaky start, Caleb and Dominic settle into an easy relationship, falling faster than either of them expected. But with Halloween approaching, the possibility of danger increases. The past is not always as it seems, and the ripples of a tragic event threaten to put an end to everything between them.


Dominic and Alice find that their father has sold their ancestral home and even though he didn't agree with the specifics needed to sell, he adhered to them.  When Dominic decides to find out if the new owner knows anything of the family past he finds himself attracted to the new occupant.  What will Caleb and Zach do when the truth comes out?  Will the family magic be strong enough to save the day or will they be destined to fall the way of the past?

I first featured All Hallows' Eve in my 2016 Random Paranormal Tales series but unfortunately time got away from me and I just now got to read it.  This story has a little bit of everything: paranormal, magic, mystery, drama, romance, and probably more angst than drama but whatever you label it as it will spike your heart rate more than once.  If you don't like anticipation, if you need to know what happens before it happens well than this might not be the story for you.

Caleb and Zach are planning a huge Halloween party in their new home and quite frankly every time they talk about it, I'm screaming "NO!" but when was the last time characters listened to the reader?  I had an inkling behind the truth of the house and its history more than once but even guessing here the author was going never squelched the adrenaline high I found myself on while reading it.  Even without the title, this is story ripe for Halloween but if you read it at Christmas, Easter or even just a warm summer afternoon you will be WOW-ed by the journey.

RATING: 


Willow Man by John Inman
Chapter One
“WOODY? MY God, is that you? How long has it been?”

Woody wasn’t exactly sure just how long it had been, but to his way of thinking, it certainly hadn’t been long enough.

He remembered Crystal, of course. Hell, who wouldn’t? She had been gorgeous once. Still was, pretty much, although she did appear to have considerably higher mileage on the old odometer these days. Woody could still recall the way she used to whisk her pom-poms around at basketball games, wiggle her tight little butt, and aim her perky pubescent tits up at the grandstand as if to say, “Here they are, boys. Come and get ’em.” Well, it looked as if, at some point between then and now, somebody had indeed come and got ’em, and loosened up the chassis considerably in the process. She was a raging airhead then, and judging by appearances, she was a raging airhead now. Maybe some things you simply don’t grow out of.

“High school?” he said, wishing he had been a little quicker getting to the alley for his after-set cigarette.

Tonight, he knew, his set had been a good one. His voice in tune. His fingers adept on the guitar strings. The crowd congenial. They even seemed to be listening to him, which was a nice change of pace for the club he was currently working. Usually they just sat out there in that dark netherworld behind the spotlight, swilling beers and downing shots of tequila until they didn’t know where the hell they were and certainly didn’t give a shit where the hell Woody was or give two hoots for the fact that he was trying to entertain the ungrateful bastards.

No, it had been a good night. Until now.

The airhead squealed like a pig being disemboweled and gave his arm a playful slap, sloshing the beer from his glass onto his pant leg. “Well, of course it was high school, silly! But what year was that? When did we graduate?”

Woody was wondering if beer would stain khaki. He was also wondering how many shots of tequila this broad had poured down her throat during the course of the evening. “You mean you don’t remember?”

She giggled, like being stupid was the asset she was most proud of. “What year is it now?” she asked, looking honestly thoughtful.

Woody dragged up a smile and pointed it at her like a gun. “Doesn’t matter. Having a good time tonight? You don’t seem to be feeling any pain.”

Ha. Ha. She laughed the same laugh a hyena might laugh after finding a nice tasty zebra carcass lying on the savannah. A long series of hoots and haws with a couple of snorts scattered around to give it texture.

“I’m having a wonderful time! But, I didn’t know you could sing, Woody! Gee, I mean, you’re a real singer!”

“The matter is still up for debate.”

Whoosh. He imagined his words flapping across the top of her head like dying pigeons and splattering in a burst of feathers against the far wall, stunned into oblivion, uncomprehended by anything or anyone in between. Least of all her.

“Really?” she asked, suddenly sincere. “Well, I thought you were great!”

“Thanks,” he said, leaving his smile thumbtacked to his face like a poster.

“Buy me a drink?” Crystal asked with a flirtatious leer that promised more than drinking company if he played his cards right.

Woody was used to that look. It was a look he had seen time and again over the years. He supposed he was handsome enough, coming in at a little under six feet and as trim as a runner, with a sprinkling of soft hair across a well-defined chest and sporting long, elegant fingers—a guitar player’s fingers, his mother once told him. No moles, no scars, no Adonis, but with shoulder-length, reddish-blond hair that framed an open, expressive face, which in moments of repose seemed to wander toward the forlorn side, there was something about him, Woody knew, that certain women, and certain men, seemed to enjoy looking at. Sometimes that knowledge amused him. But not tonight.

Woody’s smile faltered. “Sorry, kid. Not allowed to fraternize with the customers. Club rule.”

It took her a minute to absorb this. “Gee, honey, I’m not asking you to fraternize me, whatever that means. Sounds kinky, though. Oh, wait, I think I know what it means.” Rusty wheels turned inside her tequila-glutted brain for all of five seconds before she said, “Well, maybe I don’t. So how about that drink?”

Woody glanced over her shoulder at nothing whatsoever and announced, “Oops, there’s my boss. Gotta run.” And with that, he took off like a bat out of hell toward the back door, aiming a last “Have fun tonight!” over his shoulder at the decidedly disappointed-looking ex-cheerleader behind him.

Once outside, he breathed in the cool night air and then replaced the freshness of it inside his lungs with a grateful puff from a Pall Mall.

Glad to be alone, Woody gazed up at the moon, which hung like a streetlight above his head. Where the hell was he? Oakland? That’s right, Oakland. His agent had booked him this gig right after Del Cerro, with no waiting in between jobs for a change. That was nice. His three days here ended tonight after his next set. Then he had a two week run in a club called Strikers, which was part of a gigantic bowling complex in San Diego—more than a hundred lanes, or so he’d been told—again without any dead time between gigs.

He supposed he’d be singing to the accompaniment of strikes and spares and rumbling bowling balls, but what the hell, he could always crank up the mike. San Diego, he thought. My hometown. Supposedly every entertainer’s dream, playing their hometown. Woody didn’t quite see it that way, but what the heck. The money was good. Or sort of good. And how many of his old cohorts would be hanging around a bowling alley? Not many, or so he hoped.

He knew he should be happy to be leading the life he’d once dreamed of, but somehow his dream had lost a little of its pizzazz when it made the transition to reality. Maybe they always did. Maybe fiction was always better than fact. Too bad, that. It was a good dream. Not that his life now was bad, exactly. It just wasn’t as good as the dream. After all, two weeks in a bowling alley in San Diego didn’t quite measure up to a run at the Palace, now did it? Actually he didn’t even know if the Palace still existed, or if it was still the holy of holies that up-and-coming young performers aspired to. Maybe it was a Kmart now. Wouldn’t surprise him.

He stomped out the Pall Mall and immediately lit another. Damn cigarettes. Not good for his voice. But he wasn’t exactly doing opera here. Sometimes a little cigarette hack in the middle of “Drop Kick Me, Jesus” added depth to the rendering. Or maybe it didn’t. Who the hell cared anyway? And actually, “Drop Kick Me, Jesus,” even by country-western standards, was a bit too banal for his playlist. He stole most of his material from George Strait, George Jones, and Willie Nelson. Not that they would mind, he was sure, since none of those august entities had ever in their lives heard of Woody Stiles, yours truly, or if they had, they had forgotten about him two minutes later.

He wasn’t exactly in the fast lane to stardom, he had to admit. Here he was, pushing thirty. After years of struggle, his gigs were getting closer together and being fairly well received of late, but that elusive recording contract seemed to be nowhere on the horizon that he could see. Against the advice of his agent, he had dumped his band a couple of years back. He had been soloing ever since. Just him, his God-given voice, and his Gibson acoustic. Without a band, his gigs were a little more limited—no dance clubs to be sure—but on the other hand, he didn’t have to split his pay five ways either. So all in all, going solo was a smart thing to do. Lonely, though. Jeez, it got lonely sometimes. He missed getting drunk with the guys after a show and playing till dawn for no one but themselves in some seedy motel room, surrounded by a mountain of takeout Chinese cartons and empty beer bottles, until the neighbors started pounding on the walls and screaming at them to “Shut the hell up, for Christ’s sake, people are trying to sleep over here!”

The band had picked up another lead singer somewhere, he had heard, but what happened to them after that was anybody’s guess. Flying under the radar somewhere, he supposed. Back to hustling for tips in the dives they had worked themselves out of while he was at the helm, maybe. Or maybe they were finally working themselves up again. He hoped so. They were nice guys. Good musicians. A little too dependent on outside stimulants, maybe, but how many working musicians weren’t?

Woody himself had locked his sorry ass in a hotel room in Dallas for two weeks and weaned himself off crystal meth along about the time he’d dumped the band, and it was the best thing he’d ever done for himself. Wasn’t easy, mind you. He still remembered dropping an issue of Variety on the floor and leaving it there for five days before his petrified muscles limbered up enough to allow him to bend over and pick it up. But there’s no point in plucking away at your guitar strings until your fingers bleed and singing every insipid request that the drunken louts in the audience throw at you if you’re just going to turn right around and suck the night’s proceeds up your nose through a rolled-up dollar bill. No wonder so many country western singers were ex-druggies. It kind of went with the territory.

Lately, Woody had even been trying to wean himself away from country as well, going for a more Jackson Browne sound, but he supposed his voice just wasn’t built for it. He could get an audience jiving pretty good with a little Mel Tillis or Clint Black, but when he shot for Billy Joel or Sting, he could see the bar patrons go glassy-eyed and start fiddling with their car keys. Not a good sign.

Woody had a repertoire of almost six-hundred country western songs under his belt, and maybe another couple of hundred of the more mainstream easy rock stuff, but he was bored with every damn one of them. In fact, Woody was beginning to think this line of work wasn’t exactly a manly sort of business to be in. There is a certain panache to being a recording star, someone with an honest-to-God contract with a legitimate industry label, but to just flit around from one town to the next, following his agent’s leads, singing for a bunch of drunken cowboy wannabe’s in their too tight Levi jeans and overblown cowboy hats, which they only drag out of the closets on Saturday night, with their bleached blonde girlfriends hanging worshipfully on their arms like Cissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter being dragged around by Tommy Lee Jones, just seemed a little—well—demeaning.

But Woody loved to sing. That was the problem. When he sang he did it for himself, not the audience. He could lose himself in the lyrics of a song sometimes, and when he did, those were the moments he most cherished, closing his eyes to the crowd and letting the words and the music carry him to a place where he didn’t have to think of anything at all. A place where he could lose all sense of self completely. The meth had helped carry him to that place too, but at the same time, he knew, it was killing him. On meth he could sometimes lose himself so completely inside a song it was hard to let it end. He would find himself repeating verses over and over until the audience started wondering what the hell was going on. Finally, to bring him out of it, his band would play the closing bars right over him, just to get him to shut up.

It had seemed kind of funny at the time, but looking back on it now, he realized it wasn’t funny at all. The euphoric high that kicked in when he snorted that expensive white powder might be making him happy, or at least making him think he was happy, but it was dragging the band down behind him like an anchor tossed over the side of a ship, sinking farther and farther into the depths until it hit the ocean floor with a resounding clunk. Fact was, they were losing gigs. Word got around. Club owners didn’t want to risk their business to a drugged-out singer who might or might not show up for work, a singer who wore Band-Aids across the end of every finger because he had played them down to the bone the night before while on a high that numbed everything from fingertips to brain.

Another problem with meth was that he smoked constantly while on it. It had affected his voice. Did a real number on it, in fact. An occasional cigarette cough in the middle of a lyric was one thing, but when you started bending over the microphone, gagging and spitting and hacking up a lung, the audience tended to notice.

So Woody gave the drugs up for Lent, metaphorically speaking, and he was glad now he had. For one thing, he was still alive. That was a plus. For another thing, as his body gradually tuned itself up again like an engine coughing out the last drops of water from the gas tank, he found he could still, once in a while, find that euphoric state where he lost himself inside the music. It didn’t happen as often now, but it happened.

And it was a blessed relief when it did.

Woody regretfully stubbed out his second Pall Mall—the one habit he could not break, no matter how many times he tried—drained the last drops of beer from his glass, and did a couple of flaps to his trouser leg, trying to speed up the drying process from the beer the dizzy broad had spilt there earlier. Then, after looking down at himself to make sure everything was properly in place, zipper closed, shirt tucked in, no hawks of phlegm on his boot tops, he headed back inside the bar.

Oakland. There seemed to be a whole lot of cowboy wannabe’s in Oakland. Looking out across the dimly lit club was like looking at a Stetson store closing up for the night. Hats everywhere. The name of the club was Diablo’s. He had worked it once, a year or so back. It wasn’t a bad gig. The owner was a decent enough guy who paid nightly without a fuss, and the clientele, although pretty well sloshed at this late hour on Saturday night, were reasonably well behaved. He hadn’t had to duck any flying beer bottles or watch from the stage as the patrons disassembled the place in a drunken brawl, clutching his beloved Gibson to his chest to keep it out of harm’s way as the furniture went sailing past his head, which had happened more than once in other drinking establishments he had been employed in. So on the whole, it had been a good night. A good run.

In a couple of hours, he would crank up the old Chevy Suburban and head south. Maybe stop somewhere along the way to cop a few zees at the side of the road. Find a Laundromat, do his laundry. Pig out on fast food as he drove along, watching the California countryside unfurl before him, carrying him back to the place he was born, the place he had sworn he would never go back to.

He thought of that place now as he climbed the black wooden steps to the stage and settled himself on the barstool behind the two microphones, one for voice and one for guitar. He heard the noise in the crowded bar lower itself by maybe a decibel and a half as the audience turned their faces to him behind the spotlight that always looked, to Woody, like the critical eye of God, appraising him as he worked. There were drunken faces in the audience now, faces a little like his own but still receptive, once again wanting to be taken to that same place Woody always longed for, that place inside the song where mundane reality fell away and euphoria took over.

It was a nice place to be. A nice place to return to. That place inside the song was always safe. Always free from fear.

Unlike home. Unlike San Diego.

Sipping occasionally at another beer, Woody dutifully played his songs and waited for the night to end, dreading the day ahead.

Dreading the trip south.

THE HOUSE Woody grew up in still sat at the end of a dead-end street in an older section of San Diego known as Park Canyon. The area was aptly named, with one great canyon and multiple small ones slashing through the neighborhood, dividing streets, separating one house number from the next by sometimes as much as a mile. The catchphrase in Park Canyon was “never expect hot pizza,” meaning most delivery drivers found themselves lost four or five times, on the average, before they accidentally stumbled on the destination they were shooting for, if they stumbled on it at all. The “under thirty minutes or your pizza is free” rule was automatically cancelled when the phone-in order came from Park Canyon.

Woody had been paying taxes and utility bills on the house for the past ten years, ever since the stabbing deaths of his mother and father in what the police had called a “robbery attempt” of the mom-and-pop store they had owned and managed since before Woody was born. His parents’ murderer had never been found, and this constantly tortured Woody, sometimes causing him to erupt into such impotent bursts of rage it was all he could do to hold onto his reason. But the thought of selling the house he was raised in, the house his parents loved so much, the house he himself had loved so deeply during the years he grew up there, troubled Woody even more. He had no siblings to fight over the property, so the choice he made to do nothing at all about the house after his parents died was an easy one to make. He had sold the store, of course, and that had given him a few grand to get his life rolling, but the house he had left exactly as it was. A time capsule, holding all his memories. Both the good and the bad. But it was the good ones he wished to protect. The bad ones he could live without.

Woody’s grip tightened on the Suburban’s steering wheel at the first sight of the battered Dead End sign perched up ahead at the end of the street. That sign had been there for as long as Woody could remember. His was the last house on the right. Cut into the hillside, it looked like a one-story Craftsman from the street, but at the back, hidden from view by towering plumes of flowering bougainvillea that climbed into the trees and hung heavy from the eaves, the house was two-story. Back there, in an area passersby never saw, was a small lawn bordered by jade plants and roses, and beyond the border the ground plummeted away into the largest of the many canyons that intersected the area. That canyon had been Woody’s playground until his thirteenth year. After that, he never entered it again.

The house on Highview Lane was surrounded by others like it. Built back in the forties, the homes were a little worse for wear but maintained as well as could be expected, considering the fact that most of the people living on the street were older now. Looking at it as he drove up, Woody could see no signs of children anywhere. No bicycles or skateboards dropped carelessly on lawns. No tires hanging from tree limbs like the ones that were popular when he was a kid. No tree houses, no sound of children’s laughter rising up from the canyon beside the house where Woody and his friends had played that summer so long ago, back when Woody’s body was beginning to change, when manhood was a concept he was just beginning to understand. It was during the summer of Woody’s thirteenth year when the horror actually raised its head from the canyon for the first time. It screamed out its fury at the young interlopers who were trespassing on its territory, disturbing its sleep, causing it to waken, causing it to unsheathe its claws and reach out with gnarled, grasping fingers, and in doing so, giving Woody, and maybe his friends too, something to trouble their dreams for a lifetime to come.

Woody wondered, not for the first time, what had become of those friends he had been so close to that long-ago summer. Cathy. Jeremy. Chuck. And Bobby, of course. Just names now. The faces he remembered would not be the faces they wore today. Except for Bobby, they would be all grown up now, like him. All grown up and probably as far away from this place as their adult lives could carry them. Only he would be dumb enough to return here after everything that had happened, he thought. Jeez, he must be nuts.

Woody parked his Suburban on the macadam driveway and stared at the house for the first time in a decade. It didn’t look too bad, actually. The two ancient palm trees, one at either side of the front porch, were still there, reminding Woody, as they had when he was a child, of towering masts flanking a sail-less ship. The yard had been kept up by a gardener Woody paid once a month by mail, and if the windows were dirty and the paint on the stucco had faded to a rather bilious olive color, which wasn’t at all the cheerful seafoam green he remembered, at least the place was standing. Familiar curtains still hung in the windows, limp now with age, deceiving strangers as to the house’s vacancy, and neighbors had kept a continual eye on the place for him without his requesting them to. His parents had been very popular in the neighborhood, probably because of their willingness to extend credit to those finding themselves a little short in the purse when it came time to buy family groceries at the end of every working month. Upon their deaths, many of those neighbors had come forward at the funeral to press an envelope of money into Woody’s hands, paying as much as they could on their outstanding debt to help the boy, not yet twenty, through his grieving period and give him a better start on his own life, a start which his parents were no longer there to help him with.

Woody could have given that start a considerable boost by selling the property his parents maintained with such love through all the years of his growing up, but he could never quite bring himself to do it. It was not a matter of thinking he might one day return here to live in the house. That was something he never intended to do. Ever. For with all the wonderful memories still living like silent tenants inside the house, it also harbored other memories, memories he spent every waking hour of his adult life trying to forget. It was not so much the house that bore these memories to Woody, but the neighborhood. The sloping hills. The sage- and juniper-padded canyons.

He climbed from the Suburban and walked to the front porch, where he paused to take in the view to the south: the Mexican hills surrounding Tijuana, hazy in the distance. Memories flooded through him as he stood there, looking out across the sun-drenched vista spread out before him. It was a vista he remembered so well as seen through much younger eyes than the ones he looked through now.

God, Woody was suddenly so inundated with memories he could barely contain them all. He had always tried to keep those memories buried, hidden away from himself, stashed away in the darkest cellars of his mind, where he hoped they would languish, forgotten, never to see the light of day again. But he could feel them now, trying to claw their way out of the shadows—trying to gain a foothold on his consciousness. If those fears were allowed to show themselves, Woody knew, they would unleash a flood of terror he had spent a lifetime trying to lose inside his music.

Simply looking at the house now forced the truth to well up in Woody’s mind. His fears were not buried at all. They never had been. They were still waiting for him, right here where he’d left them. On Highview Lane. House number 3436. The house of his childhood. The place where he had once learned what fear was all about, and the place he had been running from ever since. Until today.

He slipped the long-unused key into the front door and entered a different world. Stepping from sunlight into shadow, he could almost smell his mother’s bread pudding bubbling in the oven. Could almost hear Lucy and Ricky going at it in reruns on the old RCA TV in the living room. Could almost hear his father calling out from the back bedroom, wondering where the hell his clean socks were. Could almost see his mother coming out to greet a thirteen-year-old Woody as he plodded in from school, his book bag dangling from one arm and his battered skateboard tucked under the other. Giving him a gentle peck on the cheek, ruffling his hair, telling him he needed a haircut, telling him to go wash up, dinner would be ready soon. Asking him how his day went. Making him feel loved and safe and home. Like she did every day of her life.

Woody propped his Gibson inside the front door. He would bring in the rest of his stuff later. For the moment, he stood in the doorway and breathed in the smell of the house. It smelled just as he remembered it. The air was a little staler perhaps, the place having been shut up for so long, but the aromas inside the house were even now, after all these years, as familiar to him as the scent of his own skin.

Everything had been left in situ, as archaeologists were fond of saying. The furniture still placed exactly as he remembered it. The long sofa against the far wall, his father’s brown recliner set at an angle at the end of it. His mother’s piano parked in the corner by the picture window where she would sometimes look out on the street as she played. The old spinet still sprouted a growth of framed snapshots across the top, like those pictures you used to see of some homesteader’s shelter in the Old West, built into a prairie hillside with maybe a garden or a few stalks of corn shooting up from the roof. The fireplace, long bereft of fire, looked dusty and forlorn, desperately in need of a good cleaning. In fact, the whole house needed a good cleaning. Dust was everywhere, sprinkled across the furniture like powdered sugar on a baker’s tray of goodies. His mother would have had a conniption fit if she saw the house looking this way.

In her day it had been kept spotless. Squeaky clean. The windows gleaming. The furniture polished. The carpets vacuumed daily. Everything in the exact same place it had been the day, the week, the year before.

A surge of sadness threatened to bring tears to Woody’s eyes, thinking of his mother slaving away inside this house for the better part of her adult life. But she had enjoyed it, that was the funny thing. Go figure. Woody never quite understood it. It was like she was born to clean and loved every minute she spent with a rag in one hand and a bottle of 409 in the other, cleaning everything that didn’t clean her first, as his father used to say.

What the hell was he doing here anyway, Woody thought, clearing the emotion from his throat. He could stay in a motel somewhere. He had money. Not a lot, but enough for that. Seemed kind of silly, though, wasting money on a motel when he had free lodgings right here at his fingertips. He didn’t have to start the gig until tomorrow night, and he supposed he’d be spending every minute of his time between now and then making the house livable. He wasn’t a clean freak like his mother, but he sure couldn’t live in the place the way it was.

He took a peek down the long, dimly lit hallway and could almost hear Willie Nelson moaning out the lyrics of one of his old tunes from the Motorola radio that used to sit in Woody’s old room, the nasal twang of Willie’s voice echoing sweetly through the shadows of time and memory. “Turn that blasted thing down,” Woody’s mother used to rail. “I can’t hear myself think!” But he never did, and she never seemed to mind.

Woody approached his room now, wondering if it would look the way he remembered it. The Batman bedspread. Posters of X-Men on the wall. Storm was his favorite. She was hot, with her snow-white hair and a body to die for. Woody used to wonder why real women never looked like that. He made the mistake of asking Cathy once, and he could still remember her rolling her eyes like he was a first class nimrod and telling him real women weren’t “drawn, stupid.”

Good old Cathy. He wondered where she was now. Wondered, too, if she still wore those heavy red pigtails dangling off either side of her head. Probably not. Now she probably had a spiky new do with a few streaks of blonde scattered through it like every other young woman on the planet. Too bad. He used to like watching those pigtails swing around her head when she spun quickly, or bounce up and down like Slinkys when she was pedaling her Sting-ray bike, trying, as always, to keep up with the guys, or better yet, outdo them completely.

She was one of the guys, actually. As tough as a cob, and if mad, as apt to swing a left hook as the rest of them. Until the summer of her thirteenth year, at least. After that, she wasn’t quite as tough. Or as fearless. None of them were. That summer changed them all one way or another. Things were never the same after that.

Woody peered around the doorway of his old bedroom and couldn’t believe his eyes. Everything was exactly the way he had left it. NASCAR, he remembered now, had replaced Batman on the bedspread along about his fifteenth year, and there it still was, a little faded, a little musty smelling, but still the same old red NASCAR spread he had conned his mother into buying for him after explaining to her that he was almost a man now, for God’s sake, and Batman was for kids. “God help us when you get your driver’s license,” his mother had said, but she bought him the bedspread anyway. And curtains to match. They still hung on the windows overlooking the canyon.

Woody stepped to the window and gazed out. The backyard looked just as he remembered it. The grass had been recently mown. The roses on the verge of the canyon were properly manicured, adding a riotous touch of color to the landscape. The flagstone path that meandered through the lawn was neatly swept. His old swing still hung from the jacaranda tree in the corner, but the bare patch of earth under the swing, scraped raw over the years by sliding tennis shoes, had been gradually filled in by the encroaching grass until now the lawn beneath it looked as pristine as it had the day the swing was strung up by his father. It was as if nature had erased all memory of the time Woody had spent there, contentedly swinging back and forth, dragging his feet across the ground, chewing Baby Ruths and contemplating his young existence.

Before his eyes could be drawn farther out, past the lawn toward the depths of the canyon, he turned away from the window and, as an afterthought, drew the curtains closed behind him. Still, in a corner of his mind, deep down in a place where nature had not encroached, he heard the voices of the twins, Jeremy and Chuck, yelling out to him yet again from the stand of willow trees deep in the canyon, their voices practically squeaking with fear. “Jesus, Woody, look at the blood! It’s everywhere!”

Then he heard another voice. A voice from the darkness of a summer night long ago. A voice he had once heard in this very room. A calmer voice. A whisper so filled with longing that even now, it tore at his heart like a knife. “Touch me, Woody. Touch me like I’m touching you.”

Woody closed his eyes to that memory. Trying to squeeze those voices, those echoes, from his mind was like squeezing pus from a wound. But even as they faded in the distance, he knew they were not really gone. They would be back. They always came back. Closing a curtain wouldn’t keep those voices out. And closing his eyes only made the voices louder. The trick was to concentrate on something else. Like cleaning. How many hours had he spent polishing his Gibson, or scrubbing the Suburban, or straightening motel rooms before the maid got there, in his attempt to make those voices, those memories, go away? How many times had he stood in front of a mirror and cut his own hair, usually botching it up pretty good in the process, just to have something to do to tear his mind away from the past?

For the first time, standing in his old room, standing in this place he thought he would never see again, he wondered if maybe that was why his mother would lose herself so completely in the job of keeping this house spotless. Was she trying to escape memories of her own? Did she have fears, or regrets, or true terrors of her own that only the reek of Pine-Sol could wash from her mind? Did her cleaning truly make her happy, or like himself, did it merely keep her sane? Had she known of the horrors surrounding this house, this neighborhood? Surely not. If she had, she would never have let her young son set a foot outside the door.

Shaking his head, trying to clear his mind like an Etch-a-Sketch, he strode purposely from his childhood room and headed for the door that led from the kitchen to the garage. The cleaning supplies were there, or had been once. Maybe they still were. Time to get the house in order. He was here. He might as well stay. He would clean away the cobwebs and the dust and open the windows to air out the miasma of all the empty years, and then he would go to the old market and pick up some groceries and beer. He wondered if Mr. Mendoza still owned the place. Woody remembered how the man had come to his door on the morning after his parents’ funeral, hat in hand, offering condolences, and offering money too. Money for the business. Money that Woody had pretty well gone through by now, but money that, at the time, had been sorely needed. Woody had named a price, and the old Mexican gentleman had whipped out a checkbook and paid him in full. And just like that, a part of Woody’s past had been no longer his own.

Amid the solid clatter of his boot heels on the three concrete steps that led from the kitchen to the garage, worn smooth by a million footsteps over the years, Woody all but clutched his chest and gasped at the sight of his father’s old Fairlane sitting there. God, he had forgotten the car was still here. Old, even when Woody was young, the car had survived the ages almost unscathed thanks to Woody’s dad’s tender care. Woody had not sold the car after the funerals, thinking, he supposed, it might come in handy at some time or other. And here it still sat. Woody tested the driver’s side door to see if it was locked, but of course it wasn’t. He eased himself onto the wide bench seat and saw the keys still hanging in the ignition, right where he had left them after driving the car from the store that day after the police had gone. With a hand that seemed to be trembling, Woody turned the key and was met with total silence. The battery was as dead as Caesar, and why wouldn’t it be? He sat there for a moment in the silence and ran his fingers over the dashboard, thinking of the many times his father had driven him and his friends to the library, to the movies, to the park where they would play until dark, until he returned, hours later, cheerfully blasting his horn, to pick them up.

Woody thought of the way his father sometimes, if the traffic was light, let him snuggle up beside him and steer the monstrous Fairlane down the city streets while his dad worked the pedals. He could still remember the feel of his small hands on the wheel and the car’s rumbling power beneath them. Remembered craning his neck to see above the dashboard while his father draped one arm across his shoulders and let the other rest, bent, in the open window beside him. Remembered, too, the comforting smell of his father’s warm body so close to his, the homey mixture of spearmint gum, tobacco, and Old Spice cologne. Scents that would forever remind Woody of the man who raised him with such love. With such gentle kindness.

It was his father, he remembered now, who had bought him his first guitar. His mother had spent hours with him as Woody sat nailed in misery and guilt to the bench beside her, trying to teach him piano, but much to her disappointment, his heart was never in it. His father had seen the boy’s anguish, taken pity on him, and bought him the guitar instead. He had taken to it like a duck takes to water, his father always said, and even his mother had to agree. They paid for lessons from a man down the street, and Woody had gone faithfully to those lessons every Saturday afternoon for more than two years, until the day the man, Mr. Peters his name was, told him there was nothing more he could teach him. The man had taken the last payment of five dollars from Woody’s hand, wished the boy a terse “good day,” closed his front door behind him, and Woody never saw Mr. Peters again. He found out later the man had died shortly after that. Cancer, his mother said. He had been sick a long time. Woody still wondered if the lessons had stopped because the man wasn’t up to teaching him anymore, or if he truly had learned everything the man had known about guitar. It was one of those questions in life that would never be answered.

Now, approaching thirty, Woody had begun to realize that life dealt out a lot of unanswered questions. Questions that simply would never be answered, no matter how much you fumed and fussed and fretted over them.

Woody stepped from the car, ran a hand lovingly along the sill of the door, and heard the solid, satisfying clunk of it slamming shut. Maybe while he was here he would get the Fairlane running again. Take it out for a spin around the neighborhood. Burn out the kinks. His father would like that, if he was still looking down from whichever celestial plane his murderer had sent him to.

The garage was stifling hot on this summer day and stuffy from being closed up so long. Woody released the simple hook and eye that held the garage door closed and peeled it up into the ceiling, creaking and groaning, to let the air and sunlight stream in for the first time in a decade, replacing the past with the present. Airing out the memories. Shedding light on the darkness of old hurts.

Illuminating Eagle, leaning against the wall in the corner.

His old bike. Woody stood there in the breeze blowing up from the canyon, staring at it with a smile creeping across his face. How many hours had he spent perched high on Eagle’s seat, feeling the wind in his hair and the sun at his back, as his bike carried him to all the places his childhood led him? It had been a damn good bike. A Cannondale. His father and mother had bought it for him on his ninth birthday. It had taken a couple of years for his body to grow into the 26-inch racer, but when it did, he and the bike became inseparable. He had named her Eagle because she could fly, dammit! She could really fly! Cherry red and as sleek as a bird of prey, she had sped him down these neighborhood streets like a steed carrying its warring master into battle. Always faithful. Always there. Always ready for the next adventure.

She had even saved his life once. And not only his life, but Chuck’s too, back on the day when the evil in the canyon had reached out to snatch them both from this world, as Woody’s father had been snatched from it years later. He still remembered Chuck’s arms around his waist, holding on for dear life, practically squeezing Woody’s guts up into his throat. Remembered Chuck screaming into his ear, into the wind, “Faster! Go faster!” as desperate, running footsteps rattled the gravel behind them and cruel fingers strove to reach out to pull them from their seats and tear their young bodies to shreds.

The evil had taken human form that day, if you wanted to call it human. Jesus, he and Chuck were both screaming their heads off by the time the Cannondale bounced out of the canyon and onto Juniper Street. But they had made it. The evil did not leave the canyon, and they had known somehow it wouldn’t. When they realized they were safe, that scrabbling fingers and slavering fangs were no longer reaching out behind them, groping and snapping, eager to rip them off the bike and snatch their lives away, they had howled with joy. Their victorious young voices rang bright in the summer twilight, echoing off the houses, sailing down the street. The sound of simple childish laughter that had only moments before been screams of horror.

They had turned then, with Woody still pumping the pedals like a madman and Chuck still all but strangling him, trying to hang on, as the summer-hot asphalt hummed beneath their wheels. Still screaming, in jubilation now instead of fear, they yelled taunts at the terror that no longer pursued them. And in the distance on that day, from somewhere among the sage and juniper and willow trees that stood like proud sentinels at the base of the canyon, they had heard laughter. A wicked gurgle of sound that once again burned fear into their hearts. But for the moment, they knew they were safe.

Chuck and Woody had gone to their separate homes that night, watched TV with their parents as if nothing strange had happened during the course of the day, and later they had climbed into their beds alone, far away from the comfort of each other, and only then did the terror once again raise its head to bring the darkness crashing down around them like cold black water settling over a drowning man.

Woody wondered now why neither he nor his friends had ever gone to their parents with the news that an evil presence stalked the neighborhood; that a demon lurked in the canyon, waiting to pounce from the underbrush and drag their screaming bodies into oblivion. None of their parents would have believed them, of course, because somehow Woody and his pals knew, as well as they knew their times tables, that the horror was never meant to be seen by adult eyes, was never meant to be grasped by adult minds. The terror was real enough, no two ways around that. But it was real only to them. Which didn’t mean it couldn’t still kill you deader than snake shit. It wasn’t their fault there was too much reality in an adult mind to see it, that something about mortgages and paychecks and the rote of daily grown-up living could block out childish visions. And it sure as hell brought Woody and his friends closer together, knowing the danger was directed toward them alone. In battling their fear, they had no one to turn to but each other, and this made them a unit.

One.

Never again would Woody be as close to anyone as he had been to his friends on that hot, hot summer of his thirteenth year when all hell broke loose and fear was no longer something you caught a glimpse of on a movie screen, but a real live rampaging beast, all fangs and snapping jaws and a mind gnawed by malice and madness that was just as goddamn real as you were.

Poor Eagle. She was looking fairly pathetic these days. Her tires were flat, one of her spokes had popped out of the rim, and she was covered with the same patina of grimy dust as everything in the house. A clothespin was still clamped to the frame beside the back wheel but the Bicycle playing card it once held against the spokes had at some time during the course of the ensuing years drifted to the floor. It had all been illusion, of course, but that playing card had given a pretty good semblance of motorized speed when it bbrapped against the spokes, especially when Eagle was fairly flying beneath him. Woody picked the card up now and looked at it. The ace of spades.

Shit. That wasn’t a good sign.

He let it fall from his fingers and, pushing all thoughts of Eagle and that long-ago summer from his mind, continued his search for cleaning supplies, occasionally turning a leery eye to that ace of spades lying on the garage floor.

He found everything he needed, and after peeling off his sweat-stained shirt and tossing it into a corner, Woody walked back through the kitchen door and set about the awesome task of making the house livable.

As always, the act of cleaning cleared his mind. By the time he finished three hours later, he was surprised to hear himself humming. There might even have been a smile on his face as he looked around at the place, freed now from the residue of ten empty years. Once again, the furniture shone. With all the windows open, the stale air had been swept away, leaving behind only the comforting smells of Lemon Pledge and Comet and the sweet scent of roses wafting in through the back bedroom window, as it had in the days of his childhood.

In his parents’ bedroom, he even imagined a whiff of his mother’s favorite perfume, White Shoulders, reaching out across the years to comfort him. But it was just his imagination, of course. It had to be. There was nothing left of his mother inside this house now but her memory.

Yet somehow, at the moment, memory seemed to be enough.

AT SOME point between then and now, while Woody’s youthful dreams were settling into stark realities, his father’s old store had undergone a change of its own. STILES MARKET was no longer painted on the wall above the front door. Now, high above the street, in Day-Glo neon, it proclaimed itself to be JAYCEES. Woody didn’t know what the hell “Jaycees” was supposed to mean, but it certainly wasn’t the store he remembered. As much as he hated to admit it, the place looked considerably better than it had when his father ran it. It even boasted a butcher shop now, according to the sign, something his father had often talked about but never seemed to find the time or money to initiate.

Woody wasn’t more than two steps inside the front door when Mr. Mendoza, considerably heavier now than he was ten years ago, as if maybe he had been hanging around the potato chip aisle too long, came out of nowhere and started pumping Woody’s hand up and down for all of two full minutes while, in his melodic Hispanic accent, he welcomed Woody back to the neighborhood. He dragged Woody through the store, proudly pointing out all the changes he had made over the years. He had added not only a butcher shop, but also beer and wine and a separate little pharmacy area, and the back of the store had been extended out another ten feet. While Mr. Mendoza was obviously proud of the improvements, Woody thought something had been lost in the renovation. It took him a moment to put his finger on what it was, exactly, that was lost, but when he did, he summed it up in one word. Heart.

Jaycee’s was no longer a simple mom-and-pop store, where people could come not only to shop, but to chat. To visit. To show off their kids and gab about the weather. Now, between the electronic scanners at the checkout counters, the sterile, air-conditioned air, and the efficiently laid out aisles, there was only a sense of commerce. All personality had been swept away. Now the place felt like every other supermarket Woody had ever walked through. Cold, impersonal, and slightly desperate in its desire to lure every shopping dollar from the pocket of every patron that was sucked through the automatic front doors. Woody couldn’t imagine any one of these check-out girls in their crisp yellow uniforms reaching out to the customer with a comforting hand and saying, as he once heard his father say, “That’s okay, Mrs. Chen. Pay me when you can. I’ll not go out of business over a pound of bacon and a dozen eggs.”

Mr. Mendoza seemed to sense Woody’s disappointment.

“Times change, hey, son? The days of the little store are over. Now we have to compete with the big boys up the street. If your papa was still here, he would understand.”

And Woody supposed he would. Business was business.

Too bad.

With a final handshake, Mr. Mendoza scurried off to the front of the store, where one of the clerks was screaming over the screeching intercom for a price check on disposable diapers, and Woody set off in search of what he needed. He gathered up enough food to last a few days, grabbed a 12-pack of beer from the massive cooler on the back wall, and after paying for his purchases with a MasterCard, he headed back out into the California twilight.

Away from the store, away from a past that had already left him far behind, Woody steered the Suburban along the old neighborhood streets, and here, in the growing darkness of evening, he felt more at peace. On the surface, the neighborhood hadn’t changed that much. Every house was still familiar to Woody. Even the faces of some of the people he saw meandering along the sidewalks tugged at his memory. They were older faces now, but, like the houses, still familiar. He knew if he put his mind to it he would be able to add a few names to those faces, but he didn’t really try. It was enough to know everything hadn’t changed while he had been away.

As he drove down Juniper Street, approaching his turnoff on Highview Lane, he pointed out to himself every house where his friends had lived that summer. The twins, Chuck and Jeremy, in that white monstrosity on the corner. Cathy in the house right next to it with the three lean cypress trees towering at the edge of the lawn. Those trees always seemed to be swaying, whether there was a breeze or not, as if trying to keep their precarious balance on the planet. And on Highview after he made the turn, only two blocks down from his own, was Bobby’s house.

Good old Bobby. He had been battling his own demons back then. With alcoholic parents who seemed to be at each other’s throats from the moment they woke up in the morning, day after day after day, Bobby had spent as many nights in Woody’s house as he had ever spent in his own. They were almost brothers, him and Bobby. Even Woody’s mother had said so. She would have been shocked out of her socks to learn that he and Bobby had become considerably more than brothers during that summer of their thirteenth year, when puberty raised its ugly head and brought them closer together than they could ever have imagined. Woody still wondered at times, when sadness and memory combined to take him to that place he was always trying to escape, if he and Bobby would still be together today in the way they had been that long-ago summer.

The summer Bobby would not survive.

That summer, awakening manhood and all the rampaging desires that came with it were suddenly replaced by grief and outrage and a sense of loss so stunning it all but swept Woody away in its wake.

Woody’s parents had tried to comfort him through the aftermath of Bobby’s death, explaining to him that sometimes the world was a cruel place to live, where death sometimes reached out and snatched away even the youngest, the most promising. But there was no way for them to know it was not only the loss of friendship Woody mourned that summer, but the loss of so much more. Woody and Bobby had stirred truths in each other that transcended friendship. Love had been born that summer, and as quickly taken away. And Woody still, sixteen years later, ached with the loss of it.

By the time Woody was once again parked outside his parents’ house—he would never think of it as his own, only theirs—his sadness had crashed down around him like a pall. Again and again he was forced to swallow the emotion that threatened to spill out of him, blinking back tears as he stowed the groceries in the kitchen. A weariness of body unlike any he had ever known made him long for sleep, but he knew mere sleep wouldn’t be enough to still the memories. It never was.

He popped a beer and carried it through the darkening house, sipping as he went, surveying all the work he had done during the afternoon, trying to think of himself as the sole proprietor of this fairly expensive piece of California real estate, this house that after only a few hours of cleaning was once again as he remembered it. But in every room, through every shadowed doorway, the sound of his parents’ absence rang out like an empty echo.

This was no longer his home. He was an interloper, trespassing on the past, intruding into a place that was no longer meant to feel his presence.

And as he sat in the darkness in his father’s recliner, drinking his second, and then third, beer, he felt the deepening night outside pressing against the walls, weighing heavily on the roof over his head, gnawing away at the stucco and tile. In his imagination, he could feel the darkness trying to worm its way into his very heart, bringing with it all the memories he had desperately tried to keep at bay for so many years.

But with the fourth beer, Woody’s memories abated. His fear, and much of his sadness, left him. Alcohol, like music, could sometimes take him to a place where old hurts couldn’t enter, and he was grateful for the comforting emptiness it brought him once again.

A full moon now softened the darkness inside the house with tinges of blue. Through the windows, that big fat moon watched Woody roam from room to room, following along behind him like a trailing spotlight, illuminating his footsteps, dispelling the shadows that, without the beer inside him, might have sent him running from the house forever.

Woody stepped through the back door and felt the night breeze on his face. He could hear soft wind rustling the willows down in the canyon, stirring up the smell of sage and honeysuckle and flowering cactus as well. Scents Woody remembered clearly from his youth. How many times had he stood here with his father, watching the sun set and the moon rise, both at the same time? An anomaly of nature, his father once told him, that some people in other parts of the world never got a chance to witness.

Woody awkwardly slipped his adult body into his childhood swing beneath the jacaranda tree. He could smell its blossoms overhead. In daylight those blossoms were a beautiful blue, as deep as an evening sky. In darkness they were only a scent, invisible to the eye, lost in the evening shadows. The swing creaked beneath his weight. What should have been smooth earth beneath him, but was now grass regrown after his years of absence, felt strange and out of place under his feet.

He pushed himself into a lazy arc, gently swinging back and forth in the darkness. The weight and motion of his body brought a gentle fall of jacaranda blossoms raining down around him as his hands clutched the rusted chains that held him in place.

Woody closed his eyes and, as he had as a child, imagined himself in flight. He was a hawk, soaring high above the canyon, looking down on the world splayed out beneath him, surveying this dominion that was his and his alone.

The wind on his face blew away the years, the soothing motions of the swing rocked away his fears, and once again he was thirteen, with Keds on his feet and patches his mother had sewn on the knees of his jeans. It was the beginning of summer vacation. With nothing but freedom staring him in the face for the next three months, Woody thought of all the ways he and his friends would spend their time. Movies. Bike rides. Days at the park, wandering through the museums, exploring the zoo. The possibilities were endless. With no schoolwork to worry about, his days would be filled with only laughter and adventure and the comfort of good friends.

In the moonlight now, years away from that last remarkable summer, a smile lit Woody’s face as he sat swinging in the cool night air. The beer inside him smoothed out the rough edges of memory he didn’t wish to see.

But the other memories, the good memories, were scooped up in his hawk’s talons and carried to that private place where he always kept them neatly laid out, on display, ready to be sorted through and savored whenever the mood took him, like favorite pieces of art or well-loved books.

Jacaranda blossoms continued to drift down around him, shaken from the tree by the weight of his swinging body. They brushed his face in the darkness with the softness of butterfly wings as his mind carried him back to his thirteenth summer.

The summer of best friends and days that never lasted quite long enough. Days when laughter rang through these canyons like crystal bells, until the terror started. When even the nights in the midst of that terror were filled with wonders that pushed the horror of the Willow Man away, at least for a little while.

Nights with Bobby.

They had come together so slowly, he and Bobby. He wondered now how it had all begun. And then he remembered. It was the first week of vacation. Summer lay before them all like an endless, unknown road, waiting to be explored. Cathy, Chuck and Jeremy, and he and Bobby had all stepped fearlessly onto that road and been swept away to a destination that, but for the innocence of youth, might have destroyed them all.

As it was, it destroyed only one. But that came later.

It was the beginning of their journey together that Woody remembered now. Not just him and Bobby, but all of them. It began with the bones Cathy found among the willows. Human bones. Woody still remembered how they shone like porcelain in the sunlight.

They were almost… beautiful.

The Well by Marie Sexton
Chapter 1
Twelve Years Ago
“Don’t be such a chicken, Haven!”

Not for the first time in his seventeen years, Haven wished he had a dollar for every time his cousin Elise had said those words to him. Ever since they were kids, she’d used that little phrase to goad him into all kinds of stupid things. But having a sΓ©ance in an abandoned house everybody knew was haunted?

That was an all-new level of crazy.

“I’m not chicken,” Haven told her, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt. “I just don’t want to get arrested for trespassing.”

He glanced over at Linsey for support. Linsey was Elise’s sister, younger by three years. The girls shared the same full lips and perfect cheekbones, but where Linsey’s hair was light brown, Elise’s was almost black. Haven was their first cousin, midway between them in age, and felt like an ugly duckling next to them. Sure, he shared Elise’s dark hair and Linsey’s hazel eyes, but features that appeared striking on his female cousins felt boring and unremarkable on him. Sometimes he couldn’t believe they were related at all.

Luckily, Linsey backed him up. “Haven’s right. It’s a bad idea.”

They were at the diner on Main Street in their hometown of Hobbsburg, Pennsylvania, sipping pop while they waited for their hamburgers to arrive. Other teenagers filled the booths around them. Outside, the early August day promised a hot, sticky evening. It was one of those times when it felt like summer vacation could go on forever, even though school would start in less than a month.

Elise sighed in exasperation. “What’s wrong with you guys? You have no sense of adventure.”

Haven shook his head, trying not to laugh. He and Linsey had both grown up hearing Elise’s wild tales and being subjected to her strange pranks. They knew her well enough to predict she’d spend the entire night trying to scare the crap out of them.

“Forget it,” Linsey said. “Mom and Dad would freak.”

“Mom and Dad never have to know,” Elise argued. “We’ll tell them we’re camping out. Then, instead of going into the woods, we’ll go to the old Gustafson house instead.”

Linsey and Haven exchanged another glance, weighing their options. Elise was stubborn as hell. Once she latched onto an idea, it was almost impossible to talk her out of it. It was a no-win situation. They could give in now, or they could argue about it, only to give in later.

“Come on,” Elise prodded, sensing their hesitation. She leaned her elbows on the table, closing the distance between her and her sister. She lowered her voice to a suggestive whisper. “Craig can come too. You guys will get to spend the whole night together.”

Linsey’s cheeks turned red, but Haven knew she was wavering. He had no idea whether she and her boyfriend Craig had gone all the way yet, but it looked like getting a chance to share a sleeping bag with him was enough to overcome her reluctance.

“No way,” Haven said to Elise. “That means Craig and Linsey go off by themselves to make out, and I’m stuck with you trying to scare me to death all damn night.”

Elise grinned at him, and he had a feeling she’d already anticipated this moment.

“The Hunter twins are coming too.”

Haven sat back in the red vinyl booth, his protests forgotten. That changed everything. He’d been prepared to dig in his heels, but he hadn’t anticipated this.

Jordan and Pierce Hunter had moved to Hobbsburg from Ohio two years earlier. For the past few months, Jordan had been like a puppy at Elise’s heels, doing everything he could to get her attention. He was infatuated with her, so it wasn’t surprising he’d already agreed to her crazy plan.

If Jordan came along, of course his brother Pierce would too. And if following Elise into a haunted house meant Haven had a chance to spend an entire evening with Pierce…

Well, whatever Elise had planned couldn’t be all that bad, could it?

**

Two nights later, Haven found himself in the back seat of Jordan and Pierce’s car, his stomach a knot of nervous excitement as they bounced down a washboard dirt road toward a house everybody knew was haunted. Haven’s new glasses slid down his nose every time the car hit a bump. He’d already pushed them back into place a dozen times.

Jordan was driving. Haven noticed him checking the rearview mirror every few seconds. At first, he assumed Jordan only wanted to check his perfectly styled hair. Then he realized Jordan was verifying that Elise, Linsey, and Linsey’s boyfriend Craig were still behind them in Craig’s car. Jordan’s obsession with Elise definitely hadn’t waned any.

Pierce, who was often as scruffy as his brother was well-groomed, turned partway around in his seat to smile at Haven. “Where’s your book? I hardly ever see you without one.”

His tone was friendly enough, but Haven’s cheeks began to burn just the same. “I figured it’d be too dark to read.” He decided not to mention that he had one stuffed in his bag, just in case. He had a feeling Pierce wouldn’t have laughed, but Jordan might have.

“Do you think we’ll really see a ghost?” Pierce asked.

Haven laughed, shaking his head. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.”

The Gustafson property lay tucked into a secluded clearing about two miles out of town. Several NO TRESPASSING signs punctuated the dirt road, which finally ended at a makeshift gate. It was only a chain strung across the trail, but between it and the thick trees, it was impossible to drive any farther. Jordan and Craig pulled their cars into the shade of the trees and began unloading their gear. They’d have to hike the last half mile.

They began their walk, arms full of sleeping bags, duffels, and grocery bags stuffed with snacks. Jordan and Pierce each held one handle of the giant cooler slung between them. They weren’t identical twins, but they were similar enough that anybody meeting them knew instantly they were brothers. Both were tall, with broad shoulders, dark blond hair, and a smile that had every girl in school weak in the knees.

And at least one boy too.

The trek to the house took longer than any of them expected. At least it was a relatively cool evening for August. Still, Linsey’s boyfriend Craig was whining and the sun nearly setting by the time they reached their destination.

The Gustafson house sat in the center of a small clearing, like some kind of silent queen on her throne. The powder blue paint was cracked and peeling, but she still seemed regal. Even Mother Nature seemed subservient to the house. No birds chirped. No squirrels chattered. The trees didn’t rustle their leaves in the breeze as they had along the path, and the lightning bugs seemed determined to keep their distance.

Jordan and Pierce dropped the cooler and spoke at the exact same time.

“It’s bigger than I expected.”

“How will we get in?”

Both of them used hushed tones. Haven wondered at that. After all, nobody was close enough to hear them.

Unless the stories of the ghosts were true after all.

But the question of how they’d get in was a good one. The windows on the ground floor were boarded up, and a sign on the front door announced that anybody caught trespassing inside the premises would be prosecuted.

“I don’t know about this,” Craig said. “What if we get busted?”

Craig’s dad was a police officer, so it was safe to assume he didn’t want to be caught breaking the law. Still, based on the way he eyed the house, Haven was pretty sure that wasn’t what had Craig scared. Hadn’t Linsey warned him about her sister’s pranks?

Haven caught Linsey’s exasperated expression and tried not to laugh. Then he saw the wicked look on Elise’s face, and his laughter died in his throat. Craig had just set himself up as Elise’s prime target. Haven almost felt sorry for the guy, but he kept his mouth shut. If he ruined Elise’s game now, everybody might decide to turn around and go home. Haven wasn’t about to let that happen. The twins were leaving for Ohio State University in two short weeks, and after that, he might never see Pierce again.

It was pretty much this weekend or never.

“It’ll be fine,” Linsey said, taking Craig’s hand. “Everybody knows ghosts aren’t real.”

Elise twirled her keys around her finger, her bejeweled “Class of ’03” key ring sparkling in the last few rays of daylight. “You’ll be singing a different tune after our sΓ©ance.”

At nineteen, Elise was the oldest of the group—another reason Haven knew she was up to no good. Jordan and Pierce were only a year younger than her, having graduated from high school in the spring. Haven and Craig were seventeen, and Linsey was the baby at sixteen. Even if Elise liked Jordan as much as he liked her, why would she hang out with a bunch of high schoolers, if not to get a laugh at their expense?

“Hey, Jordan,” Elise said, hefting a canvas duffel bag and motioning toward the front door. “Come help me with this.”

It was almost comical how quickly Jordan moved to do her bidding. Haven wondered for a moment if Elise planned to recruit Jordan as a conspirator in her little campaign to scare the rest of them. He watched them put their heads together and noted the cunning glint in Elise’s eye. No. She’d leave Jordan in the dark. She wouldn’t give up such a willing victim, especially knowing anything she said to him was likely to reach Pierce’s ears ten seconds later.

Haven dropped his sleeping bag, slipped his backpack off, and rolled his shoulders, glad to be free of the weight. Linsey and Craig had moved a few feet away and seemed to be having a quiet but intense argument. Elise and Jordan were on the front porch of the house, completely engrossed in each other. That left Haven alone with Pierce.

Which was exactly what he’d hoped for when he agreed to this ridiculous plan.

“What do you think?” Pierce asked, coming to stand next to Haven. “Is it haunted?”

“That’s what they say.”

Pierce was two or three inches taller than Haven. Their arms touched, and not for the first time, Haven found himself wondering if those touches were accidental or intentional.

“I know what they say. But do you believe it?”

Haven didn’t know how to answer. Haunted or not, he didn’t care. Standing so close to Pierce, he had the wild, exhilarating feeling that everything in his life had been leading him to this moment with Pierce in this strangely quiet clearing. He was sure this one night would change his life.

Years later, he’d look back and marvel at that surety. He was right. That night did change his life.

But not in the way he’d hoped.

Chapter 2
Present Day
Haven always expected he’d see Pierce Hunter again. He was fairly certain he knew how it would happen too. The only question was when.

After the incident at the Gustafson house, and the frenzied investigation that followed, everything had fallen apart. The last time he’d seen Pierce, they’d argued bitterly over the events of that night. Then they’d gone their separate ways. The Hunter twins had left for college and Haven had returned to Hobbsburg High School for his senior year. A year later, he’d been the one leaving for college. And during the years he spent at West Virginia University, both his parents and Linsey and Elise’s parents had moved away from Hobbsburg.

There were just too many memories there.

Haven had never gone back to his hometown or to the Gustafson house. He didn’t know if the Hunters had ever returned, or if their parents still lived there. The only thing Haven knew for certain was that Jordan Hunter was a murderer. Someday, Jordan would be arrested. And when that happened, both Haven and Pierce would be in the courtroom for the trial, albeit on opposite sides of aisle.

So yes, Haven assumed he’d have to face Pierce again on some dreary, distant day. What he hadn’t anticipated was turning on the TV one lazy afternoon and finding the twins starring in their own TV show, Paranormal Hunters.

As crazy as it sounded, Pierce and Jordan had become professional paranormal investigators.

“Their journey began years ago, in a house everybody knew was haunted,” the voice-over intro began. “One night, one ghostly encounter, and a mystery that was never solved. Now the Hunter brothers are determined to find the truth about ghosts, haunted houses…” Here, there was a dramatic pause in the narration, a crescendo of the spooky music, and a close-up of the brothers standing back to back with their arms crossed. “…and what lies beyond this realm.”

The twins were still gorgeous, and still naturally charismatic enough to draw in fans. Jordan, it seemed, was the believer. Pierce acted as the skeptic, cheerfully debunking as many of their findings as he could. Sometimes the show struck Haven as borderline ridiculous. Other times, it creeped him right the hell out. Either way, Paranormal Hunters was surprisingly entertaining.

An even bigger surprise came in the summer between the second and third seasons of Paranormal Hunters, when Pierce suddenly contacted Haven out of the blue.

It started with an email.

Haven,

I know it’s been a long time, but I’d really like to talk. Can I call you?

Pierce

Haven was midway through a round of edits on his latest novel when the email arrived. He’d rented a quaint little cabin in Downeast Maine for the summer, determined to do a bit of research for his next story in between edits, although, in truth, he hadn’t done much more than read and watch the boats move in and out of the harbor. Outside, the day was warm and sunny, but after reading Pierce’s email, Haven was instantly lost in his memory of a dark, chilly room in a house that had long been rumored to be haunted.

Pierce wanted to talk to him. Was it about what had happened that night? Was he finally ready to accept the truth about his twin?

Haven’s fingers shook as he typed a quick reply. He didn’t say much. Just gave his cell number and hit send.

It had been twelve long years. Maybe justice was finally about to be served.

**

“Hey, Haven,” Pierce said, over the phone. “Long time no talk, huh?”

It hadn’t taken long for him to call, and even though Haven had given Pierce the green light, he’d debated not answering the phone at all once it rang. But now here he was, clutching his iPhone to the side of his face, his heart racing the way it always had where Pierce was concerned. “Yeah,” was all he managed to say. “Twelve years.”

“How’ve you been?”

“Uh…okay, I guess.” But as sucky at small talk as ever, it seemed.

“I’m a big fan, you know. I’ve read all your books. That last one, about the house with the haunted basement? I’m telling you, it scared the crap out of me.”

Nearly every one of Haven’s books had grown from one of Elise’s wild tales. If he had it to do it all over again, he’d have published them under her name. But at the time—back when he’d finished that first manuscript and sent it in to an agent—it hadn’t occurred to him. Sometimes he felt like a fraud for having stolen all his stories from her, but he tried to look at it as his way of honoring her. Every book he published was dedicated to Elise.

Still, the fact that Pierce had read his books surprised him.

And, in that moment, the pieces fell into place. Haven made his living writing horror stories with a paranormal twist. Pierce and Jordan were professional paranormal investigators. And they’d once spent a night together in a notorious haunted house.

He knew now why Pierce was calling.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen our show?” Pierce asked. “Paranormal Hunters?”

“Once or twice.” Actually, he’d watched every single episode, partly just to have an excuse to stare at Pierce, partly in hopes of catching Jordan in some kind of lie.

“Well, here’s the thing…some teenage girl in Hobbsburg recently reported a paranormal encounter at the old Gustafson house. Our producers got wind of it, found out it was the house—you know, the one we talk about in the intro—and now they’re determined to do an episode there.”

Haven’s throat was so tight and dry he had a hard time forcing any sound past his lips. “Oh?” was all he managed.

“We start shooting in two weeks, and the thing is, well… I’d really like to have you there.”

“Why?”

“Officially? Because you were there. And because having the world famous horror author Haven Sage on our show will be great publicity for both you and us.”

“World famous” was probably a bit of a stretch, but Haven let the flattery lie. “And unofficially?”

“Because after all these years, I think it’s time we got some answers.” He paused for a moment, but when Haven didn’t respond, he went on. “The producers are contacting Linsey and Craig too. They’re turning this into a two-part event, centered around finding the truth about what happened that night.”

“What happened had nothing to do with ghosts.”

“I know. You and I can agree on that, at least.”

“And what about Jordan?” Just saying the name made his skin crawl.

Pierce seemed hesitant to answer, and Haven knew why. Pierce knew that Haven blamed Jordan for Elise’s disappearance. “He’s a believer,” he confessed at last. “He has been ever since that night. He thinks Joseph got to Elise.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“I know.”

“Then why—”

Pierce sighed. “Look, Haven…” Haven was surprised at how sad and uncertain he sounded. “I don’t want to argue. Not about this. Especially not over the phone.”

Haven almost laughed. “What? You want to save the arguments for in person? Or maybe for the cameras?”

“That’s not quite what I meant, but yeah. We all have our theories. Jordan blames a ghost. You blame him. I blame Craig. But the truth is, the case went cold ages ago.”

“That special on the ID Network generated a lot of calls to the hotline.”

“But did any of them pan out?”

Haven didn’t want to answer that. The tiny bit of hope the show had generated had resulted in more than a dozen dead ends. “They say they’re working new leads every day.”

“Do you truly believe that?”

It hurt to say it, but he decided to be honest. “No. That’s just what they’re supposed to say.”

They fell silent. Outside, the gulls swooped over the bay, calling to one another. Across the road from Haven’s cabin, a group of teens lounged on the dock in swimsuits and cutoff shorts. Sunlight flashed off sunglass lenses and highlighted smooth, tan arms and thighs as they laughed and flirted, oblivious to how quickly their world could change. Haven closed his eyes, not wanting to see them. Not wanting to remember how young and carefree and clueless he and his friends had once been.

Wherever Pierce was, Haven imagined him running his hand through his hair, trying to find the right words to say.

“You want justice for Elise, don’t you?” Pierce finally asked.

“More than anything.”

“Then meet me in Hobbsburg. Help me finally find the truth. Between us, we’ll figure out what happened to Elise, one way or another.”

“And if the truth is that I was right all along?”

Pierce hesitated, but only for a moment. “Like I said, one way or another. So what do you say? You in, or are you out?”

Haven didn’t hesitate. “I’m in.”

Lifeline by Brynn Stein
Chapter 1
I WAS new to town. Had just arrived, in fact. I thought I’d stop by the local diner to pick up a bite to eat. It was an okay palace. Small, but clean and well lit. It was moderately full. Not bursting at the seams, but not empty either.

Everyone seemed nice. The lady behind the counter called a cheerful welcome to me as I walked in the door.

“Hi, hon. Welcome to Calvin’s. Have a seat anywhere you like. We’ll be right with you.”

A younger lady was already grabbing a menu and roll of silverware before the first one had even stopped talking. I chose a nearby booth, and the young waitress met me there and asked for my drink order.

She was back in a flash with my tea and chatted me up just the right amount. Politely curious about a new face in town, but not nosy. I gave her my lunch order and looked around. One of my favorite things to do anytime I’m out in public, especially if I’m alone, is to watch people.

I’ve found that there’s a lot to learn about a town in general by watching the people. How they interact with each other. How they interact with outsiders. The waitstaff was getting high marks so far. They treated all the patrons with the same easygoing acceptance they had given me. There were several families with kids in tow, and the staff was very patient with them. There was a group of men in what seemed to be a business lunch meeting. I noticed the same young waitress was making herself available should they need anything but wasn’t trying to engage them in conversation like she did with me, apparently respecting the fact that they had work to get done.

The families seemed to be respectful with each other and nodded to me when I came in, so were friendly enough to out-of-towners. One of the small children even waved and then ducked behind his mother in the booth. I thought, if this was a representative sample, I might like staying here for several days, might even need to make a habit of staying here whenever my job took me anywhere close.

I moved around a lot. I was a sales rep for a major pharmacy, so I traveled around a three-state area, checking in with hospitals and doctors, introducing new drugs and equipment. Generally making a nuisance of myself, according to a couple of regular clients.

This was my first time in this particular town. It was smaller than most, but they had just combined with three other localities and built a large hospital. It was already up and running, but it was sure to still need equipment, and of course, hospitals were always looking for new, cheaper sources of meds.

So here I was, in Small Town, New York. Lovely place, really. I had driven through some awe-inspiring wooded areas on the way. There were beautiful lakes scattered here and there that I’d been told were great for fishing, and hiking trails for every skill level. I hadn’t been hiking for years. I used to go almost constantly, but with the travel involved for the job… well, I just didn’t have the time. And this trip wouldn’t be an exception. I was planning to be here for a week, and then I was supposed to move on. I had a schedule to keep, after all.

But while there was no time for leisure, there was time for food, and I was thoroughly enjoying this little slice of Americana. The diner seemed like something from one of those oh-so-wholesome fifties TV shows. Everyone seemed nice.

So what I saw next confused me.

I looked up and noticed a man standing just inside the door. I hadn’t heard the bell ring when he opened and closed the door, as it had when I came in. I must have been absorbed in my people watching more than I thought, because I usually didn’t miss things like that. Apparently, no one else heard him either. The lady behind the counter went on dutifully cleaning the glassware. The waitresses bustled back and forth. The people in the kitchen continued to do what they were doing. Even the people at the other tables didn’t give him the time of day.

He looked dirty, maybe homeless? I wondered if that had something to do with this nonreaction. Had I stumbled upon yet another town that looked down on the homeless instead of trying to help them?

I nodded and smiled at him when he looked my way, and he gave me a small smile in return but mostly just looked confused. He looked around at the ample selection of empty tables but didn’t make a move toward any of them. He looked at the people but didn’t seem to know anyone. He looked back out into the street—either waiting for someone or trying to get his bearings about where he was—and then turned toward the counter again.

He finally just turned around and stood at the door, like he was ready to leave, but he didn’t make a move to open it. The businessmen chose that time to finish their meeting, and they all headed for the door amid “Good-byes” and “See you laters” as the boss laid money on the table. One of the men opened the door, and the whole party filed through. The homeless man just left with them.

I hastily dug out a twenty-dollar bill, plenty to cover my meal and a generous tip, threw a napkin around the untouched half of my sandwich, and rushed out after them.

“Hey,” I called to the homeless man, who had gone the opposite direction from the businessmen.

He turned but didn’t speak, still with that look of bewilderment on his face.

“I saw that you didn’t order.” I held out the sandwich. “I’m not going to eat this. Why don’t you take it? You’d be helping me out. I hate wasting food.”

He smiled a little crooked smile. “No thank you. I’m not hungry.” But then his confused look ramped up a notch. “I’m not sure why, though. I don’t remember when I ate last. Shouldn’t I be hungry?”

He surely looked to me like he should be.

“I’m not even sure how I got there.” He waved a hand toward the restaurant.

“Well, they weren’t very nice to you.” I had to voice my concern. “Are they always like that? They seemed so nice with everyone else.”

“No.” He screwed up his face, as though he was trying hard to think of something. “I think they’re usually really nice.”

“You think?” I wasn’t sure why I was pressing the issue, but I was becoming really concerned about this man. Not only was he homeless, he appeared to be either cognitively impaired or mentally unbalanced, and he was out here on his own.

“I’m not sure.” He shook his head as if to clear it. “I’m…. Wasn’t I just somewhere else?”

I put on my patient voice, the one I used for children and frightened animals. Frankly, it was probably condescending, but I didn’t know how else to respond. “You were just in the diner. Is that what you mean?”

“No.” He shook his head again. “Before that.”

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t either.” He shrugged his shoulders as if that was all he wanted to think about it. “Weird,” he said. Then he turned around and walked away.

I wasn’t sure whether to go after him or not. I stood there in the middle of the block, holding half a sandwich, which was trying to escape from its paper prison, staring at a spot no longer occupied by the most out-of-place character I’d met on this trip so far.

Oh well. Every town had their colorful characters, I supposed, so I tucked the napkin back around the sandwich and headed toward my car.

I RODE around town for a little while. It seemed like such a small place compared to other cities I’d been in… until I tried to find my hotel. Then I swear it was the largest, most confusing place I’d ever driven. One-way streets, three-way stops, blocks shaped like triangles, roads that doubled around on themselves and didn’t appear to go anywhere. It took me forever to find the hotel where my company had booked reservations. But I finally got there.

I parked the car and unloaded my suitcase. I’d long since learned how to travel light. As I was going into the hotel, I saw the same homeless guy wandering the parking lot. How did he get over here? Wasn’t I a long way from the diner? Of course, with as many twists and turns and mistakes as I’d made, we could easily be directly behind the damned place, and I would never know it.

“Hey, bud.” I jogged a few steps in his direction but slowed to a walk when it looked like he was going to bolt. “I’m not gonna hurt you, man. I just want to help. You have some place to stay?” It wasn’t all that cold yet, but it was getting colder. It was spring, so it wouldn’t get down to freezing, probably. Then again, this was Upstate New York, so pretty much anything was possible. I wasn’t sure what I was going to say if he said no. I wasn’t sure I was comfortable with inviting him to share my room. I got a good gut feeling about him, as if I could tell he was a good person and wouldn’t hurt me, but growing up with a single mother who beat me over the head, fortunately only figuratively, with stranger-danger speeches, I was still a little leery.

“Um,” he answered with that same confusion.

“Hey, not to be offensive, but do you need to go to a doctor or anything? You seem awfully confused. Did you get hurt?” I gestured toward his dirty appearance. Maybe he wasn’t homeless. Maybe he was an accident victim who wandered away from the scene without medical attention.

“I think I fell.”

It was the closest thing to a clear answer I had gotten out of him so far.

“Where were you when you fell?” I didn’t know why, but I felt I really needed to help this guy.

“I, um, I’m not sure.” Confusion again. “In the mountains?”

“In the mountains? You fell in the mountains?” When he nodded, I asked the obvious question. “How did you get back here, then? That’s probably what? An hour by foot?” I was no judge of distances or how long it would take people to walk them, but the wooded areas that would classify as mountains were back a ways.

“I don’t know. I keep, um, finding myself places, and I don’t know how I got there.”

“Where else have you found yourself?”

“At the diner.”

“That’s all? The diner and now here? You didn’t walk here from the diner?”

“I don’t know. I guess I did. How else would I get here? I just don’t remember.”

“Hey, how about you let me take you to the ER, okay? I have to go to the hospital anyway. We’ll get you looked at, see why you’re so confused.”

He didn’t answer. He just stood there. But at least he wasn’t wandering away this time. I held out a hand toward him, but he pulled away, so I dropped it again.

“Come on into the hotel with me. Let me get checked in and put my bag up in my room. Then we’ll go to the hospital, okay?”

He still didn’t answer but took a step toward me, so I figured he’d follow me. I made my way toward the hotel, but when I opened the door and held it for him he was no longer there. I set my bag down and looked around first one side, then the other of the front of the hotel. He’d had plenty of time while I thought he was following me to wander off in either direction. He was completely out of sight.

I went in and registered and headed for my room. I had fibbed a little. I didn’t have to go to the hospital that night. I had an appointment scheduled the next day with the chief of staff, but I would have gone to get the guy some attention, even if I had to pay for it. I was really worried about him. I didn’t know why I had connected with him so quickly, but I had, and I wanted to help.

So instead of flopping on the bed and getting some much-needed rest like I had planned, I went out searching for him. I hadn’t a clue where to look, so I just rode around. I got hopelessly lost again, but I did somehow manage to find him. He was walking into a park. I hastily pulled the car over to the curb and jumped out to run after him.

“Hey there,” I called.

When he turned around, he smiled. The first real smile I had seen. There was still confusion in his eyes, but he actually seemed happy to see me too.

“You following me?” he teased.

That was better. You had to be fairly coherent to tease, right?

“Maybe just a little.” I had caught up to him by then and was now standing beside him. “That okay?”

“Yeah, it’s okay.” He walked toward the nearest bench and sat down.

I sat down beside him and extended a hand. Again he didn’t take it. “I’m Eric Duncan.” When he didn’t seem inclined to answer, I added, “And you are?”

“Um, Hayden?” He shook his head. “No, Dennis. Dennis Hayden.”

I had been even more concerned there for a second. If he hadn’t even known his name, I wasn’t sure I would have given him the choice about going to the hospital. Not that I would have known how to force him to go.

“Well, nice to meet you, Dennis.”

“I think I’m lost,” he blurted.

“You do look lost. Can I help?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Can you tell me where you live?”

“I’m not sure.” Back to worrying about him.

“Are you from around here?”

“I think so.”

“Dennis, please let me take you to the hospital. You know there’s something wrong if you can’t remember where you live, right? Let me take you to a doctor. Get you checked out.”

“I don’t think I can.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know.”

“Dennis—”

“No.”

He got up and ran toward the small stand of trees to one side of the park. I ran after him, but by the time I reached the tree line, he was nowhere to be found.

I RELUCTANTLY went back to my hotel without Dennis in tow and finally got to sleep after long hours of worrying about him out there all by himself. The temperature was dropping, and he really wasn’t dressed for cold weather. And as confused as he seemed, I wasn’t at all sure he could find shelter. I vowed to look for him the next morning before going to the hospital.

I walked out the front door of the hotel the next morning and found Dennis curled up in a fetal position alongside the front wall.

“Dennis.” I hurried over to him. I grabbed him by the shoulder when he didn’t answer, and shook him. His head lolled to one side, eyes staring straight ahead. I checked his pulse, even though I knew by then what I’d find, or rather what I wouldn’t find.

He was dead.


“No!” I woke myself up screaming. The dream had been so real. I found I couldn’t ignore it. I threw on some clothes and went down to the front of the hotel. I had only slept an hour or two, so it was still the middle of the night. I checked all along the front wall and even around the side. When I finished that, I drove to the park without getting lost and checked there. No Dennis on the bench or in the wooded area, as far as I could see with the park lights. I hadn’t thought to try to find a flashlight.

I finally gave up and went back to bed, but I had the same dream over and over. I woke up screaming each time. By five o’clock, I just got up and got an early start to the day. I had breakfast in the hotel lobby, and when I finished it was light enough outside to search the woods in the park for Dennis. So I left with the intention to do that.

I didn’t have to.

He greeted me outside the hotel.

“Did you sleep well?”

He had a sad smile, and for a moment I thought he somehow knew I hadn’t.

“Not really, man. I’m terribly worried about you out here by yourself.”

“I remembered where I live.”

That was a start, I guessed. “Oh, good. Where? Let me take you there.”

“Maryland.”

“Dennis.” Now I was confused. “If you live in Maryland, why are you hanging around here? How did you get here? How did you know the diner staff didn’t usually treat you badly? How did you know about the park?”

“I come here a lot,” he said confidently, and that gave me some hope, until he added, “I think.”

“Why do you come here a lot?”

“Hiking,” he said succinctly. “Some great hiking trails here.”

“Where’s your hiking gear?” I wasn’t buying it. If he came here for the hiking, why was he wandering around town?

“I think I lost it when I fell.”

“You mentioned you fell. Where did you fall?”

“Off the trail.”

“How’d you get here, then, Dennis?”

“I don’t know.”

Any confidence he had started with was gone now, and he just looked so lost I wanted to hug him.

“I still want to take you to the hospital.”

He shook his head. “No, I have to get back.”

“Get back where, Dennis?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Seriously, Dennis. Wait right here. Let me go get the car, and I’ll take you anywhere you want to go. I just want to be sure you’re okay.”

He nodded, so I left to get the car. When I got back, he was gone.

I GOT to the hospital in time for my appointment with the chief of staff. It went very well. He was impressed with several of our new pieces of equipment and new medications. He also gave me names of several doctors in private practice that he thought might be interested in meeting with me. I was pretty proud of myself as I walked through the lobby of the hospital, getting ready to leave.

A woman, probably somewhere in her midthirties, caught my eye. She was talking frantically to the receptionist behind the information desk, waving a flier in her face. The receptionist didn’t seem to be listening and was giving automatic answers. I wasn’t sure if the lady had just been there a long time today, or had been there before with the same concerns, or what, but whatever was going on left the receptionist completely bored and unimpressed.

“You have to let me post these. It’s my brother. You don’t understand. He doesn’t just go missing like this. He left for his hiking trip four days ago. It was only supposed to be an overnight trip.”

That caught my attention, and I wandered over.

“Did you say your brother was missing?”

“Yes, and she won’t let me post these fliers.”

The receptionist corrected her. “I said you could put one on the bulletin board over there.”

“I need more than one. We need them in the ER and all over the hospital, in case he comes in hurt or in case someone visiting loved ones has seen him.”

“If he was hiking, like you say”—the receptionist sounded a little pissy to my ears—“shouldn’t you contact the park ranger?”

“I did,” the young woman answered, distraught. “They’re looking in the mountains, but he may have made it back here.”

This conversation was doing funny things to my stomach. “He was hiking?” When she nodded, I asked, “May I see the picture?”

She handed me the flier, and I saw what, by then, I knew I’d see. “Dennis.”

“You know him?”

“He’s wandering around town. He’s hurt or something, though. He’s confused. He said he fell.”

“Where is he? Take me to him.”

“He’s never in the same place twice, but tell me where you’re staying and I’ll try to bring him to you next time I see him. He wouldn’t come to the hospital with me, though, so no promises, but I can at least tell you where he is and you can come get him or something.”

She eagerly gave me her phone number and the hotel she was staying in, and we parted ways.

WHEN I got back to my hotel, Dennis was outside again. When he saw me, he started to move away.

“Hey, Dennis, wait.” When he stopped and turned back around, I added, “I saw your sister. She’s here looking for you.”

“Sarah?”

“You know, I didn’t get her name. I have her phone number, though. Let’s call her and tell her you’re okay.” I had been moving toward him this whole time and was finally close enough to touch him. When he started to pull away again, I reached out and grabbed for his arm.

And my hand found nothing but air.

I wasn’t sure who was the most shocked, him or me. He just stood there, looking at his arm, and I had to admit, I was waiting for him to disappear before my very eyes.

He finally asked, “What was that?”

“It can’t be anything good,” I answered honestly. We stood silently, looking at each other, for the longest time. Finally I addressed what we were probably both thinking. “Dennis, you said you fell. Is it possible you, um, died?”

“Like, I’m a ghost?” He looked bewildered again. “I don’t believe in ghosts.”

“Until just this minute, man, I would have agreed with you. But what other explanation is there for this?” I reached out slowly, telegraphing what I planned to do, and brought my hand down and through his crossed arms. “It fits, Dennis. Popping up places and not knowing how you got there. Disappearing so quickly. Being confused. Hey, it even explains why the people in the diner were rude. They just didn’t see you.”

“Why do you see me?”

“Well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? And I don’t think phoning a friend will help.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “Maybe we’re both out of lifelines.”

Soul Searching by AJ Rose
Chapter One
The thump woke me from the best dream ever, which frankly pissed me off. I burrowed under my pillow, cursing my flatmate, Merrick—or more specifically his bartender boyfriend, Will—for keeping odd hours. Honestly, cursing Will for any reason made my life that much better. My dream-self had been this close to watching Merrick tell Will to pack it in, that he wanted me instead, and that bloody thump had to fuck it up. It’s not like I’d ever get the chance at something more than friendship with Merrick in waking life, so I had to take what I could get.

The clock glowed 3:13 a.m., and my groan was loud in the silence as I beat a frustrated fist into the softness of my pillow.

The thump sounded again.

God, if they’re fucking, I’m going to pour cold water on them. Some of us have to be up in the morning.

My lecturers at the University of Manchester wouldn’t give a rat’s arse if I stumbled in like a zombie, but I couldn’t afford to do it for the third day in a row. These nightly bumps and thumps had to stop, or I’d fail.

“Knock it off!” I banged on the wall separating my room from Merrick’s.

“Trevor?”

I instinctively jerked the sheet to my neck like some kind of prude and stared at the figure in the doorway. “I thought you were in your room, Merrick.” Okay, that came out more accusatory than it should have.

“I was downstairs seeing Will off.” Merrick came in and sat by my leg, the dip in the bed shifting me closer to him. My grip on the sheet tightened. “I thought the thump was you falling off the bed.”

“And I thought you two were going to keep me up for the third night in a row.” Yes, I’m a sulky twat when I’m tired.

Merrick looked sheepish, sucking his lower lip into his mouth by the ring. I loved that lip ring, and the things he did with it, particularly with his tongue. Merrick was beautiful, though most people were intimidated by the facial piercings—lip, nose, and eyebrow—and by his tattoos, a swirling vine creeping up the side of his neck to his ear and an arm sleeve done in a steampunk pirate theme. My favourite part was the clockwork ship with torn sails that morphed into birds taking flight with their clockface eyes and gears hinging their beaks. The ship sailed up his inner arm toward a floating treasure chest made out of machine parts on his shoulder. He kept his spiky black hair shortish, in deference to his job as a joiner. More likely to shoot himself with a nail gun if he couldn’t see through his fringe, he always joked.

But it was all window dressing. Beneath the leather jacket and ink, Merrick was an old soul whose kindness was evident in his eyes. He did the piercings and tattoos to combat his baby face, and I couldn’t blame him. Without the jewellery, tats, and leather, he wouldn’t look a day over twelve. Though his voice was smoky and gruff. He had that going for him.

“Trevor!” Merrick snapped his fingers in front of my nose.

“What?”

“You were somewhere else. I said your name twice.”

One of these days, he would realise it was him I was daydreaming about. And the idea of tracing his tattoos. With my tongue. I mumbled an apology.

He didn’t acknowledge it. “I said I’m sorry if Will and I woke you last night.”

I waved him off, overcompensating for how much it bugged me with a quick dismissal. Our friend Tempest, who knew me best after Merrick, would have berated me for losing yet another opportunity to tell him how I felt.

“It’s been every night this week, but don’t worry about it. At least one of us is getting a leg over.”

Merrick frowned. “Will was only here last night and tonight, and right now, I’m too tired to get up to anything.”

As if to punctuate the point that Merrick and Will weren’t responsible for the noise, the thump came again, through the ceiling above my bedroom door.

We both jumped, and Merrick latched onto my ankle. The hair on my body stood on end, and we stared through the slightly ajar door, looking for something to explain the sound. My heart pounded in my ears, and Merrick could probably feel it through my ankle. His grip was almost painful, and his breathing was shallow and rapid. The semi-detached house we rented fell quiet. Merrick held his breath and an unnatural stillness descended. Minutes passed, but the sound didn’t repeat.

“Probably just the gobshite neighbours.” My chuckle was as weak as the excuse, but what could I say? Bumps in the dead of night always seemed ominous, even if they were explainable.

Merrick exhaled. “Or our resident ghost.” He was joking, and I laughed harder than was merited, still eyeing the door.

“Must be.”

Our house was something I appreciated, even if things between us weren’t quite how I wanted them to be. But in the two months since moving in, sometimes I got weird feelings, as though someone was there when I was home alone. The stairs in particular made me feel like someone regularly walked over my grave. The landing at the top gave me the creeps, and I couldn’t explain why. If I had a pound for every time I slipped on or tripped over the third tread down, I’d be rich. Merrick had got permission from the landlord to fix it, had ripped out the old boards and replaced them, and I still stumbled up that step a few times a week.

There were no more menacing sounds from the darkened hallway, and the light trickling up from the ground floor was enough to see no one was there. Not that anyone ever was when we heard noises.

“Just the house settling then.” I exhaled and rolled to my side, away from him so he wouldn’t see how unnerved I was, and fluffed my pillow. “I need to sleep. Early lecture.”

Merrick stood. “Right. Goodnight.” He paused at the door. “I’ll be up for another few minutes if you need anything. Will left his takeaway on the side in the kitchen if you want it for leftovers tomorrow.”

Of course Will left his mess for Merrick to clear up. Knobhead.

“Thanks.” 

A cracking boom that shook the walls drowned out my voice.

For the rest of the night, Merrick and I slept together on the sofa bed in the front room. If you could call it sleeping.


Click to Check Out Previous
Random Paranormal Tales of 2017

Part 1  /  Part 2  /  Part 3  /  Part 4
Part 5  /  Part 6  /  Part 7  /  Part 8
Part 9  /  Part 10  /  Part 11


John Inman
John has been writing fiction for as long as he can remember. Born on a small farm in Indiana, he now resides in San Diego, California where he spends his time gardening, pampering his pets, hiking and biking the trails and canyons of San Diego, and of course, writing. He and his partner share a passion for theater, books, film, and the continuing fight for marriage equality. If you would like to know more about John, check out his website.

Marie Sexton
Marie Sexton lives in Colorado. She’s a fan of just about anything that involves muscular young men piling on top of each other. In particular, she loves the Denver Broncos and enjoys going to the games with her husband. Her imaginary friends often tag along. Marie has one daughter, two cats, and one dog, all of whom seem bent on destroying what remains of her sanity. She loves them anyway.

Brynn Stein
Brynn Stein has always loved to write. Fan fiction, original fiction, whatever. While Brynn wrote in numerous genres—everything from mystery, to contemporary, to supernatural—she had always tended toward strong male characters. And then she discovered “slash,” male/male romance, and all those strong male characters were finally allowed to express their love for one another. It seems that there are always at least two characters clamoring to tell Brynn their story.

Brynn lives in Virginia with one of her two two-legged children, and two four-legged ones. Her supportive family encourages her writing and provides a sounding board for fledgling stories. When she isn’t writing, Brynn teaches children with special needs. In free time, when such a thing exists, she reads anything she can get her hands on, and haunts bookstores. She draws and paints, and enjoys the outdoors—especially if she can get to the beach—and is always thinking about her next story.


AJ Rose
It began with a Halloween themed short story assignment from a second grade teacher, and from then on, AJ Rose fell head over heels in love with writing. Even an active social life through school, learning to play the piano in a passable imitation of proficient, and a daring cross country move couldn't stop the tall tales about imaginary people that refused to be ignored. With college experiences came a change in perspective to romance and passion. A propensity to slash favorite TV characters brought AJ to today, writing mostly M/M for publication. But don't be surprised if the occasional ghost still pops up.

Annabelle Jacobs
Annabelle Jacobs lives in the South West of England with three rowdy children, and two cats. An avid reader of fantasy herself for many years, Annabelle now spends her days writing her own stories. They're usually either fantasy or paranormal fiction, because she loves building worlds filled with magical creatures, and creating stories full of action and adventure. Her characters may have a tough time of it—fighting enemies and adversity—but they always find love in the end.


John Inman
FACEBOOK  /  WEBSITE  /  B&N
iTUNES  /  GOOGLE PLAY  /  AMAZON
AUDIBLE  /  DSP PUBLICATION  /  KOBO
EMAIL: John492@att.net

Marie Sexton
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
iTUNES  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: msexton.author@gmail.com

Brynn Stein
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iTUNES  /  GOOGLE PLAY /  AMAZON
DREAMSPINNER  /  B&N   /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: brynnstein2@gmail.com

AJ Rose
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  BLOG
TUMBLR  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: ajrosefiction@gmail.com

Annabelle Jacobs
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
FB FRIEND  /  KOBO  /  GOOGLE PLAY
DREAMSPINNER  /  B&N  /  AUDIBLE
iTUNES  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: ajacobsfiction@gmail.com



Willow Man by John Inman

The Well by Marie Sexton

Lifeline by Brynn Stein

Soul Searching by AJ Rose

All Hallows' Eve