The dream was always the same. The wind, no matter the season, was bitter. So chilling it froze her body in motion, paralyzing and undaunted. It never crept, but came swift and brutal. It stole the air from her lungs and left her gasping. The mixture of gravel, frozen earth, and dried leaves crunched in an empty sound beneath her bare feet. There was an endless kind of shade. No moon, no light at all-as if the apple orchard behind her wasn't in this world. Just the dark, the wooded tree line ahead, beckoning her without words.
She didn't want to go.
Like a child, she feared what lay beyond the woods, terrorized beyond comprehension. Once she stepped onto the trail in front of her, it would lead herthere. To the place children told tales about and parents dare not speak of.
The Drake house.
The wind whipped her silk, ankle-length nightgown into a frenzy, then clung to her body, offering no comfort or protection. She stepped from the grass of her yard onto the hidden path in front of her, first with her right foot and then the left. Surrounded now in a sinister cloak of hundred-year-old oak, maple, and redwood trees, the immediate alarm deepened, wrenching with underlying sadness and haunting her mind.
Silence came, all too brief and frightening in its volume.
It was, as always in this wretched state, at the same time the wind halted she heard the voice. The air dead, no movement in any way. Just a shrill whisper without a soul to speak it, sounding irritated and grateful all at once.
Thank you for coming.
Nicholas Mackey drove his SUV away from the house he'd been renting for all of four days and turned onto Baker Road, heading toward the center of town. Town. He nearly laughed. Small Rapids was a town all right-a dead one. He'd even surmised to call it a ghost town, but that would be giving it too much credit. A ghost town would be less lonely with a specter or two.
No. Small Rapids, in central Wisconsin, was a community of out-of-work factory employees, two dairy farms, a functioning fruit orchard of some kind, and a handful of small businesses. Since the plastics factory closed, most residents sought employment thirty minutes away in Madison. And despised the fact, if word of mouth was any indication. He passed the side drive which would take him to the factory grounds on the far east edge of town. It sat vacant now, a testament to the economy.
He shouldn't complain. He was lucky to even have a job at this point. He couldn't get into any trouble here, not without civilians anyway. And there weren't many of those. It's what he wanted when he'd left the city. Quiet. Peace. Forgiveness.
The last part was asking too much.
Turning onto the main drag-laughable, that-he headed toward the police station. He was set to meet Wayne Radcliff, town sheriff extraordinaire, for his third day on the job. He could've handled the job alone after only an hour prep, but he thought it wise to keep that tidbit to himself. No sense in insulting the natives.
The Feed and Seed had been open since before the crack of dawn, supplying farmers on the northern end of town. As Nick passed it, he found several pick-ups in the lot, the first sign of life since seeing his neighbor collect yesterday's mail from his box this morning. Across the street, Harvey's Grocery was just opening. He passed the tavern, the bowling alley, and the hobby store before he could even blink. The subdivision behind the two-lane highway, consisting of ranch houses from the 1970s and early 1900s farm houses, was quiet. No light. No barking dogs. Not even kids. The elementary school was right next to the high school. Soon, kids would be filing in and counting the days until summer vacation. If there were any kids. He hadn't seen any.
Your new life and your new home. Get used to it. You did this to yourself.
He shook his head. Spring was coming. Though, as typical in Wisconsin, it was taking its damn sweet time. Buds were forming on the trees, the last of the snow melting away on the ground. The grass was still brown. Tulips and daffodils poked through the earth and were beginning to open. Not that he could actually see the colors. Hadn't been able to see color or smell anything in more than a year. It was his punishment. The shrinks called it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He called it guilt.
Didn't matter what name you put on it, he was hollow. The only feeling left inside him was contempt. He'd meet Wayne Radcliff at the station, get used to his new job eating stale donuts behind a desk and hoping for an occasional lost dog report, and then go back to an empty rented house and pretend it was all worth it.