The Wyckham House – Chapter One

ruinedhousesm

Twenty-five days earlier


It started with a simple delivery from UPS: a medium-sized box addressed to her father. The return address read Los Angeles, but if one knew how to read the shipping company’s labels, one could tell this package originated from Pennsylvania.

Her father was in Pennsylvania.

Kimberly Owens spent several hours, collectively, staring at the package as she went about the duties of her day: sending her compiled research for a novelist who wrote historical romances (her client would be relieved); accepting a challenging request from a compiler of mythology for information on an elusive Hungarian gypsy clan purportedly called merénylő, which meant “assassin” (this client would cheer and then pop a Xanax, which she claimed Kim alone had driven her to with all her waffling about accepting difficult projects); cleaning her father’s Forest Falls cabin where she was currently staying (her possessions littered nearly all of the spacious log structure); and fixing a nutritious dinner (for a change).

Finally tucked into the corner of the sofa, a cozy fire crackling in the fieldstone fireplace and a novel in her hand begging for her attention, she glared at the box with undisguised malevolence.

“I have things I should be doing,” she muttered sullenly. The box didn’t answer. It simply sat on the floor near the door, shoved beneath the antique drop-leaf table that held her father’s mail. It’s very existence called to her, however, as surely as the sirens called to hapless sailors, and she was just as powerless to resist.

Quick work with a box knife her father kept in what he called “the utility drawer” and what Kim called “the junk drawer” laid the box open for her perusal. But at first she could only stare, perplexed at the contents: a Shimano trolling rod, broken down to its smallest form; a Fenwick casting rod, likewise disassembled; a tackle box crammed with fishing lures and spinners of every imaginable brand; bobbers; lead sinkers; floaters; several spools of various test fishing line; half a dozen jars of salmon eggs in Day-Glo colors; and a single small gold key, taped inside the lid.

Her heart hammered in her chest as she sat cross-legged before this tableau, a sense of foreboding causing her breath to catch in her throat. When her arms broke out in goose-flesh, she smoothed them out and tried to push away her troubled thoughts. I am a professional researcher. I am not prone to will-o-the-wisps or the screaming meemies.

A headache pulsed behind her right eye: a migraine just waiting for her to let down her guard. Kim scowled. Her migraines hadn’t affected her so frequently in many years, but since her divorce—since she’d learned about her husband’s mistress, actually—it seemed the headaches were poised on a hair-trigger, ready to flatten her with the slightest provocation.

As a child, she’d suffered frequent bouts of what her mother called “sick headaches.” While medication was available, the Garretts couldn’t afford it; poor as church mice—possibly poorer—the recommended nutrition and reduced stressors had been all but impossible to attain.

And then Todd had discovered his knack for research. His first paying client—a friend who was trying to juggle grad school, marriage, and a full-time job—had been so impressed he’d sent more students Todd’s way. In a relatively short amount of time, Todd had quit his job as a server in a bad Italian restaurant (indeed, the smell of garlic would nauseate him for years to come) and opened the doors of his own small research company.

His reputation grew, as did his client list, and by the time Kimberly started high school she wanted for nothing. Her health improved, she blossomed from scrawny weed to graceful flower, and often went a year or more without a migraine.

And then the divorce…. At twenty, she had married her high school sweetheart. At twenty-one, she attempted to get pregnant. She’d expected some difficulty—she’d suffered erratic, painful cycles her entire life—but it never occurred to her that it might prove impossible.

Three years and as many miscarriages later, Mark Owens walked out on his young wife, obtained a quickie divorce in Las Vegas, and married his mistress almost before the ink was dry on his divorce decree. His very pregnant mistress. He’d placed more importance on having a child than on having a relationship with Kim, and that was the killing blow to her self-esteem, the blow that kept her awake at night, that made her reserved and mistrustful and even more introverted than she’d ever been. He’d thrown her aside as easily as he would have a malfunctioning toaster, and with as little regret. It was really no wonder the last two years had been liberally punctuated with debilitating headaches.

Pressing the heel of her hand against her right eye to stop the nauseating pulsing, Kim chewed her lower lip uncertainly. She could simply text Todd and ask him why he’d sent home fishing gear when he detested fishing. There would be a simple explanation, such as someone had convinced him to go fishing and he’d enjoyed it much more than he had in his younger years; a friend who liked to fish was coming home with him and they didn’t want to pay for checking the box on the airline (stupid theory, but it had possibilities). Or perhaps the contents of the box was a message, and the key a clue. But from whom, and why?

After a while she realized she was sitting on the sofa, staring into the fire, her cell phone open in her hand. She had no recollection of moving, no memory of sending a text, but her sent messages folder showed one placed to her father several minutes earlier. Box of fishing gear arrived today. WTF?? Did you buy out Cabela’s?

A frown puckered her forehead as she tried to recall composing it, but while it sounded like her, she didn’t remember doing it. An unsettling thought, but she shrugged it off. It wasn’t the first time she’d acted on auto-pilot.

She went back to the novel, and with the help of a talented writer and a glass of Disaronno on the rocks, she nearly succeeded in banishing the incident from her mind.

The nightmare came for the first time that night.

The storm raged around them, driving freezing rain into their faces. She took what relief she could by hunching down behind the broad-shouldered man in the lead. He seemed to take the burden of the weather willingly, but it cost him; more than once their linked hands kept him on his feet. She reacted when he stumbled only by sheer instinct; numb to the bone, she could not feel his hand in hers.

The clouds moved past the glowing moon and illuminated the path just as he cast a glance at her over his shoulder. His indigo eyes blazed with a deep, abiding anger at their circumstances. His face, cast in shadow and light, seemed nothing but smooth plains, sharp angles, and dark voids.

A flare of lightning showed what waited on the path ahead and she screamed, digging her heels into the loose humus covering the path. He stopped cold, struck with a paralyzing horror. The rain made the leaf layer slick; she skidded into him and knocked him completely off his feet.

Suddenly she held a gun and he screamed for her to shoot it, shoot it for God’s sake, and she squeezed the trigger. The shot rang through the forest and she fell to her knees, sobbing. The gun fell away from her hand, and her only thought clamored like an alarm bell: Daddy.

She came to consciousness with a start, alarmed to find herself perched precariously on a chair and trying to scrabble her way to the top of an armoire. With weary resignation, she sank into the chair, her hands covering her face. Somnambulism came only with a particular kind of dream, one she hadn’t had in nearly two years, and she knew why it came now.

Disquiet had been her constant companion since the day her father told her he planned to go to New England to research small-town, east coast life. She couldn’t put her finger on what caused her apprehension, but her best friend Bethany had a few ideas.

It’s your gift, she’d said calmly, ignoring the ugly look Kimberly gave her. God gives you a glimpse of knowledge and waits to see what you’re going to do with it.

Yeah, well, Kim had a theory as well: indigestion— the only theory to which she would lend any credence.

That didn’t change the fact that her somnambulistic dreams always came true. Without fail.

She stared up at the ceiling. The flickering patterns of light and shadow did not soothe her like they usually did. Instead, the frenzied movement of the wind-blown trees through the weak light of dawn, playing across the ceiling like a frantic ballet, stirred in her a crushing anxiety. She thought about those indigo eyes, so clear in her dreams that she could have drawn the exact pattern of their green and gold flecks. She thought about the dark woods, the snowy sleet that pelted her and her unfamiliar companion, frigid needles that permeated the thin veil between sleep and wakefulness so that her skin felt icy and she shivered even as she huddled beneath a warm quilt. She considered the worst that could happen: her father was in trouble.

And thus, considering the worst, she began to make reckless plans.

Back to Novels ♦  Chapter Two

©2007 Sharon Gerlach

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Character-driven fiction. Because characters matter.

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