Welcome to my contribution for Tales from the Sidelines Blogfest, hosted by Cheree Smith at Justified Lunacy. I hope you enjoy this excerpt–in spite of the fact that it was supposed to be under 1,000 words. I can never seem to manage that…
A little background information: Taryn is a minor character in both my completed novel The Wyckham House and in my work-in-progress Gothic, the immediate sequel to Wyckham. Her love interest, briefly mentioned, is an agent with a secret government agency that covertly disbands cults. Five years before this excerpt takes place, his agency disbanded a black magic cult in her home town, which was run by her companion Aaron’s uncle and operated out of the Wyckham House, a mysterious stone mansion deep in the forest that simply vanished after the cult was disbanded.
“It’s not going to be there,” Taryn grumbled, pulling the collar of her fleece jacket higher up around her ears.
“Just humor me, all right?”
She huffed out an impatient breath but stopped trying to convince him. She, like most everyone, believed the house to be gone simply because when the FBI searched for it five years ago, it had vanished completely. Like his wife, Ron needed the visual proof that the house was, indeed gone. She guessed he would need that proof throughout the rest of his life.
They’d left his truck at the gate that blocked the old mill road. The splintered ruins of the previous gate had been removed, and the new gate did not open to allow vehicle access, so they were forced to walk the rest of the way. It would take about half an hour, but it was quicker than taking the path through the woods—if they could even have found it. With the Circle disbanded, no one travelled the forest path to keep it clearly defined.
Ron didn’t speak much as they walked. He grunted cursory replies to her questions and ignored anything said about his wife. She nearly broke through his restraint when she remarked, tongue in cheek, that perhaps Kim was right in saying Scott should not have taken her bullet. He stopped dead in the middle of the road, fixed her with such a smoking glare she expected to burst into flames, and then shook his head and continued on.
They passed the old abandoned mills, which were looking decidedly worse for the wear. The Circle had been careful to maintain the buildings structurally while letting the outside deteriorate to mask their use. Since the Circle had disbanded, no one bothered with even simple maintenance. The roofs sagged and Virginia creeper covered much of the exterior.
Ron hesitated at the head of the path leading over the land bridge, drew in a steadying breath, and marched stolidly ahead. Taryn followed like a faithful dog, her teeth worrying the inside of her cheek. While she truly believed the Wyckham House was permanently gone, Ron’s insistence that he check for himself shook her confidence in that belief. What if Kimberly was right? What if it was starting over again? Taryn didn’t think she could bear it. The town’s brush with evil had claimed the lives of two of her best friends and broken the bond between her and the love of her life. Victory had been costly.
Ron pushed through the brambles at the edge of the clearing and stepped unhesitatingly out of the cover of the forest.
The clearing was empty.
Taryn breathed a sigh of relief. “Can we go now? I’d like to be sitting in your nice cozy kitchen eating a huge slice of cheesecake and finishing that cup of coffee.”
He didn’t answer. As though he could see something where the Wyckham House had stood which her own eyes could not discern, he stared without blinking for a long time, his indigo eyes crawling over every inch of the ground.
At last he shook his head. “It’s not here.”
She raised a brow. “I could have told you that…oh, I did tell you that.”
He acknowledged that with a wry quirk of his mouth. “Trent said he tried to cross the clearing?”
“No. He said he didn’t want to walk through it for some reason.”
Ron considered this for a long moment, and then straightened his shoulders resolutely.
Taryn grabbed his arm. “Oh, no you don’t! If anything happens to you, Kimberly will skin me alive.”
He smiled. “If the house isn’t here, what’s there to be afraid of?”
Shrugging out of her grasp, he strode purposefully toward the clearing. Without understanding quite how it happened, he found himself circling at the edge of the woods. He stopped, perplexed, and looked across the clearing at Taryn.
“Did I cross, or did I circle around at the edge of the trees?”
She raised her hands helplessly. “I…don’t know. I thought I was watching, but…”
He motioned her forward. “Come across to me.”
“Just do it.”
Shaking her head and muttering imprecations about crazy people, Taryn headed toward the middle of the clearing. A moment later she found herself walking at the edge of the forest. She stopped, bewildered.
“Did you watch me?”
“I thought I did, but I don’t remember how you got over here.” He frowned, troubled. “All right, that’s a little odd, to say the least. My greater concern, at least for the moment, is Sarah Bennett’s cottage.”
Taryn waved a dismissing hand. “So what if Melody is tending a garden there? What’s it matter?”
“It matters because, like Kim, I never once thought about Sarah Bennett once the Wyckham House vanished. That’s as strange as the House disappearing.”
“She was just an old woman,” Taryn grumbled. “You don’t really believe she was the devil, do you? Kim’s overly emotional when it comes to this particular subject.”
“Not without reason,” he pointed out. “And I don’t know what I believe. That’s why I want to see the garden.”
She sighed but willingly followed him into the thicket. “How do you even know where to find it?”
“You said Trent Baudelaire indicated it was behind the Wyckham House. I’m going behind the Wyckham House.”
She gritted her teeth and said with feigned patience. “The Wyckham House—”
“Is gone,” he finished. “Yes, I know.”
But he continued his headlong trek through the woods, seeming to find even the most minute evidence of trails. She didn’t worry they would become lost; Ron’s sense of direction was infallible. She did, however, worry that he was chasing a fantasy—a dark, terrible fantasy—borne of his wife’s terror. But there was little—if nothing—Ron wouldn’t do for Kimberly, including investigating every possibility her mind dreamed up because of her experience with the Wyckham House.
Ron moved through the shrubs and trees with very little noise, but Taryn managed to step on every imaginable twig. The woods filled with the snap-crack-crunch of her progress, and he sent a wry look over his shoulder at her. She knew what the look meant: A good thing we aren’t trying to sneak up on anyone.
“I never said I was an expert in stealth,” she grumbled, shoving her way between two closely spaced filbert bushes, yanking her jacket from the clutches of clinging branches.
“Good thing too,” he replied without looking back. “Everyone between here and Perdix can hear you coming.”
At last they came upon another clearing, this one smaller with a garden laid out in what seemed a haphazard fashion. A well-tended garden. Taryn tried to remember when she had first seen it looming ahead of them, but it seemed as though it had just appeared before them with no warning. A dilapidated cottage stood at the center of the garden. Since she could see no door on this side, she assumed it must be on the other.
“Is this it, then?” Taryn asked, her voice falling to a hushed whisper. She couldn’t define her sudden unease or give reason for drawing closer to Ron, taking refuge and safety in the shadow of his bulk. There was something to be said for the security of a strong, broad-shouldered man.
He stood near the gate but made no move to enter the garden, staring at the cottage with a narrow-eyed gaze. Taryn’s mind reeled; she remembered Kimberly’s description of her dreams of this place, of her dream-conversations with Sarah Bennett, of the cottage with no door.
“What kind of garden is this?” she exclaimed, peering around him to look over the weathered picket fence. “I see things we’d be popping right out of our gardens before they could spread. Like that Shepherd’s Purse—that stuff will take over if you don’t watch it. And aren’t those mushrooms poisonous?”
“Helpful herbs alongside killing plants,” Ron murmured. “A witch’s garden.”
“Trent said he saw her come here. That doesn’t mean it’s her garden.”
Taryn sucked her lip between her teeth, debating the wisdom of asking the question that hovered on her tongue. He was apt to be angry with her, but she had no fear of him leaving her in the forest. She feared he would view her question as a lack of trust in him, and would simply leave her behind, period.
So she phrased it carefully. “Ron…why do you defend her? She’s spreading lies around town about you and her, and people are believing them. She’s caused a rift between your wife and you, and yet you defend her.”
“I won’t blame anyone without concrete evidence. And Melody didn’t cause the rift between Kim and me. We did that all on our own.”
“We’ll be fine,” he interrupted. His gaze never left the bizarre garden. He was well-versed in the plant world, and named several toxic species of plant for her, the dreaded belladonna not the least among them, the very plant his uncle had used to slowly incapacitate Kimberly five years ago.
And mayapple—also called the devil’s apple in certain societies but more commonly known to those outside the world of herbal medicine as the umbrella plant—occupied an inordinate amount of space near the fence. The rhizome was extremely poisonous but highly beneficial in proper doses as an anticancer agent, a laxative, and as treatment for intestinal worms. Ron could offer no benevolent purpose for having so much mayapple in one home herbalist’s garden.
Growing cheek-by-jowl with the mayapple were clumps of valerian and skullcap, herbal sedatives both; tall spears of foxglove; and the highly toxic black henbane. The shift of the light spring breeze brought a faint whiff of the henbane’s noxious odor. Taryn wrinkled her nose in distaste.
“And those mushrooms,” Ron went on, not bothering to check to see if she was interested in his botany lesson, “are the same species that killed Lorna Mulberry’s daughter twenty-five years ago.”
“I thought so. Ron, can we leave now? I have the heebie-jeebies.”
He didn’t move, his eyes still scanning the garden, picking out the good from the bad. The beds were laid at odd angles, some tiny triangles from which smaller species such as thyme and chives spilled over their river-rock borders. The layout made absolutely no sense, but she didn’t see anything sinister in it. She wondered why it held his interest.
“Yeah,” he said, spinning abruptly on his heel and heading back to the forest. “Let’s go.”
“Can you find the way back?” she asked dubiously. The trail, as overgrown and hidden as it had been, seemed to have all but disappeared.
Ron spared her only a brief, cursory look in response and waited for her at the edge of the brambles. Feeling safer plunging headlong through the forest with no trail than staying in the clearing with the bizarre garden and abandoned cottage of Sarah Bennett, Taryn followed.
They skirted the Wyckham House’s clearing, coming close enough to the algae-ridden, stagnant pond for its vile stench to make breathing a chore. They had crossed the land-bridge and passed the decaying mills before Ron spoke again.
“I think it’s best if you don’t tell Kim about this right away.”
Taryn thought it best there were no secrets between this particular man and his wife with the present issues at hand, but just as she had promised Kim she wouldn’t tell him about the mahogany bar Trent had gifted her, she promised to keep their trip to Sarah Bennett’s garden to herself.
“I don’t understand something, though,” she said as they climbed through the brush beside the gate blocking the mill road. “It’s only April; why is the garden growing so well?”
He tipped a slanted smile at her. “That’s why I want you to keep this under your hat for a while. The foxglove should not be blooming yet; it shouldn’t until summer. And the Shepherd’s purse has already gone to seed—why is it past bloom in April?”
“And what’s with the layout?” Taryn paused before getting into the truck. “What’s with all the weirdly shaped beds?”
Ron shook his head, his expression troubled. “I don’t know, but something about it bothers me. It’s as though I’ve seen the pattern somewhere before, but can’t quite grasp it because I can’t see it as a whole.”
“What are we going to do, Ron? If Melody is cultivating that garden, she has to be stopped. From what you said, there are some very dangerous things in there that she shouldn’t be messing with.”
He grinned coldly but didn’t correct her assumption that Melody was the tender of the witch’s garden. “I’m going to take a plane ride.”
“Oh? Where are you going?”
“Brad Harrington has a small Cessna. I’m sure if I pay for the fuel, he’ll fly me over Sarah Bennett’s cottage. I want to see that garden layout from the air.”
“Can you find it again? From the air, I mean?”
“I can find it.” He wrenched open his door and climbed in. Taryn followed quickly, still creeped out by the venture. Her flesh seemed frozen in permanent goosebumps.
Ron didn’t start the engine right away. Instead, he half-turned in his seat to face her, his blue eyes inscrutable. “Will you tell me what happened at church last night?”
She raised her shin a fraction in challenge. “Will you tell me why you wouldn’t go with us?”
He considered her request for a silent moment, and then nodded. “Yes, I’ll tell you.”
“Pastor Leon cornered Kimberly and asked her to publicly refute the rumors about Melody and you. She refused. Leon gave us both the impression that he believes what’s being said. She called him a sanctimonious pseudo-pastor and told him his time would be better spent preaching about gossip to the gossipers rather than blaming the victims of such gossip.”
A ghost of a smile curved his mouth. “That’s my girl,” he murmured. “I got much the same request—at least it was carefully couched as a request but it was more a demand. Leon and I had some words—mine were rather harsh—and I made it clear I’d not have any part in my wife’s public humiliation. I also made it clear that I’ll be talking to the church board, and he might want to delve into scripture and refresh himself on the subject of gossip.”
“Have you told Kim?” His eloquent look was answer enough. “Ron, you really should—”
“Ready to hear my advice about you and Denny?” he asked, rudely interrupting her.
Taryn bristled. What could he possibly know about the situation? How could he possibly understand her reluctance to leave the only home she’d ever known for a man who would be gone eighty percent of their marriage, off fighting darkness like a modern-day knight?
“I thought not. Perhaps when you’re ready to talk about Denny, I’ll be ready to talk about Kim.”
“This is silly! Your male pride is going to cost your marriage!”
“It’s not about pride,” he replied, a definite wintry chill in his voice. “It’s about trust. Now, would you like lunch at the diner, or just a quick sandwich at my house?”
“The diner would be good,” she muttered, slumping into her seat with a mutinous glare at him.
“After lunch I need to go talk to Brad about that flight. Will you stay at the house with Kim and the twins?”
He sighed, facing forward, his hand reaching for the keys swinging in the ignition. “I appreciate everything, Taryn. I hope you know that.”
She let go enough of her irritation to grin at him. “I know. But I’ll give you the same warning I gave your lovely wife: my patience is not infinite.”
He turned the key over, gunned the engine, and headed the truck toward town, his quiet “I know” almost lost in the noise.
Taryn sent a last glance over her shoulder as they drove away. The gate to the road seemed like the gate to hell, and she felt certain that Kim was right, that the devil’s mansion—and the devil with it—had never really left Mills.
Gothic-Excerpt by Sharon Gerlach is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.