You may have noticed I haven’t posted lately. Mainly because I’ve been placing the final touches on Cemetery Street – the paperback, working on Montana Rural and prepping what follows: Nightwatching. Nightwatching is a ghost story that will be released in digital format later this year. Enjoy this glimpse, and please, let me know your thoughts.
1) Do the Dead Forgive?
Breathless, he watched. Around him, sunlight rippled through the treetops and danced across the ground. Nearby, snowmelt tumbled down a swollen creek. Despite the water’s roar, something deep within the woods caught his attention. His gaze knifed through trembling shadows. Whatever it was, froze, paralyzed by fear. After a long moment, he lost interest and continued barefoot across the forest floor. At creek’s edge, he studied the cascading water until he heard a distant rumble.
He leapt upon a large boulder in the middle of the creek. Holding his balance on the rock’s cold, slimy surface, the boy ignored the icy stabs of the creek’s spray while focusing on an approaching plume of dust and marl. His eyes narrowed and locked upon the white truck speeding along the dirt road. After a moment, he jumped into the pristine, glacial water. Unflinching, he waded towards a small bridge. Underneath, he gazed upwards as wooden planks rattled under the racing truck.
They sped along a little too fast for the rutted, washboard dirt road, eyes focused on the mountains guarding either side of the narrowing valley. The truck lurched, its rear end bucking sideways. The driver tightened his grip on the steering wheel, struggling not to overcorrect as his passenger grabbed the Jesus handle.
“Damn it, Travis, are you trying to kill us?” Sondra snapped. “Slow down!”
After a brief battle to right the truck, he eyed his wife. “Ain’t use to this country driving.”
“Just because you want to live like a hillbilly doesn’t mean you have to speak like one.” She glared at Travis before turning her gaze out the passenger window. Sondra mumbled to her reflection: “I can’t believe we’re going to live here.”
In silence, they drove past peaks dubbed Squaw, Stark, and McCormick and over creeks named Butler, Kennedy, and Soldier, kicking up enough dust to obscure their past. As they crossed the last of these bridges, a brief chill overtook Sondra. Rubbing her arms, she glanced at the Cheyenne’s air conditioner— the thermostat read seventy. She turned her attention to the vast coniferous forest covering the slopes of the funneling valley and the peaks above.
It is beautiful, she begrudgingly admitted to herself. She allowed herself a moment to enjoy the summer day. With a sigh she admitted there were worse places to live.
The cabin was much smaller than they were used to, which was fine; it was only the two of them. Anything bigger would remind them of the void between them – a tombstone was funny like that.
“Welcome home,” Travis said, patting her thigh as they crept up the driveway.
Sondra watched him slip out of the truck, take a deep breath and do a three-sixty, his gaze scanning the mountaintops. He’s really aged, she thought, noticing his receding hairline. Spots of gray peppered his once thick brown hair. Deep-set crow’s feet etched the corners of his eyes. It seems just yesterday he graduated college, full of boyish charm. Now he’s thirty-five going on sixty. God, where did time go?
She gazed at the cabin; rustic was a generous description. Her eyes followed the narrow deck that wrapped three sides. She sighed, reapplied her game face and stepped from the truck into their new life. Slinking around the front of the Cheyenne, she stepped into his arms to embrace him. She peered into his eyes, hoping hers weren’t as empty as her heart. She kissed him. “Congratulations.”
Taking her hand, Travis led her through a simple gate and down the stone walkway. He smiled as the deck creaked under their footfalls. It was a long time since he felt this good, this energized, this alive. He could count the times. The day Anthony was born, the night Sondra accepted his proposal, but more than any, the day his business loan was approved. From that point, his destiny rested in his own hands. After a decade of hard work, he was no longer a racing rat. Free to enjoy life, he couldn’t think of a better place. No clutter, no traffic, seclusion—they had few neighbors. If they chose isolation, it wouldn’t be hard to accomplish.
They could afford Flathead Lake, Whitefish, or Big Sky, instead Travis sacrificed opulence for simplicity. Living here, he would never have to work another day in his life. Travis would never have to deal with the people he had grown to detest.
He looked through the door’s window. The movers were here. Smiling, he led Sondra inside. With a burst of energy, Travis plunged into the last job he thought he would despise – unpacking.
A shard of sunlight fell through the window, bathing Sondra, burnishing her brown hair auburn. Slowly she rocked, legs curled beneath her, the steady creak of the hardwood floor keeping time for the setting sun. Consciously avoiding the mantel, her eyes explored the gloomy living room. Logs stained a shade too dark. Windows, too small for the walls, begrudgingly admitted daylight. On the opposite wall, footprints crossed its length. How did they get there? she wondered.
Following the footprints, her gaze moved to the kitchen. A butcher’s block, bucolic, stood in its center. Dark cabinets nested upon the kitchen walls, looming over a green counter top. At least there’s enough cabinet space, she thought. Sondra’s eyes wandered up the center post that supported the loft and gazed into their bedroom.
“A loft,” she sneered. “Our bedroom is a loft. At least there’s stairs.” I could be reduced to climbing a ladder, she thought.
The stairs were on the far side of the loft, flanked by a dingy hallway leading to a dreary bathroom. Thank God for conveniences, she thought. Sighing, Sondra felt as though they had moved into the walk-in cedar closet of their old home, an eight-thousand square foot behemoth.
Still rocking, she could no longer resist the pull of the photos on the mantel.
Anthony’s eternal three-year-old gaze held hers. He had his father’s eyes, she thought, awash in self-hatred. The picture, taken a week before his death, dominated the mantel. She stood and approached the photo. Behind her, the chair continued rocking. Taking the frame in her hand, she traced a finger over the boy. “My God,” she uttered, realizing they buried him in the same suit he wore in the photo. “My baby,” she whispered, a tear falling upon the boy’s framed face.
A thud reverberated through the roof.
Sondra jumped; a muffled cry escaped her lips. She clutched the frame to her breasts. Gooseflesh ascended her arms and spiraled along her spine. “Who’s there?”
She padded through a blizzard of dust storming across the dusky room. Clutching Anthony, she stepped into the kitchen and peeked out the door. A dark shadow floated from the back of the cabin. Quickly she spun, resting her back against the wall, heart racing.