And in the darkness, she can hear the unquiet dead whispering.
The cemetery is alive with faint, spectral shapes, led by a woman who died before her time...and Keira, the only person who can see her, has become her new target. Determined to help put the ghost to rest, Keira digs into the spirit's past life with the help of unlikely new friends, and discovers a history of deception, ill-fated love, and murder.
But the past is not as simple as it seems, and Keira's time is running out. Tangled in a dangerous web, she has to find a way to free the spirit...even if it means offering her own life in return.
Release date: May 4, 2021
Publisher: Black Owl Books
Print pages: 272
Reader says this book is...: action-packed (1) entertaining story (1) epic storytelling (1) escapist/easy read (1) haunting (1) realistic characters (1) satisfying ending (1) supernatural elements (1) suspenseful (1) unputdownable (1)
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The Whispering Dead
Keira cracked her eyes open. Rain fell through tree branches and pinged off her flushed skin, washing tracks of blood away from her cheek.
Footsteps crunched through leaves somewhere behind her then faded into background noise. Keira pushed herself to sit up and swallowed a groan as pain radiated through her arm. She touched her shoulder, trying to find the source of the injury, but her jacket covered it.
Okay. So, I’m in a forest, and I’m hurt. What happened?
She probed for memories but came up empty. Her name was Keira. She’d woken in a forest of some kind in the early evening, coated in mud, sore and soaking wet. That was the extent of her knowledge.
Keira raised her hands. They seemed vaguely familiar, almost like an outdated photograph of someone she knew, but did nothing to cut through the fog.
A gunshot boomed from somewhere to her right. It was followed by a beat of silence, then a voice called a command in a language she didn’t know.
Keira stiffened. The voice wasn’t familiar, but its tone caused her pulse to spike and filled her mouth with the bitter tang of fear. Run, her subconscious urged her. Run far and fast and quiet. You’re being hunted.
She was on her feet in a fraction of a second. Her head throbbed and her limbs shook as she staggered to a tree for support. I can’t have been out for long. A few seconds at most. I feel like I just finished running a marathon and my prize was getting hit by a train.
She blinked rain out of her eyes as she tried to get her bearings. She’d woken in a small hollow between two trees. A muddy track ran down one side of the slope, apparently marking the place where she’d fallen.
The gunshot had come from her right. The rain had muffled the sound, which meant it must have been at least fifty meters away. That seemed like a lot of space, and at the same time, hardly any at all.
Keira moved in the opposite direction. Her lungs ached and a coppery film coated her tongue, but her legs seemed to know what to do. They moved quickly and lightly, carrying her over fallen branches and around holes. Her torso bent low to make her a smaller target. Evidently, evading strangers had entered muscle memory.
The trees thinned ahead, and Keira put extra length into her strides. Despite her exhaustion, her body moved through the forest’s edge and down the weed-choked slope with animalistic agility. It would have been exhilarating if she hadn’t felt so disoriented.
Thick rain poured over her. She was in a thunderstorm, a proper, thorough one, the kind that only came a few times a year and was heavy enough to fill her mouth when she inhaled. Good, her mind whispered. It will mask your scent and hide your tracks. They won’t be able to use their dogs.
She tried to hold on to that thought, sensing that the mystery of her existence would become clear if she could only follow it, but then it slid back into her subconscious like a phantom eel.
A foggy clearing stretched ahead of her. Beyond that was a town, where distant rain-blurred lights promised sanctuary.
The gun cracked again. Keira automatically bent lower, moving almost parallel to the ground, and switched her trajectory towards the closest building. It appeared to be some kind of farmstead set apart from the town, and golden light poured from its windows.
The ground levelled out, making Keira work slightly harder for each stride, and the grass grew high around her boots. Fine, chilled mist swirled in the rain.
A dark shape appeared through the fog, and Keira skidded to one side to avoid it. It was tall—almost as tall as she was—and seemed to be made of stone. She wanted to stop and take a closer look, but it felt like a bad time to inspect the scenery.
Lightning cracked through the sky and bathed the world in momentary white. Another shape appeared to her right. She squinted at it as she passed, and a chill ran along her spine. It was a gravestone. She’d stumbled into a cemetery.
More and more stones appeared around her, materialising out of the mist like ships sailing through ethereal waters. The building, which she’d mistaken for a farmstead, resolved itself into a small parsonage. A cross jutted from its steeple, dripping water onto the dark roof below.
The stone house looked at least a century old, but its garden was full of wild shrubs. As she drew along its side, Keira caught strains of music floating through the air.
She pressed herself to the building’s side where the shadows would disguise her, and looked back. The forest’s edge was barely visible through the mist. Dark figures were slinking out of the tree line. At least a dozen of them.
Keira pressed on hand to her chest and felt her heart pounding. It had taken her less than a minute to reach the parsonage; she didn’t think the men following her would be much slower.
“Please let me in.” She whispered the words as she beat her fist against the wooden door. “Please, please, please.”
The music fell silent. Keira pressed close to the stone, trying to hide inside the alcove, as she listened to footsteps move through the building. There was the muted click of a handle turning, and the door swung open to reveal a white-haired, spectacled man.
He carried an embroidered tea towel in one hand and a threadbare maroon sweater covered gently-slanted shoulders. His bushy eyebrows rose, a mixture of curiosity and bewilderment.
“Please, let me in.” She threw a glance over her shoulder. They couldn’t be far away; she likely only had seconds. “Someone’s following me. Just let me hide here until they’re gone, then I’ll leave, I promise.”
“Oh.” He said the word very slowly as his eyes skipped from her drenched form to the trickle of blood running down her face. He blinked, then he nodded, as though he’d deemed her proposal reasonable enough, and stepped aside. “In that case, I suppose you had better come in.”
She slipped through the doorway and pressed close to the wall. Her heart was thundering and her ears ringing. She could only hope she’d been fast enough that the strangers hadn’t seen her.
The entryway was warm and smelled like spices, and the jumble of mismatched furniture clustered against its walls felt homey. The pastor closed the door then put his back to it, watching Keira with faint bemusement. “What happened, child? Were you attacked?”
Keira licked rainwater off her lips. A part of her wanted to stay silent. She only needed to hide in the clergyman’s house until the strangers lost her trail, and caution suggested she reveal as little about herself as possible.
On the other hand, she owed the pastor for his hospitality. The least she could do was answer his question. And maybe unburden her own mind a little in the process.
“My name’s Keira. I’m being hunted. That’s all I can remember.” She glanced along the hallway. Lamps were spaced around the old, scratched tables, their bulbs creating a mesh of conflicting light sources. Outside, thunder crackled. “Sorry, do you me asking… where am I?”
“Blighty Parish, two kilometres from the eponymous Blighty.” He reached out to take her arm, but Keira moved away from the touch. The pastor didn’t comment as he tactfully redirected the motion into a gesture towards an open door to their right. “Come and sit by the fire. You must be freezing.”
She never had the chance to respond. The door boomed, shuddering as a heavy fist beat at its exterior. Something like electricity rushed through Keira, setting her brain buzzing and turning her fingers numb. Hide, her mind whispered. Hide, or you won’t be the only one to suffer.
The pastor glanced at the door and lowered his voice. “Is that them?”
Keira could only nod.
The pastor’s lips pursed. He crossed to a large, heavy wood wardrobe and opened the door. “In here,” he mouthed, beckoning to her.
Keira gratefully slipped amongst the assortment of patched coats, umbrellas, and rain boots. The fist returned to the door, louder, and the pastor closed the wardrobe on Keira.
“I’m coming, don’t worry.” His voice had been steady when he’d spoken to her, but now it took on a warbling, feeble note as he called out to his new visitors. “These old bones don’t move as fast as they used to, bless me.”
She listened to him approach front door, each step an exaggerated shuffle. The door groaned as he opened it and the sound of drumming rain intensified. With it came a new, unpleasantly raw noise. Heavy breathing, Keira thought. They’ve been running and are trying not to show it.
The voice sent a spasm of repulsion into Keira’s stomach. The speaker was trying to sound respectful, but she could almost taste the frustration concealed in it. “I’m looking for my friend. A young woman, thin, with light-brown hair and wearing dark clothes. Have you seen her?”
“Well, now…” The pastor hesitated, and Keira tasted fear. “I saw a young woman of that description in town earlier this week. You’re testing my memory, bless you, but I think she was—”
“No, tonight.” The voice became harsh as it cut across the pastor’s ramble, and the stranger cleared his throat before continuing in a calmer tone. “We became separated less than an hour ago.” A pause, then he added, “We had a small disagreement. She might have asked you to keep her presence a secret. But the sooner we can be reunited, the sooner I can help her.”
“Ah, forgive me, child. I haven’t seen anyone between coming home this afternoon and opening my door a moment ago.”
Thank you, Keira thought, clenching her fists to keep the fingers from shaking.
“Are you certain?” A hint of warning was introduced to the words. “It’s very important that I find her.”
“Bless you. Lying is a sin. I hope you don’t think I’d endanger my immortal soul over something so trivial.”
There was a silence that Keira struggled to interpret. She held her shoulders pressed tightly against the wardrobe’s back, fighting to keep still and not betray her presence. The rain seemed deafening. Keira had the awful sense that the stranger wasn’t going to be turned away so easily.
“On that subject,” the pastor’s voice took on tones of rapture, “I can’t help but feel that some greater purpose has led you to my home on this black night. Would you come in for a few moments? We could discuss your soul’s blessed destination over a nice cup of tea.”
The stranger didn’t bother trying to smother a disgusted grunt. Heavy feet crunched over the gravel path as he backed away. “Perhaps another time. I need to keep looking for my friend.”
“Safe journey, child,” the pastor called. A moment later, the front door groaned closed, and Keira dared to breathe again.
“Well. What fun.” The feeble tone dropped from the pastor’s voice as he opened the wardrobe, making Keira blink against the sudden light. “Whether it’s solicitors, tax men, or nosy relatives, I’ve never had that line fail on me. Come on, Keira, you’re getting water all over my shoes.”
“Yes, sit there, please,” the pastor said. “I don’t like that one, so I won’t mind if it gets water stained.”
Keira obediently sank into the paisley armchair. The parsonage’s cosy sitting room was filled with an odd assortment of furniture, both modern and antique. A large fire crackled in the grate, radiating warmth through her soaked jeans and T-shirt, reducing some of her chills. The pastor took Keira’s jacket, hung it next to the hearth to dry, then turned to a door on the other side of the room. “My name’s John Adage, but I’m generally called just Adage. I think I have a first-aid kit somewhere. Sit still a moment.”
“Thank you,” Keira called after his retreating back. She’d already said it when he let her out of the wardrobe, but once didn’t seem like enough. “And, um, sorry for making you lie.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that.” The clatter of plates told Keira her rescuer was in the kitchen. “Even ignoring the fact that betrayal would be a far greater sin, I never actually said anything untruthful, only that I hadn’t seen anyone between coming home and opening the door.”
Adage appeared in the doorway, a steaming bowl in one hand and a small white box in the other. He put the bowl into Keira’s hands, and she discovered the source of the tasty spice smell that permeated the house. It was some kind of stew, and Keira realised she was ravenous. She scooped a spoonful into her mouth, swallowed as quickly as the hot liquid would allow, and went back for more.
“You’re lucky you came tonight.” Adage pulled a wooden chair up beside her and opened the white box. “I usually only cook stew once a week. If you’d come yesterday, I would have been serving you TV dinners instead.”
Keira froze, spoon halfway to her mouth. “I didn’t mean to take your food—”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” He pushed his glasses farther up his nose as he squinted at the instructions on the back of a bottle of antiseptic. “My job description includes feeding the poor, but there’s hardly anyone poor enough in this town to feed. You’ll do in a pinch.”
Keira couldn’t stop her laughter. She felt ludicrous. How the pastor could be so complacently cheerful was beyond her.
“Here we go.” He shook a cotton ball out of its bag and poured some of the clear liquid onto it. “This will probably hurt. Medical things always do, in my experience. That man wasn’t telling the truth, was he?”
Keira tried not to flinch as he pressed the cotton ball to her skin just below her hairline. “No. I don’t think so, anyway. I don’t remember anything.”
“I suppose so.”
“Hmm.” He dabbed a few times, then threw the cotton ball into the fire and began hunting for bandages. “Well, I’ve never met you before, which means you’re not from Blighty. It’s a tiny town, too small to avoid an acquaintance with anyone, which can sometimes be as much a curse as a blessing. You could be from Broadmeadow. It’s a twenty-minute drive away.”
Keira shrugged. “The name doesn’t ring any bells.”
Adage frowned as he began unravelling a roll of bandages. “I have no idea what I’m doing here, I’m afraid. Perhaps I should call the doctor.”
“No, you’re doing great.” The words tumbled out of her unbidden. The impulsive, reflexive part of her was certain she wanted to avoid hospitals and anything associated with them. “It doesn’t even hurt anymore. Just put a plaster on it, and it’ll be fine.”
“Mm.” Adage didn’t sound convinced, but he leaned forward to wrap the cloth around her head. “I can’t say I’m disappointed. Dr. Kelsey is a bit of a… well, we’re told to love our enemies, in which case I can safely say that I love no one more than Dr. Kelsey.” He finished wrapping the bandages like a bandanna. “How does that feel?”
“It’s great.” They were growing soggy from her wet hair and felt loose, but Keira wasn’t about to complain.
“Then I suppose we’d better figure out what we’re going to do with you.” Adage closed the first-aid kit and nudged the bowl in Keira’s hands, encouraging her to continue eating. “Do you have any memories at all? A surname, or a friend’s name, perhaps?”
Keira probed her mind. She made it as far back as waking up in the clearing, but everything beyond that was blank. C’mon, brain. You have one job. “Sorry.”
He shrugged as though the situation were no more complicated than choosing what to order for dinner. “In that case, you can spend the night here if you promise not to steal anything or murder me in my sleep. We’ll make you up a bed on one of the couches. Tomorrow, if you still can’t remember, I’ll ask around town.”
Keira looked from the bowl of stew at the warm fire then at the pastor. Simple thanks seemed wholly inadequate in return for the unquestioning generosity he’d shown her, but it was all she had to offer. “Thank you so much.”
He waved away the gratitude as he crossed the room. “Really, tonight has become quite thrilling. It’s a nice change from the usual pace. Let me have a look for some spare blankets.”
Thunder cracked outside. The night was dark, but faint lights from the town created a mosaic on the wet glass. Anxiety tightened in her chest.
She had no actual memories of her life, but her subconscious kept feeding her tiny clues. Rain is good, it said. It will wash away your footprints. Being found is bad; you don’t want to know what those men are capable of.
She turned back to the pastor, who was hunting through a wardrobe and muttering as dead moths fell out from between the blankets. If they find me here, they’ll kill him.
Her appetite vanished and she dropped the spoon back into the bowl. Adage had shown her more kindness than she could have hoped for; she would never forgive herself if he were hurt—or worse—because of it. “Uh, do you have somewhere else I could stay? A barn or something a bit more remote?”
He looked over his shoulder and raised his eyebrows questioningly.
“Those men might come back. I’d feel safer if I was somewhere better hidden.” It was as close to the truth as she could get without letting him guess how dark her thoughts had become. He seemed to buy it, though, and pursed his lips in thought.
“The church has awful insulation. You’ll freeze to death if I put you there… oh, I know. We have a groundskeeper’s cottage behind the graveyard. It’s been empty since Peterson passed on last year, bless him, but it has a bed and a fireplace, and there shouldn’t be more than the normal amount of rats. Would that do?”
Keira dearly wanted to know how many a normal amount of rats entailed, but she wasn’t in a position to be choosy. “Sounds perfect!”
“Finish your stew, then, and I’ll take you to it.”
Keira shovelled the warm slop into her mouth while Adage went back into the kitchen. She could hear him digging through drawers, and he returned holding a large rusty ring with a single key hanging from it.
“Ready.” Keira put the bowl aside and snagged her still-wet jacket off the chair. The idea that her presence might be a threat to the older man had embedded itself. Something in her stomach said that the strange men would search the area quickly, and they wouldn’t give up easily.
Adage led her back to the hallway wardrobe and pulled out a pair of heavy coats and two umbrellas. “People leave them at the church,” he explained as he handed one of each to Keira. “I usually keep them until they’re claimed, but these have been waiting for their owners for the better part of a year, so I think it’s safe to borrow them. Ready?”
Keira felt a little ridiculous pulling the raincoat over her already-wet clothes, but she did so anyway. “Ready.”
The parsonage’s thick walls had done a good job of blocking out noise, but the storm’s intensity assaulted them as soon as the door was open. A heavy sheet of rain came across the threshold, buffeting them and making a mockery of their supposedly waterproof coats. Keira scanned the surrounding area as she waited for her companion to close the door. She looked for motion or for hulking, watching shapes, but the deluge made it impossible to see more than a dozen meters.
“This way.” Adage had to bellow to be heard through the rain.
Keira followed in his shadow, careful not to let the distance between them grow too great for fear of losing him. The spongy ground sucked at her boots, and the wind made them both stagger as they trudged across the field to re-enter the graveyard she’d passed through less than an hour before. The gravestones, dark from rain, loomed out of thin mist. It seemed disorganised, an assortment of traditional headstones battling for space around elaborate sculptures of angels and tall cowled figures. Keira couldn’t stop herself from staring at each passing face, searching for awareness in their eyes or a twitch of motion in the hands. The fog twisted and swirled about the grave markers, dancing in the rain. Chills ran over Keira as finger-like tendrils brushed her cheeks.
“Just up ahead,” the pastor called, and Keira saw a small building near the edge of the forest. She thought she must have passed close to it when dashing to the parsonage.
The cottage didn’t seem large enough to hold more than two or three rooms. Dark, uneven slats covered a sharply peaked roof, and vines grew up one wall. The windows were cold and empty, and an aura of neglect emanated from the hut. It struck Keira as a lonely building, hidden as far from civilisation as possible, with a forest on one side and a garden of graves on the other.
Adage huddled close to the door as he fit the key into the lock and struggled to twist it. The door ground on its hinges as it opened, and they both shuffled into the relative comfort of a dry room.
“Like I said, an exciting night.” Adage closed the door and shed his coat. Keira couldn’t help but feel impressed that he’d maintained the note of warm optimism. “Let’s see… it should still have power… ah.”
He’d found the switch, and golden light filled the space. Keira shrugged out of her coat as she stared around the cottage. Instead of dividing the tiny building into even tinier rooms, the bedroom, kitchen, dining, and lounge areas had all been combined. A door at the back led to what she guessed was a bathroom, but otherwise, the entire house was just one room.
She could have crossed the space in ten paces, but it had a comfortable, welcoming atmosphere. The single bed wedged against the left wall was covered in a colourful patchwork quilt, and a small kitchen offered the comfort of a kettle and stovetop.
“We’ll get a fire going so that you don’t freeze to death,” Adage said, weaving around the overstuffed lounge chair to reach the dark hearth. “There’s no heater, I’m afraid, but there should still be some spare blankets in the cupboard over there if you need them.”
“I’ll be okay from here.” Keira followed the pastor to the fire and eased the kindling bucket out of his hands. She was dripping on the large rug that took up the centre of the room, so she shuffled back onto the wooden boards. “Thank you so much. For everything.”
“I’ll help you settle in,” he said happily. “I don’t mind, really.”
Keira managed a tight laugh. “Actually, I was really hoping to get out of these wet clothes…”
It was a half-truth. She was shivering, but her more urgent worry was making sure the strange men didn’t discover the pastor’s deception. If Adage left quickly, the storm would still be strong enough to wash away his footprints, but she didn’t know how much longer the deluge would last.
“Oh! Oh, of course. I’ll leave you to it, then.” Adage picked his coat off the hook beside the door and shook off some of the excess water. “You know where to find me if you need anything. And tomorrow, I’ll see if I can uncover any leads in town. Have a good sleep, Keira.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“Wrong religion,” he said cheerfully, then let himself out. A torrent of rain poured through the doorway, seeming to embrace the pastor as he closed the door behind himself.
Keira crossed to the window and pressed against the chilled glass as she watched her new, unexpected friend march into the graveyard. Clumps of fog clung to his hunched form, looking almost like wraiths grasping at his coat. He disappeared into the night within five paces.
At least he’ll be safe now… I hope.
Alone, Keira couldn’t ignore how quiet the cottage was. Rain still beat against the roof, and the wooden supports groaned under the strain, but inside felt strangely isolated from the storm.
Keira stepped back from the window and looked at her hands. Just like in the forest, they seemed both very familiar and completely unrecognizable. She took a deep breath and clenched them into fists. “Okay. Time to figure out who the hell you are, Keira.”
Keira was freezing and soaked, but she ignored the fireplace in favour of searching for a mirror. She figured she had at least an hour before hypothermia set in, and her missing identity was digging at her like an itch she couldn’t reach.
As she’d guessed, the door at the back of the room led into a bathroom-slash-laundry. She turned on the light and found a bedraggled, wide-eyed stranger staring back at her through the sink’s mirror.
So, this is what I look like. She stepped closer to the reflection and pulled the limp crown of bandages out of her hair. It’s not what I expected.
After running through the forest so swiftly and efficiently, she’d imagined having a toned, fit body, the sort of figure that comes from drinking wheatgrass smoothies for breakfast and having memberships for three separate gyms. Instead of a twelve-pack and a Marine Corps tattoo on her bicep, the person looking back at her was bone-thin, with a pale face with too-large eyes.
Keira lifted her T-shirt’s hem. There were no abs underneath and not a hint of fat, either. Her ribs jutted out under anaemic skin. She looked as though she’d either been starved or…
She pointed a warning finger at her reflection. “So help me, Keira, you'd better not be addicted to anything illegal. Because I know exactly zero drug dealers, and I'd really prefer not to go through withdrawals on top of everything else.”
Her face, which she’d initially thought was meek and mousy, took on some personality as she spoke. That was good; she might have a chance of being taken seriously, after all.
“No wonder Adage was so willing to help you,” she grumbled as she began peeling off the wet clothes. “You look like an orphan waif straight out of a Hollywood movie. Please, sir, can I have some more porridge?”
Her jeans were hard to get off and tripped her when she tried to pull them over her feet. She bumped into the wall and hissed as pain flashed through her arm.
I forgot I was hurt there, too. She twisted to see a long, straight cut not far below her shoulder. Keira, you’re a mess. How many terrible life choices did you make to end up like this?
The skin around the cut looked red, but it wasn’t bleeding, so she decided it could wait until later.
She didn’t like the idea of walking around a stranger’s house naked, so Keira left her underwear on. The cupboard in the bathroom’s corner held spare blankets, so she took one, wrapped it around herself like a coat, and carried the wet clothes back to the main room.
The storm created a steady drone on the cottage’s shingle roof as Keira built her fire. In the same way her legs had known how to run, her hands seemed to hold onto the memory of how to light the kindling, and the blaze was soon radiating heat through the room.
Keira stayed kneeling in front of it for a minute, hands extended, as she absorbed some of the warmth. Once her shaking stopped, she plucked the pile of wet clothes off the hearth and shook them out.
The T-shirt seemed cheap and well-worn; she guessed it had been teal before repeated washing bled the colour down to a watery grey. The jeans had a rip in the side, and not the deliberate, fashionable kind. But the boots and jacket both seemed to be of good quality, although old. She supposed that made sense; they were the two most valuable pieces of clothing for someone roughing it: sturdy shoes to protect her feet and a thick jacket to keep her warm. She hoped she hadn’t stolen them.
After draping the T-shirt over the back of a wooden chair, she propped the boots in front of the fireplace to dry. Keira then felt through the pockets. The jeans were empty, so they joined the T-shirt to air, but the jacket had two zippered nooks full of treasure. A crumpled twenty dollar bill came out of the left pocket. And, in the right, she found a small black-and-white photograph.
Keira unfolded the picture carefully and squinted at the grainy figures. It depicted three people, two men and one woman, facing the camera. They all wore neutral expressions and stiff, strange suits. The clothes looked like some kind of uniform, but Keira couldn’t guess which sector they belonged to.
The first man—tall and with an exceptionally thin face—and the middle-aged woman with a pinched mouth and rectangular glasses prompted no emotional response. The third figure, though, made bile rise in the back of Keira’s throat. She knew him. She hated him.
Why? C’mon, brain, throw me a bone here. What did he do to you? Is he a relative? No, you don’t know him that well… a friend’s parent? A boss? Some jerk who keyed your car?
She squinted at the face. It was deeply scored with creases, although he couldn’t have been more than forty. Heavy brows complimented a thick jaw and dark hair. The eyes held an unnerving intensity even when screened by the camera. A silvery shape over the lapel of his suit was faintly reminiscent of a name badge, but was too small to see clearly. She sensed that it was some kind of insignia—like a medal or military rank—that set him apart from his peers.
She flipped the photo over. Someone had pencilled seven words onto the back. Keira scrunched her mouth as she read them.
DON’T TRUST THE MEN WITH FLAKY SKIN
“Okay.” She tilted her head to the side as though that might somehow make the message clearer. “So should I stay away from people with dandruff or what?”
Unsurprisingly, the message didn’t reply. Keira carefully placed the photo on top of the fireplace mantel, where it could dry out, then dragged the couch closer to the hearth and snuggled into it.
Searching her clothes had given the fire time to warm her. She pulled her feet up under her and folded the blanket around herself as she watched the flickering flames.
I’ve been lucky, she thought as thunder cracked overhead. Sure, the whole no memory thing sucks pretty badly, but in other ways, I couldn’t have had better fortune. Tonight could have been spent hiding in an alley or huddled in the forest. Instead, I’ve been given food, shelter, and the promise of help. That’s a lot to be grateful for.
And hey… maybe it’s a good thing I don’t know who I was before. Some part of my life must have gone very wrong for me to end up like this. Maybe this is the universe’s way of giving me a second chance.
She turned to watch the rain flow down the window. Mist coalesced just beyond the glass, seeming to caress the frame as it passed.
Keira frowned. She could have sworn she’d heard something. A deep wailing sound, distorted and muffled by the fog until it was close to inaudible. She waited, holding her breath. The mist beyond the window seemed to thicken. It was like a soup, swallowing the cottage, cutting her off from the rest of the world.
The noise came again. A woman howling deep, wretched cries.
Keira rose, her bare feet curling lightly as she paced across the dusty wood floor. She approached the nearest window; a pane divided into six squares, overlooking the cottage’s dead front garden and, beyond that, the graveyard.
The noises had sounded close, like they might be coming from the cemetery itself, but, at the same time, they’d been heavily muffled, as though Keira were wearing earplugs. Only the faintest strains of sound came through.
Her breath formed a cloud of condensation on the glass. The night was too dark and too wet to think that anyone would have come to mourn at the gravestones, but Keira couldn’t stop herself from searching the dark monuments. They were disturbing; some were as tall as a human, many had tilted, many others grew lichen and robes of moss. In the smothering fog their irregular outlines almost looked like sentries, surrounding Keira, motionless as they stared at her.
One shifted. Keira’s heart caught in her throat. Her eyes burned as she stared towards the space where she was certain a gravestone had existed seconds ago. It was now just empty space, filled by curling tendrils of mist.
It’s not the men. No. This is something else.
The wailing noise teased at the edges of her hearing. It was deep and low, and although it was growing quieter, Keira thought it was also moving nearer.
The sudden urge to barricade her windows and lock the doors took hold of her. She reached for the curtains and gripped a fistful of musty fabric in each hand, but still hesitated. The moving fog and sentry gravestones played tricks on her eyes. She thought she heard dead leaves crunch somewhere to her left, but it could have just been the effects of the rain.
The sounds of wailing had blended so thoroughly into the droning rain that they caught Keira off-guard when they stopped. The sound strangled out mid-howl, killed as thoroughly as though someone had clamped a hand over the victim’s mouth.
Keira waited, her breathing shallow, hands still gripping the curtains, fearful but reluctant to block out her view of the surrounding land.
A woman’s hand reached past the window frame. It came from Keira’s left, the owner’s body hidden by the stone wall. Twitching fingers felt along the metal joining the glass panes. Ragged fingernails tapped the glass.
Keira smothered a gasp and lurched back. The curtain rods rattled as she belatedly let go of the fabric, and the curtains swung on either side of the view they framed. The hand retreated back out of sight.
Something had been very wrong about the hand. Shock rooted Keira to the spot, and it took a second for her to register what she’d seen.
She’d been able to look through the skin. Even as the hand had pressed against the glass, scrabbling along the panes, she’d still been able to see the twisting fog and black monuments behind it.
No. Not possible.
She swallowed and edged to the side, trying to see around the wall that blocked her view of the unwelcome presence. Something flickered on the edge of her vision. Something translucent: a layer of pale white blending into the mist, barely highlighted by the glow flowing out from her cottage’s windows. Keira took a step closer, craning her neck, trying to see the shape more clearly.
Two dead eyes stared at her from behind curtains of flowing hair. The spectre moved forward, closing the distance between them, and Keira scrambled back. The ethereal form dissolved into the rain as easily as a breath of warm air on a cold night.
Keira’s back hit the chair she’d rested on. She clutched for it, digging her fingers into the soft fabric, as her mind scrambled. The figure was gone, but she still wasn’t alone. At the edges of her hearing were the heavily distorted wails.
What was that?
The answer came quickly. Ghost.
Sticky fear filled Keira’s mouth. That answer had come from her subconscious—and it had come easily. Whoever she had been before her memories were wiped, she’d not only believed in ghosts, but knew them well.
“Normal people don’t see ghosts. Normal people probably don’t even believe in ghosts.” Keira held still, pressed close to the lounge as her heart thundered. She darted her eyes between the windows, waiting for the woman to re-appear. The fire no longer felt warm on her skin.
Can she get inside? The idea sickened Keira. Closely followed on its heels was a more unpleasant question: Can she hurt me?
Her subconscious remained silent, but she had the unpleasant sense that the answer was yes to both. Mist continued to swirl outside, but there was no sign of the woman. Slowly, cautiously, Keira approached the window again. She reflexively rolled her bare feet as she walked, minimising any noise she might make on the wooden floorboards.
The storm was fading as the clouds’ load diminished, but the drizzle was still thick enough to block most of the outside world from her view. She could see faraway lights from the parsonage and, even farther beyond that and barely visible, the distant town’s lights. The rain-slicked tombstones protruded from the ground like rotten, crumbling teeth.
The ghost came out of nowhere, long fingers splayed as they pressed against the window. Keira flinched backwards. If the glass hadn’t divided them, she was certain she would have felt the spectre’s frozen breath on her skin.
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