In the Memory House, a new supernatural thriller, is now available at Amazon.com, Amazon UK, and Smashwords with other formats (including print) to follow...
From In the Memory House:
They never planned to enter the house.
They never knew the house existed. If not for the snowstorm, they would have never found the house—or, more accurately, the house would have never found them. As it was, five friends stood on the concrete slab porch while wind whipped snow in small eddies around them Johnny, tall and angular in a light jacket, rapped his knuckles on the door. The two girls—Kelsey with her dark, ropey curls tucked under an ivory stocking cap and Sarah, blonde and pale and pretty and wearing pink—huddled together against the siding. Ben, soft and thick with a lingering layer of childhood fat, leaned against the railing, staring across the white field.
“Nobody’s home,” Jared said. He wasn’t wearing a proper coat. As they scrambled from the ditch, Kelsey had looked at his grey sweatshirt and jeans and had said he would freeze. Jared, his brown eyes dark enough to challenge a moonless night, had smiled and said, “I’ll be fine.” On the porch, he didn’t even shiver. “Doesn’t look like we’re getting in. We should head down the road, see if we can find someplace, any place to ride out the storm. Nobody has any cell service, so we can’t call snow-plows-r-us.”
Ben rolled his eyes. “We’d be fine if dipshit hadn’t landed us in the ditch.”
Johnny wheeled from the door. His blue eyes sparked. His fists clenched and unclenched. “Dipshit? I didn’t see you volunteer to drive. Damn SUV needs new tires. They’re as bald as Sarah’s dad.”
“Hey,” Sarah said.
Kelsey squeezed her arm. “He’s right. Your dad is pretty shiny upstairs. But I’m freezing. Right. Now. Can we just break in or something? I’m sure Farmer Bob or whoever owns this place would rather have a broken window than five humansicles in his field.”
“Farmer Bob?” Jared poked his head out from under the porch roof. “Damn place is brick. Three stories. How do you figure a farmer lives here?”
Kelsey shrugged and went back to shivering. “Out in the middle of nowhere, that’s how.”
“It’s an old lock. We can pick it rather than break a window.” Johnny knelt in front of the door and squinted through the key hole. “Does anybody have a hair pin? Sarah? Kels?”
“Hairpin?” Sarah screwed up her face. “Are you nuts?”
“I dunno. Seems like it should work. They do it in all those old crusty movies J-rod watches.”
“Those are classics,” Jared said. “God… No taste. Have you even tried the door?”
“What do you think he’s been doing?” Ben boxed Jared on the shoulder. “Knock-knock, who’s there?”
Johnny stretched to his full six foot, two inch height, placed one hand on the doorknob, but yanked it away.
“What’s wrong?” Kelsey asked.
“I dunno. It’s cold.”
“Of course it’s cold, numb-nuts. It’s freezing. Have you seen the snow?” Ben waved across the field. “Your hand’s turning blue, too.”
Johnny rubbed his fingers. “No. It was a different kind of cold.”
“Here,” Jared said, stepping forward. He wrapped his fingers around the knob and twisted. The door held for a moment, but then gave with a pop and creak. “I see what you mean cold. But here we are, folks. No broken windows, no picked locks, no frozen twenty-two-year-olds on the porch. It wasn’t locked. Looks like the innkeeper doesn’t mind trusting his neighbors. Our sanctuary.” He stepped aside so the others could enter.
Warmer air greeted them—not exactly warm air, but not as biting as the frigid exterior. A smell hung in the air, too, just like every house has its own odor. This smell was different, cold and sterile and clean, without the expected hint of dust and mold which an older house should have.
“Hello?” Jared called into the house. No answer came.
“It’s dark,” Kelsey said. “And it smells funny, too.”
Ben sniffed. “Smells fine to me. Smells pretty clean.”
“Yes… That’s what I mean,” Sarah said. “I mean it smells funny because it’s clean. I expected old person smell. Or dirt. Something musty and earthy. Farmer smell.”
“Maybe Farmer Bob likes to take care of his stuff.” Ben strode through the foyer, past the dark wooden staircase and matching banister, and turned right into what appeared to be a living room. A couch and two matched chairs were arranged on an ornate rug, the couch in the middle with the chairs facing each other on either side. Each was lined with deep red upholstery. The rug and furniture shared a subtle paisley pattern, and in the dim light appeared to be an even darker red design on the burgundy fabric. A subtle, tan wallpaper covered the open stretches of wall. Deep hardwood molding surrounded everything.
“Find a light switch,” Johnny said.
“Here.” Jared punched a black button. “Old school switch.” A simple brass chandelier flickered above their heads. Weak, yellow light washed over the room. “At least we have power.”
“Not much of an improvement, if you ask me.” Ben walked around the couch and plopped in a seat. He crossed his boots on one armrest. “Farm Bob has some wickedly Victorian taste in furniture.”
“Ben—get your wet feet off the…” Kelsey’s mouth hung open as she scanned the floor. “It’s dry. Your feet are dry.”
“See. No problem.” Ben grinned. “I must have knocked all the snow off before coming in.”
Kelsey backed toward the door. “I don’t like it in here. I don’t like this house.”
“Shhhhh.” Ben pressed a finger against his lips. “It might here you.” He wagged his eyebrows.
“God, Ben. You and Kels sound like a B horror flick. First hairpins, now the house is alive.” Sarah rolled her eyes. “Shouldn’t we call somebody?”
Johnny nodded. “I’ll see if there’s a phone around here. Maybe in the kitchen or hallway. In this black hole, Farmer Bob must have a line to the outside world.”
Sarah grabbed Johnny’s arm. “I’ll go with you.”
Kelsey’s eyes moved from Ben’s boots, to the floor and back to the boots. “I think I’ll go with you guys. Ben? Jared?”
Ben closed his eyes. Jared shook his head. “I’m going to chill right here. No pun intended, of course.”
Johnny, Sarah, and Kelsey circled through the living room, past an opening for a hallway, and into the dining room. Their footsteps on the hardwood floor were tiny things, whispers in a monstrous cave’s mouth. When they walked on the rug in the living room, they didn’t make a sound. A large wooden block table with a set of four chairs sat in the middle of the dining room. The table top, a dark, polished walnut finish, was clean. A point of light from the window reflected in the middle. Kelsey walked to the table and rubbed a fingertip across the surface. Her skin squeaked against the wood.
Johnny joined her at the side of the table. “Farmer Bob sure keeps this place clean, doesn’t he? Kind of a funny house—not as big on the inside as I expected. I guess it does have the third floor windows. Maybe somebody bound and gagged—”
“Stop it, Johnny. You’re starting to sound a little like Ben,” Sarah said. “Creepy-deepy Ben.”
“You invited him on this trip.” Johnny leaned over one of the chairs. “I didn’t.”
Sarah shot Kelsey a glare. “Kels opened her big mouth and Ben asked if he could go. What was I going to say?”
“No.” Johnny smiled. “Fifth wheel and all.”
“He paid for a fifth of the cabin and bought us a lot of booze.” Sarah twirled a finger through a strand of hair. “That part wasn’t so bad.”
Kelsey’s chest tightened. For a moment, she couldn’t catch her breath. She fell back against the table and touched her neck with one hand.
“What’s wrong?” Johnny asked.
Kelsey shook her head. “Nothing. Nothing’s wrong. I just felt sort of, weird. Like asthma when I was a little girl. It’s nothing really. Just a little adrenaline from the wreck. I’m just feeling a little shaken.” She didn’t want to mention the cave, how she’d gotten lost on a tour as a girl and left in pure darkness. She didn’t want to mention how she’d just felt a twinge of the same, all-encompassing fear.
Sarah rolled her eyes and mouthed the word “drama” toward Kelsey.
“Let’s get out, then. All of us.” Johnny strode across the room and through a small archway. “Bingo.”
Kelsey closed her eyes against the harsh daggers in Sarah’s icy blue stare. It was Johnny. Kelsey knew it as sure as she knew her name. Jared was a great guy, a solid friend, but they both wanted Johnny and Sarah sharpened her knives. Kelsey chewed her lip and shifted away.
“Let’s see what he found,” Sarah said. She turned and ducked through the archway without another glance at Kelsey.
Johnny stood in the middle of a bright kitchen with an avocado green phone receiver in one hand. A looping phone cord, matching the phone’s green, dangled to the floor. Johnny’s face was turned down in a frown.
“What?” Sarah asked.
Kelsey felt a shiver at the word as though Johnny’s voice had become an ice block and rubbed over her back. “Dead?”
“Dead-dead. No signal. No buzz. No nothing.” Johnny waved the receiver toward the windows, a solid bank of which filled the wall behind the kitchen sink and between the cabinets. Yellow and white gingham curtains hung open revealing a blinding field of snow and small shed behind the house. The cabinets had been painted white with yellow highlights to match the curtains. “Must be the snow.”
“But the house has power,” Sarah said. “If the power—”
“It doesn’t work that way, Sarah. Electricity and phone are on separate lines. I figured most phone lines were buried out here, though.” Johnny dropped the receiver on its wall cradle. Plastic clicked against plastic. “We better get back to the others and figure out what the hell we’re going to do.”
Kelsey started back through the archway, but paused. “Couldn’t we go the other way?”
“What do you mean?” Sarah asked.
“Well, we passed the stairwell when we came in, walked through the couch room—the parlor, past the one hallway, and through the dining room. Another living room or parlor or whatever should be the other way. Just on the other side of the wall.”
Johnny shrugged. “Makes sense. But there’s only the one entrance to the kitchen. Not to mention the screwy décor for a house—or inn or whatever—of this age. Avocado green is so ‘70s.” He gestured to the phone.
“When I see him, I’ll tell Farmer Bob you don’t approve,” Sarah said. “Let’s just go, okay?”
“I thought Farmer Bob was creepy-deepy Ben’s name for our dear host.”
Sarah scowled at Kelsey and walked through the arch. The three returned they way they’d come, passing the massive table, the small hallway and into the room with a couch and two chairs, the parlor to the right of the big staircase. Ben was on the couch, feet still propped high. He’d folded his hands behind his head and appeared to be sleeping.
“Where’s Jared?” Johnny asked.
Ben’s eyes flickered open. “Huh?”
Sarah sat on the edge of a chair with her back arched as though she wasn’t comfortable coming in contact with the house in any way. “Jared. Where is he? He was with you, in here, when we went on the phone hunt.”
The tightening came back to Kelsey, pressing against her lungs from all sides. She felt a tingling, hot braid of nerves climb her back and flush her face. She looked from Ben to Sarah and Johnny. The chandelier flickered, darkening the room. But it hadn’t actually flickered, had it? Her eyes tricked her, of course...
“Dunno,” Ben said. “I guess he just went exploring.”
“Exploring? Here?” Sarah scooted closer to the chair’s edge. “What the hell for?”
“Architecture. Jared’s major, Sarah. Maybe he’s been inspired by this place. Weren’t you just saying something about the kitchen?”
Sarah glanced toward Kelsey. “That was Kels.”
Ben stood from the couch, stretching for the ceiling. “How big do you think this place is, anyway? I mean, from the outside, it looked massive. Like an old castle even, all that limestone around the foundation.”
“It could have been an inn or hotel, I guess.” Johnny shook his head. “I don’t know. But we should find Jared.” He walked to the stairs and cupped a hand against his face. “Jared?”
“What made you Captain Responsibility all of a sudden? I’m sure Jared’s around here somewhere.”
Jared’s gone. The thought came to Kelsey as her breath came back to her lungs. She leaned against a wall, trying to steady her wobbly nerves. Jared’s gone, and he won’t be coming back. She shook her head, trying to dislodge the unwelcome thought, but its roots had grown deep quickly.
“And we need to find him.” Johnny pointed at Ben. “We can split up and stick together. I’ll take upstairs with—”
“Wait. Whoa. Slow down there, Johnny.” Ben waved his hands. “Who appointed you Fred of this Scooby Doo crew?”
Johnny’s hand clamped on the stair railing. His knuckles began to whiten. “Just bad vibes about this place.” He peeled his hand away from the rail and looked at it. “Just bad vibes.”
Kelsey rubbed her shoulders. “I felt it when we came in. I feel it now. Maybe it’s just because of the wreck. I don’t know. But I don’t like it here. It’s too clean. It’s too—”
Wood groaned from the floor above them and caught Kelsey’s words in her mouth and sprinkled her with a wave of chills.
“That’s probably our intrepid architect now.” Ben smiled. “I’ll go and check.”
“We don’t go alone.” Johnny glanced at Kelsey and then his eyes rested on Sarah.
Sarah rolled her eyes. “Fine. I’ll go with you Benny-boy.” She glared at Kelsey as she crossed the room.
The two vanished up the stairs into the second floor’s darkness. Johnny stood with his back turned to Sarah for a moment, a long moment in which the chill left her and she began thinking about Johnny—his broad shoulders and lean, stone-chiseled face. Was it wrong to hope Johnny might come around, might choose her? He’d broken up with Sarah two months ago, making the ski trip awkward—a reason, even a small one—to be thankful for Ben being the fifth wheel. Still, she had hoped Jared and Sarah might hit it off, couple up, and leave Johnny for her. She looked up, caught Johnny’s eyes, and felt a warm rush in her cheeks.
“Why didn’t you go with Ben?” she asked.
“Ben? Sometimes I really hate that bastard. I didn’t want to punch him. I mean, how the hell can the guy fall asleep after hitting the ditch?”
“He was asleep before hitting the ditch,” Sarah said.
Johnny nodded. “True. Besides, I didn’t want to leave any of the women alone.”
Kelsey crossed her arms. Now wasn’t the time to show her hand. “How chivalrous.”
“Don’t go all feminista on me.” Johnny shrugged. “We don’t even know who lives here—hell, Farmer Bob could be asleep upstairs. Maybe he’s an ax murderer. This damn house must be at least four or five thousand square feet. Three stories and a basement by the looks of the foundation. Huge. Maybe he is asleep upstairs. Maybe he knows we’re here, and the old guy’s watching.”
Kelsey shivered. “Stop playing. You’re giving me the creepy-crawlies. Why do you call him an old guy, anyway?”
“Just a feeling.”
“Yeah. Me too. The feeling.” Kelsey rubbed her arms. The air had dropped a few degrees, but there wasn’t a draft. If anything the room was dead. “Maybe it’s the jitters after the accident, but I don’t like this place.”
“Definitely has a vibe.” Johnny moved closer to Kelsey. His blue eyes locked onto hers. He held out a hand. “We won’t be here long.”
She hesitated, her breath catching in her throat, and then took his hand. The skin was cool and ruff, not warm like she’d expected. Maybe it was the room. Maybe the chill was in the house itself. “We should look, too.”
Johnny turned toward the hallway. “The basement, wherever it is?”
“I don’t want to, but—”
The scream stopped Kelsey’s words before they left her mouth. Sarah’s scream. Kelsey didn’t think again until she was, following Johnny, halfway up the stairs. They rounded the landing, hurtled the final flight, spilling into the darkened second story hallway. Dim, yellowish light filtered from a window at one end. Down the other direction, a black figure waved.
“Down here!” Ben called.
Kelsey’s eyes adjusted to the darkened hallway, but she couldn’t see Sarah. Johnny trotted in front. He didn’t seem to be afraid—not like she was. Why was her heart rattling in her chest? Why did she feel like she couldn’t breathe? Ben moved back, further into the hallway. Johnny stepped through the doorway to which Ben had been pointing. He wheeled and tried to grab Kelsey, but too late.
She gasped. “Oh my God.” Her hands covered her mouth, but she couldn’t shut her eyes.
A man lay in a half-filled bathtub. His near-white hair clung close to his pinkish scalp, but was not wet. Although his hair showed old age’s silver-grey, the lack of lines on his face told a much younger story. His dead eyes stared at them, almost as though he’d been watching the door when he died. Almost as though he’d been waiting for them. In his left hand, draped as it was over the tub’s edge, he held a knife, the folding type which held utility blades used in construction. Thick gashes marred both wrists, a disordered criss-crossing of cuts. His right arm stretched along the far edge of the tub and wore a slash from the base of his hand to mid forearm. The cuts on the left were much smaller.
Sarah whimpered from the corner. Johnny stepped inside and pulled her to him, pressing her face against his chest. “There’s no blood,” she muttered.
“Bullshit,” Ben said. He’d closed in behind Kelsey, blocking the door.
Sarah pushed away from Johnny’s chest and glared at Ben. Her voice became firm, almost angry. “No blood. There’s no God-damned blood.”
Kelsey’s body turned to ice as she hunted—but didn’t find—a single drop. The few inches of bathwater in the tub were clear despite the old man being fully clothed. The linoleum floor reflected a small, sunny patch from the window but was otherwise unmarred.
“No blood at all.”