An Excerpt From: Eternal
Copyright © DEBRA GLASS, 2012
All Rights Reserved
I killed my best friend.
Conveniently, I had forgotten the events leading up to the wreck that ended Kira’s life. I’d also forgotten my near death experience. Actually, there was nothing near about it. I’d been dead. I’d seen my grandmother and a dog I’d had as a kid. There’d been a bunch of other people there but I didn’t recall their names or faces. All I knew was that they sent me back.
I’d much rather have died. Living with what I’d done to Kira would haunt me for the rest of my life.
Scarred and broken, I’d spent three weeks in the hospital. I hadn’t even gotten to attend Kira’s funeral--not that I would have been welcomed there.
And now, we were moving to some Podunk town in Tennessee. Some place far away from Atlanta. Far from my friends--rather those people who used to be my friends.
And far from the high school from which I had planned to graduate this year.
Because Kira had been the one driving, my mom blamed her for the wreck--and for the four‑inch, red scar that marred my face.
Even now, six months later, Mom was on her cell phone harping about it to my stepfather, David, who drove my car ahead of us.
“Wren wasn’t even driving. I don’t know how they can…” Her voice trailed off as she glanced in the rearview and realized I was listening. She swiftly changed the subject. “How far is the turn off to Columbia?”
I shifted uncomfortably in the back seat and stared without seeing at the green hills whisking by the car window.
My mom and Kira’s mom had been best friends before the wreck. But not now. Not after the fight they’d had in the hospital hall. The things I had heard them say to each other made me ache inside. Some part of me had wanted to cry out that it was my fault--that Mom was wrong and Mrs. Collier was right. But I didn’t have the courage. It was one thing to admit to myself that I was a murderer. It was something entirely different to confess the words aloud. This was my private pain. A pain I wasn’t ready to have magnified by sharing it with anyone else.
Why wouldn’t Mom let it go? Kira was the one who’d died.
The one who’d stayed dead.
Living was far more difficult because not only had I put my best friend in a grave but my entire family had been forced to uproot themselves. To protect me.
David–my stepfather–gave up his job at St. Joseph hospital to work as an ER doctor in Columbia. My little sister left all her friends in tears. My mom sold the house she loved and left the country club to move to some place where nobody knew us.
I swallowed hard.
Where nobody knew me.
Mr. Stella, my cat, grumbled from his cat carrier. Mom eyed me in the rearview as she snapped her cell phone shut. “Don’t even think about letting that cat loose in the car, Wren.”
I didn’t say anything but I did give Mr. Stella an apologetic look. It was bad enough he’d been saddled with a name like Mr. Stella but when we’d first found him, convinced he was a female, my sister Ella had dubbed him Stella. The veterinarian set us all straight and Ella had cried so hard, we’d decided to just stick Mr. in front of Stella.
I stuck my finger through the caging and tickled his nose. “You’ll be loose soon,” I reassured him because my stint on The Other Side had left me with the ability to know things before they happened and sometimes, I could read other people’s thoughts. Mom was thinking we’d arrive at our new house in ten minutes.
I hadn’t told anyone about my newfound ability. Talk about a recipe for further disaster! For one, let’s face it, it’s bad enough being a killer. But being a killer and the crazy kid who hears voices? And two, I couldn’t control it. I had tried. This side effect–that’s what I liked to call it, a side effect I had brought back from that place–would not bend to my will. So, it wasn’t like I could perform on cue if anyone demanded proof of my power.
Power. That wasn’t the right word for it.
More like a curse.
I turned up the volume on my iPod, sank lower into the back seat and watched the gently rolling hills of Tennessee until they were a blur rushing by the window. Even though I was still in the south, this part of the country was nothing like Atlanta. Here, the landscape looked older. Farm houses dotted the lush countryside. Cows and horses grazed in sprawling fields. Here and there, a rundown trailer sat nestled between looming antebellum houses. Vast tracts of undulating lawns, delineated by hand laid stone fences that I knew had to be at least two centuries old, lined the highway. I had to admit the scenery was pretty but it screamed boring. I clenched my teeth to keep from asking why we couldn’t be moving to some exotic location like New York City or Los Angeles. Why Columbia, Tennessee?
Even the name lacked excitement.
Population: Thirty-three thousand and fifty-five.
Thirty-three thousand, fifty-nine including my Mom, David, my bratty sister, Ella and me.
I had Googled Columbia before we set out from Atlanta with the moving van drawing up the rear. Columbia’s nickname was Mule Town.
That didn’t bode well.
The only thing the place had going for it was its proximity to Nashville which had to have some decent shopping, theaters and restaurants.
I didn’t know why I cared.
I didn’t do any of those things any more. Not with this unsightly scar running down the side of my face.
Whenever I thought about it, the events of the accident rushed back over me in a tumult that more often than not launched a full-blown panic attack.
Refusing to give in any longer to the memories dragging at my thoughts, I took a deep breath and glanced at Ella who sat merrily playing a handheld game. If I concentrated on her, maybe the scary images would fade away.
My eight year old sister, Ella, was one of those kids who marched to a circus band no one else could hear. Today’s particular clown costume happened to be a hot pink pair of leopard print pants with a turquoise dress serving as a top. She’d managed to drag a brush through the front of her brown hair but the back was a tangled mess.
I had tried in vain to get her to dress in something less embarrassing but Ella’s main and only goal was comfort. At least her purple socks were mates but it would be asking far too much to get her to match the socks to her outfit. I half wondered if she might be colorblind.
Mom said she’d grow out of it and always tagged ‘just like you did’ at the end of her declarations. Had I really dressed so atrociously? I didn’t think so. Deep down, though, some part of me longed to be like Ella who was blissfully unaware and unconcerned about the rest of the world. At her age, I had only been eager to grow up. Now I would give anything to experience childlike fascination with innocent eyes.
Civilization finally came into view. I was glad to see Columbia, at least, had a McDonald’s.
David turned and Mom followed. We passed several strip malls then drove over a narrow body of water called the Duck River and toward the old part of Columbia’s downtown.
David turned again at the very Old South looking Maury County Courthouse. With its gleaming white dome, the Georgian style building stood sentinel at the end of an actual town square, marking time with its weathered old clock. I gaped at the autumn‑leaved trees and quaint streetlamps lining the streets, concealing homey little shops and cafes from view.
I had to admit the place was charming. I could see why Mom liked it--why they’d chosen it. Perhaps they hoped an old-fashioned Mayberry like this would be a friendlier place for me to recover.
After we wound down a curvy, narrow street and passed several Victorian style houses, we began to drive through more modern subdivisions. I settled back down in my seat, no longer interested in the scenery.
But when we turned onto a two lane road and the boring little town of Columbia began to fade into more gently rolling pastures, a sense of excitement I couldn’t explain fluttered in my stomach. Slate stone fences like the ones I had seen along the Interstate lined the narrow road and here and there, a big old plantation house sat nestled into the lush landscape behind winding oak lined driveways. Horses and cattle grazed in some of the pastures and despite my initial reservations, I had to acknowledge to myself that this place was…well…pretty.
David’s blinker flashed and then he turned onto one of the tree-lined pea gravel paved drives. Even with my extra-sensory perception, I hadn’t seen this coming.
“What do you think, girls?” Mom asked proudly.
Both Ella and I leaned toward the middle of the SUV so we could see out the front window.
A giant white brick house loomed in the distance. From my limited vantage point, I could see porches on at least two sides of the house crowned with cozy balconies. Long green shutters flanked tall windows. But what drew my attention the most was a monstrous elliptical shaped window which arched gracefully under the steep pitch of the porch roof, stretching the width of the overhang on the front of the house. The woodwork on the window radiated outward from a center point at the bottom, giving it the appearance of an unfurled fan.
“Is this our house?” I asked, uttering my first words since we passed through Chattanooga.
I felt something. For the first time since the accident, I had an emotion that wasn’t negative. My hand covered my stomach as if it could calm the butterflies there.
The plethora of counselors I had seen had all told me I needed to identify my emotions. And whether it was due to the fact that I hadn’t felt anything good in months or because of something else, I couldn’t define what I was feeling now.
Mom’s dark brown ponytail bounced cheerfully as she glanced back at Ella and me. “It was built in 1828 and is one of the oldest houses in Maury County. The Confederates used it as a hospital during the Civil War.”
“Is it haunted?” Ella slowly and dramatically turned her head in my direction while she arched a dubious eyebrow.
In the rearview mirror, I saw Mom’s forehead crease. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
I craned to see the big arched window again, wondering at this wild sensation inside me. As our caravan pulled around the circular drive in front of the house, I pressed my nose to the glass, looking up.
The sun eased from behind a cloud and brilliant rays glanced off the thick leaded glass fanlight. I squinted. Someone was there! A man? I gasped when the figure suddenly disappeared. “Is anyone here?”
Mom and Ella piled out of the SUV, joining David who was pocketing the keys to my Jaguar. “Just us and the movers,” Mom said marching toward the front door.
Gathering up Mr. Stella’s carrier, I opened my door and slid out, my gaze still fixed on the window. No one stood there now. Still, I could have sworn I’d seen a man.
Several guys piled out of the moving van and began unloading our stuff. We hadn’t had to bring much more than our dishes, clothes and personal items. David, who had purchased the house at auction, complete with its antiques, oversaw everything with a sense of organized ease. Classically handsome and blond, his sunny exterior matched his good-natured interior. He was the perfect stepdad. Courteous. Fatherly. And perfect for Mom who rushed around the movers like a frazzled bumblebee.
“Come inside, girls,” Mom called from the front porch.
I followed Ella up the steps to where Mom turned the tarnished brass knob and pushed the tall door with her shoulder. Just like in a horror film, it swung open with an ominous haunted house creak.
“I’ll have to spray that with some WD-40,” Mom said as she took Ella’s hand and walked into our new home. And then she exclaimed, “Wow!”
“This looks like a museum,” Ella said in her overly loud stage whisper.
As soon as I crossed the threshold, a cold chill surrounded me--despite the early October warmth.
Ella was right. It did look like a museum.
The entry hall had a cavernous feel to it and shadows encased the adjoining rooms. Elaborate crown molding frosted the soaring walls. I wondered who’d carved all those intricate patterns so many years ago.
I breathed in the scent of lemon oil and old wood. The house smelled stagnant as if it had been closed up for a long time. As if no one had lived here for years.
A staircase wound upward from the back of the entry hall. At the landing, shards of light filtered through a gracefully arched Palladian window bordered by sidelights, the sight of which reminded me again of the man I thought I’d seen peering out the fanlight.
“Panel doors,” Mom murmured, snagging my attention as she pushed a large, wooden sliding door open to reveal a massive room they’d probably called the parlor when this house was built.
Although the old furnishings were huge in comparison to what we’d had in our very modern house in Buckhead, they looked small in these big rooms. A mirror hung over the mantle, angled away from the wall at the top so that, despite the fact that it was hanging several feet above a person of average height, you could actually see your reflection in it. The glass was a dark silvery gray in spots, giving the appearance of a shadow lurking in the depths of the room.
Portraits of people, that by the look of their hair and clothing were long dead, graced other mantles in the gargantuan rooms. Their overly large, somber eyes seemed to stare at me as I walked by.
“Isn’t this fabulous?” Mom asked, her voice lit with excitement as she set her purse and bag on a crimson velvet settee.
I hoped she wasn’t too attached to the rickety, uncomfortable looking furniture. As I passed through the room, I wondered where our plasma flat screen television was going to fit.
Mom was the type who got on a kick every now and then. Once she’d fallen in with some sort of simple life fad and forced Ella and me to give up our iPods, our TVs and laptops. The worst were the healthy diets she forced on us. Usually, one of Mom’s fads was the result of a New Year’s resolution and, thankfully, they never lasted past the second week in February.
This old house… It might just trigger some latent bucolic desire in Mom that would mean our doom. I studied her, trying to read her. Mom’s exterior was as cool as lemon icebox pie. Her frosting colored clothes never showed a wrinkle and she always wore her brown hair smoothed back in an austere bun. Even her shoes were spotless. I sensed all her surface perfection hid a desperate search for something she couldn’t quite name.
My eyes narrowed as I picked up fractured pieces of her current thoughts. The wheels were turning in her brain about how the move was going to change our lives. Before I could slam the door on my mental connection to Mom’s thoughts, Ella rushed past me and up the winding staircase. “I want to see my room!”
I inhaled, resisting the urge to race her up the stairs to vie for the best and biggest room. Instead, I hefted Mr. Stella’s carrier in one hand, gripped the satiny wood banister and slowly plodded up the stairs, looking down at the threadbare and faded carpet runner which protected the dark wood underneath.
When I arrived at the landing, I could see out the arched windows onto an area that looked as if it had once been a flower garden. A lonely rusted fountain filled with fallen gold leaves stood in the center of the area. Flagstone paths meandered through the overgrown weeds.
Tucked just beyond the edge of the woods was a little unkempt cemetery surrounded by a wilting iron fence. I shuddered. The idea that there were people who’d lived in this house buried in the back yard gave me the creeps.
I knew from my near death experience that there was life after death. But were they all confined to the place I had gone? Or were some of them still here on the earth plane?
Still with us?
“Cool!” I heard Ella cry out, dragging my attention from the cemetery.
I shifted Mr. Stella’s heavy carrier into the other hand and worked my way up the rest of the stairs. He let out a low meow. “It’s all right, buddy,” I said, trying to reassure him.
The ceilings in the upstairs rooms were high but not as high as those in the downstairs rooms. Off a wide second story hall sat four massive bedrooms. With a loud squeal, Ella jubilantly claimed one of them. Through the doorway, I could see her jumping up and down on an antique bed.
I should have been just as excited about seeing my own room but I couldn’t stop wondering about the fanlight. Where was it? Apparently, not on this floor. My gaze drifted upward to the smooth, white ceiling. Was it possibly in an attic?
The thought of that big, old window in a spooky, dark attic sent a ripple of apprehension through me. It was almost as if that window was alive, overlooking our whole world. And like me, the window had the creepy ability to see what was both outside and inside.
A chill raced up my spine and a split second afterward, Mr. Stella gave a high pitched meow.
“Okay, I guess it’s time to let you out,” I said, kneeling to spring him from the cat carrier. His green eyed gaze met mine as if he wasn’t sure about this strange new world. He gingerly put one black paw onto the hardwood floor and then the other before he stepped out and subsequently bolted underneath a bookshelf.
“Wren?” I heard David’s voice from the landing.
He gave me that pitying but encouraging smile he’d been flashing me ever since the accident. “We thought you might like this room to the right. It has a bathroom and its own balcony.”
“Okay,” I said unenthusiastically. But as I walked toward my room, that same overwhelming sense of anticipation came over me again.
Ignoring the psychic sense, I discovered my room consisted of a series of rooms. A smaller hallway served as an entry between two bedrooms which opened out onto one of the balconies I had seen from the driveway. I pulled open the heavy wooden door. Through the old screen door, hills undulated against the backdrop of bright, fall‑colored treetops.
A nice breeze rustled the golden leaves in the giant oak outside the door so I decided to leave the door open and let the upstairs air out a little.
My actual bedroom looked as much like something out of a museum as the rest of the house. The faded wallpaper bore an overly large, out of fashion print. A four poster monstrosity of a bed filled the room. Its thick, carved posts held up a heavy looking tester canopy lined with garish, green fabric knotted into a rosette in the center. The bed sat so high off the floor, I would need a step ladder just to crawl into it at night.
Maybe Mom and David would let me exchange it for something a little more modern after everyone settled in.
A tall desk with a glassed in bookshelf and a little flip-down surface to write on rested in one corner. Yet another piece of outdated, impractical furniture. I sighed. I couldn’t do without my computer desk, my iPod dock and my television. But as much as I longed for brand new furniture, some part of me knew it would be a travesty to change one thing about this room.
I experienced an inexplicable insight that this room was some sort of shrine. But to whom? My gaze drifted toward the long window. Plum colored drapes pooled onto an oval, braided rug.
“What a weird place for a rug,” I mused aloud as I moved toward it, only to stop in my tracks when I noticed the rug partially covered a stain on the floor. An unsettling sense of anticipation swamped me as I bent and lifted an edge of the dusty, brittle rug. Underneath, the floor was a darker color. Almost as if something had been burned into the wood.
I brushed my fingertips over the spot. A shock passed through my body so strong that it knocked me onto my backside. “What the--”
Instantly, I knew the rug had been placed there to cover a bloodstain.
I struggled to fight off the images that rushed into my head. Soldiers. Groaning boys begging for something to ease their misery. The metallic stench of blood and gun powder, horror…
Bile rose in my throat.
“No!” I said, jerking to my feet. “No.” I shook my head, refusing to dwell on it, to let the visions in. This was different then my other psychic insights. This was way more than just some telepathic trick or minor intuition. The visions flooded full-bodied and lifelike, so detailed they stole my breath away.
I stumbled through a second doorway. This room looked as if it had been added on after the main part of the house was built. Much better.
No horrific images bombarded me here.
No blood stained the floorboards.
Relief washed through me as I leaned against the wall and gulped deep breaths of air. I tried to draw on techniques I had learned from my counselors to return my pulse to normal but it was a good five minutes before I recovered.
When I could think clearly again, I stood and took in the starkly barren room. I liked this room. It had a cozy feel. Already, I envisioned this area as my own little den with a couch and a chair. The bathroom opened off to the right. A deep tub perched on sturdy claw feet. A pedestal sink stood beside a toilet with an old fashioned black horseshoe shaped seat. I grimaced. There wasn’t much room for spreading out my hair dryer and makeup but at least I had my own bathroom.
As I took in the details of the quaint bathroom, I purposefully avoided my reflection in the mirror. I did not like to recall the angry looking scar on my face. It was just another reminder that my best friend was dead while I still lived.
“Wren!” Mom’s voice rang out from the stairs. “Come show the movers where to put your things!”
I started toward the stairs but when I reached the little hallway leading to my balcony, I noticed a narrow, white wooden door tucked behind the hall door.
Another psychic hunch tore through me. I suddenly knew where that door led.
The attic--and the creepy window.
I pushed the hall door closed. The hinges groaned in protest. My fingers shook as I tugged on the toggle handle to the attic door and let out a groan of frustration when the door refused to budge.
I stepped back from the door. This was stupid. What if that man I had seen was up there?
Logic said I should walk away, go downstairs and get Mom or David to come to the attic with me. It made no sense to go alone. Not when I suspected some stranger hid up there.
But I couldn’t seem to stop myself from pulling on that door handle again. For no sane reason, I was mysteriously drawn to that room. I wanted to get in there now. Alone. Despite the voice in my head that railed against it.
Just as the door was about to crack open, my Mom’s voice echoed through the house again.
“Wren, come on! They’re waiting for you!”
Reluctantly, I hurried down the stairs but I knew I would be back to tackle that door later.
* * * * *
Despite my exhaustion, sleep did not come easily that night. I hadn’t spent a night away from home since the weeks I was confined to a hospital bed back in Atlanta. My new and strange surroundings did not make for easy slumber.
Even the comfortable bed and soft cotton sheets couldn’t hinder my rampant thoughts. I wondered who’d slept in this bed before me. Who else had lain awake in this very bed listening to the unfamiliar creaks and pops of this vast house? Who’d been born in this room?
And who had died here?
Certainly someone had. The bloodstains on the floor testified to that. I’d considered mentioning it to Mom but she’d been too busy helping Ella unpack.
An unexpected creak in the floorboards above my head made me jump. Propping on my elbows, I listened. Before I could chalk the noise up to the age of the house, I heard something that made my blood run cold. The sound wasn’t a creak at all.
It was footsteps! Distinct, one after another, moving from one side of the house to the other.
How long had I been awake? I hadn’t heard anyone coming up the stairs and going into the attic.
I bolted upright in the bed. My gaze shot to the glowing red readout of my digital clock. Nearly four. No one in my family would have reason to be in the attic. Still holding my breath, I stared up at the knot in the center of the fabric of my canopy and tried to listen in spite of the pounding of my pulse in my ears.
Changing direction, the footsteps plodded toward the front of the house--toward the fanlight.
I tried to swallow but couldn’t. I had seen someone standing at the fanlight after all.
Shivers broke out over my arms and legs. I bit my bottom lip so hard it hurt, remembering that I hadn’t been able to open the attic door. Because it was locked from the inside?
Only one thing to do…
I’d never purposely tried to use my newfound abilities. I spent most of my time wishing them away. But this time, I had to know the truth. The need to discover who lurked in the attic suddenly consumed me with a ferocity like nothing I had ever before experienced. Closing my eyes, I willed the images to come to me.
Show me who is in the attic.
Strange vibrations came over me as if I was somehow in tune with the intruder. The footsteps suddenly turned and started toward me at a quick pace. My eyes snapped open. My stomach tangled into knots as I heard the intruder racing down the attic stairs.
Too terrified to move, I struggled to gasp for a breath to scream.
The attic door cracked open and my scream died in my throat as the intruder’s footsteps echoed across the wooden floor. Hard terror gripped me as I realized he headed toward my room.
Shaking, I gaped into the murky darkness.
And then, he stepped out of the shadows, forming out of them as if he were made of the night instead of flesh and blood.
I stared, realizing that he was not what I expected. Instead of a dirty vagrant, he appeared to be a boy about my age. Sensing no threat from him, I took in his dark, disheveled hair, his blousing shirt, suspenders, dark trousers and clumsy looking shoes.
Obviously as surprised as I was, he returned my stare.
“Who are you?” I demanded.
“Who are you?” I inquired again. “What do you want?”
His eyes widened. His lips parted as if he might speak and then he simply…vanished.
I blinked. Had I imagined him? Was he part of some dream? No. Was he a…a ghost?
I stared at the spot where he’d been. My whole body began to tremble. A ghost. I had seen a ghost. When I could finally drag a breath into my lungs, I screamed.
Footsteps hammered up the staircase in time with my racing heart. My shoulders sagged with relief when my mother’s voice called from the hallway. “Wren?”
Ella appeared in my doorway rubbing her eyes. “What’s wrong?” she asked sleepily.
Drawing her robe together, Mom swept past her and hurried to my bedside. “What’s the matter, Wren? Did you have another bad dream?”
I’d been having nightmares since the accident. Mom always referred to them as bad dreams but they were real, terrifying, sweat inducing nightmares. This had not been one of those. Not even close.
While Ella lingered in the doorway, Mom sat beside me and stroked my hair off my face. Even in my terror, I noticed how careful she was not to brush her palm over my scar.
My gaze moved from the spot where I had seen the ghost to my mom. I wanted to tell her the truth. I really did. But something stopped me from uttering the words. I couldn’t confess what I had seen. How could I be sure he was real? How could I be certain I hadn’t imagined the whole thing? Maybe I really was crazy. Or maybe this was my punishment for killing Kira. If that was the case, what good would it do to tell Mom? Why should I worry her even more than I already had? How much did I want to put my family through?
Dumbly, I nodded. “Yes. A nightmare.”
“Are you all right, now?” she asked.
“I’m fine. Sorry I woke you.” I snuggled down onto my side. I pulled the musty old granny pillow closer, laying my cheek against the cool cotton.
Mom gave me a pat on the shoulder and stood. She padded toward the door, pulling Ella with her. “Back to bed, Ella.”
Their footsteps retreated down the hall. I flipped onto my back and stared at the ceiling.
The ghost had vanished but I now knew with complete certainty that my house was haunted.