In retrospect, Katriana Fairchilde decided it was all Gabriel Noble’s fault that she was stuck in her current predicament.
If he had just kept his mouth shut about how that tiny little dent in the door of their foster parents’ car had gotten there, she wouldn’t have been grounded. And if she hadn’t been grounded, she wouldn’t have had to call Brady Summers to pick her up so they could both make it to RoseMary & Thyme Cafe in time for their evening shift. As Brady’s middle name was Perpetually Late, relying on her to get anywhere on time could be iffy, at best. But she was Kat’s best friend so Kat was usually willing to overlook it.
Besides, everyone else with a driver’s license was busy. Her dad ran his own store, so he was never home until supper was over and her mom had her hands full with the other foster kids living in the home aside from her and Gabe.
Bumming a ride off of him might have been an option, but since Kat wasn’t speaking to him at the moment it made communication a bit difficult. Besides, Gabe hated driving. He’d probably tell her no just to spite her.
So, this was how she found herself in Brady’s silver Jeep Liberty, bumper-deep in a muddy ditch on the side of the road with its driver’s-side tires lodged firmly in icy muck. A swirling bank of fog walled them in on all sides, a thick white cocoon that rendered visibility non-existent.
Brady muttered to herself as she slammed her foot on the gas for the umpteenth time, trying to force the small SUV out of the mud. The engine roared, tires squelched as they spun, the vehicle lurched drunkenly forward and for just a second, it seemed as though it would finally free itself from the ditch. Then it settled with a groan and a thump, just as stuck as before and listing so far sideways that Kat was astonished it hadn’t already tipped over.
She absently fingered the small pendant she wore under her shirt—a silver talon holding a clear glass marble—some present from a half-forgotten birthday or Christmas years ago. She liked to call it her lucky charm, although, at the moment she was questioning what sort of luck. Brady called it dated, a leftover from some fashion fad of the twentieth century. But since she considered anything older than nine months dated, Kat didn’t hold much stock in her opinion.
But she also didn’t refuse when Brady had forced a pretty silver chain into her hands and demanded she “replace that ratty black cord” her pendant hung on. She didn’t own a lot of nice jewelry and the cord had been looking a little frayed.
Brady grumbled in frustration and jammed her fingers through short, coppery curls. After a moment, she turned off the engine and opened the door to climb awkwardly out of the cab. Chilly air immediately rushed in to chase all the heat out and she swore and reached back to grab a pair of gloves from the side compartment.
The startling temperature change had arrived along with the fog, suddenly and from out of nowhere. Nobody expected to run into ice patches in the middle of September, which was why Brady had been unprepared when she encountered the one that sent the Jeep skidding straight off into the ditch. All the rain that had fallen through the week might have accounted for the heavy fog bank, but such a drastic temperature change—dropping from low seventies to mid-thirties in the space of two hours—was just downright weird. Even for southern Pennsylvania.
“Kit-Kat, have I mentioned lately how much the country sucks?” Brady glowered at the mud that coated her expensive designer boots and jammed a knitted hat over her head.
“Not in the last five minutes.” Kat smirked as she wiped steam from her glasses and shoved them back onto her nose, then opened the door to climb out of the Jeep; the runner was a foot higher off the ground than usual, forcing her to hop down.
She landed in more mud and grimaced when it splashed up her legs. Having grown up in a large farmhouse surrounded by fields and woodland, she was used to a little dirt, but Brady was a born-and-bred city girl. She didn’t appreciate the country’s many ... charms, and took great pleasure in voicing her opinions to anyone who would listen. Which usually ended up being Kat.
“Well, it does,” she sniped. “There’s dirt, and bugs, and smelly animals, and dirt. I mean look at this! I just had the car washed and now it’s covered in mud because nobody in the country seems to have heard of asphalt.”
“At least, you’d better hope that’s mud,” Kat pointed out with a sly grin. “The cows tend to wander, you know.” The horrified expression on Brady’s face made her laugh. She pushed a lock of pale blonde hair that had somehow escaped its braid back behind her ear. “I hardly think a little mud is the worst of our problems right now,” she continued, kicking at the thick tree branch that had gotten itself wedged firmly under the rear tire. “You really got it stuck with all that revving. You’re gonna have to call a tow truck to haul it out now.”
“Your dad has one of those, right?” Brady hopped back into the cab and turned on the auxiliary, kicked the heat into high gear to warm it back up.
Kat shot her a droll glance as she climbed into her side and shut the passenger door. “Dad runs a hardware store. That’s a bit different from a garage.”
“We should maybe consider calling the cafe and let them know we won’t be in?”
Brady screwed up her face in thought. “Who’s managing this week?”
“Um … Rose, I think.”
“Oh, great. We might as well kiss our jobs goodbye.”
Rose and Mary Gardner, the elderly sisters who owned the cafe, did not condone tardiness in the workplace as a general rule. Rose was especially fussy about her employees being on time. Unless someone was dying of plague or in a full-body cast in the hospital, there was simply no excuse for being late.
“So, go ahead and call. She seems to like you, so maybe she’ll go easy on us. ’Sides, I forgot my phone.” Brady drummed her fingers on the steering wheel.
“Again?” Kat shot her an exasperated glance. “Why did you even buy that thing? You never carry it with you anyway!”
“Yeah, whatever.” Brady waved her off.
“You do remember I’m grounded, right? Which means my phone privileges have also been suspended for the rest of the month.”
“Well. That sucks.”
“Tell me about it.”
Brady sighed and leaned back in the seat. “So, now what do we do?”
“We’re not that far from my house. We can just walk back, call from there, and you can hang out until Dad gets home from work. He can probably hitch the tractor up and tow your car out of the ditch. Maybe the fog will have lifted by then.”
“Are you kidding?” Brady pulled a face. “It’s freezing and the fog doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere for awhile. Last thing we need is to appear as a news headline. ‘Bodies of Missing Girls Found in Woods, Eaten by Wild Dogs! Film at Eleven!’”
Kat laughed. “We’re still on the road, you dork. It’s a straight line back to the house. If we walk fast, we’ll stay warmer and get there quicker.”
“It’s getting darker, too. Doesn’t it look like it’s getting darker?”
“The sun tends to set early in the fall.”
“Yeah, but not at four-thirty!”
“Wow, you’re right, Brady!” She pressed a hand to each cheek with a dramatic widening of her eyes. “All we need now is some guy in a hockey mask to jump out swinging a machete and this has all the makings of a good slasher flick!”
“Okay, that’s enough out of you, Captain Sarcasm. You watch too much horror.”
“Maybe. But I’m not the one strangling the steering wheel to death.”
Brady hastily peeled her hands from the wheel, leaving finger-shaped indents in its padded leather cover.
Kat pursed her lips. “Soooo, we can keep sitting around and wait for help like a couple of chumps until your battery dies and we slowly freeze, or we can do the sensible thing and start walking back.”
Brady sighed heavily. “Fine. But if we get eaten by wild dogs, I’m totally blaming you!”
“Holy crap what was that?”
Kat jumped and yelped in surprise when manicured fingers dug painfully into her elbow. “What? What?” She glanced wildly around as she tried to shake off Brady’s vice-like grip; Brady seemed just as determined to hang on.
“I totally just saw something move!” she gibbered. “It was right over there! Didn’t you see it?”
Kat rolled her eyes. “Stop it. That’s not funny.”
“I’m not kidding! I swear, something moved out there!”
She stared in the direction of Brady’s pointing finger, trying to see through the thick fog, made more difficult by the dewy moisture that coated her glasses. Times like this made her wish she’d actually let Brady talk her into getting contacts…
Something dark and slithery shifted, disturbed the mist into lazy swirls as it vanished, and she squeaked and hopped back a step in surprise.
“See? I told you!” Brady squealed as her grip tightened further .
“We’re surrounded by farmland.” Kat’s voice trembled slightly despite her best attempt at bravado. “It was probably just a cow or a … a horse or something.”
“Or a serial killer!”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” She laughed weakly, going for humor. “If I remember right, this particular movie stars giant alien tentacles.”
“Will you shut up about the horror movies?”
Kat was starting to lose the feeling in her right arm. “Well, if it is something dangerous, standing around waiting to be attacked sure isn’t a smart idea.”
“I’m going back to the car.”
“And do what? Lock yourself in like a duck under glass? ’Here I am, all trapped and ready for the eating! Come ‘n get it!’”
“Hah hah.” Brady pouted as Kat pulled her along at a quicker pace down the road. Thankfully, her grip loosened enough to allow blood to circulate.
They were brought up short a moment later when a small, furry … something materialized out of the fog. Brady promptly shrieked, making Kat’s ears ring. She gaped as the animal waddled straight up to them and snuffled curiously. It seemed particularly interested in her, nosing at her foot before she quickly hopped backwards and attempted to scare it off. “Get going! Shoo!” she hissed, waving it away.
“What’s wrong with you? It’s just a cat,” Brady snickered, having recovered from her own fright.
Kat pursed her lips, unsure. Now that she got a closer look it really did look like a cat. But when it first appeared it had looked like something else entirely. Even now, she couldn’t quite shake the impression of a squat, chubby gray-and-black body with a long striped tail and, oddly enough, quills. Long, slender quills. Like a porcupine.
She squinched her eyes shut, opened them, and a large gray barn cat sat blinking placidly up at her, big golden eyes gleaming. She swallowed and stepped carefully around Brady, putting her between them.
“You big baby,” Brady snorted. She hissed at the cat and stomped her feet to scare it away. It responded with a mildly offended glance, turned and strutted away with its tail high in the air. “There ya go. I saved you from the big, scary kitty cat,” she teased.
“Don’t laugh,” Kat grumbled. “You’d be afraid too if animals attacked you every time you so much as look at ’em funny.”
“Not every animal attacks you.”
“No, just the ones with claws, teeth and hooves. I don’t even provoke them!”
“Stewie never attacks you.” Referring to Brady’s ancient pet basset hound.
Kat shot her a droll glance. “Stewie is like two-hundred in dog years, has three legs and is missing most of his teeth. What’s he gonna do, gum me to death?”
“Hey, don’t you talk smack about my baby,” Brady sniffed. “Come on, spaz, my fingers are going numb.” She grabbed Kat’s hand and tugged her into a stumbling walk. “We’re almost there, right? Please tell me we’re almost there.”
“I … I guess.” Kat’s teeth chattered and her skin crawled with goosebumps, a strange sense of wrongness that had nothing to do with the frigid air. Something really weird was going on and she had a sudden, horrible suspicion that they’d somehow stumbled straight into the middle of it. Except she seemed to be the only one to realize it.
“There’s light! I see your house!” Brady suddenly cried. She pointed ahead and released her grip on Kat’s hand.
“Where? I don’t see—Hey! Where are you going?”
Brady broke into a sudden sprint and vanished into the mist. “Wait up!” Kat tried to follow but the fog closed around her like a thick white blanket and narrowed her field of vision to a mere circle of ground on every side. She cautiously extended her arm until she touched the mist and instantly jerked her fingers back. It felt way more substantial than vaporized water ought to feel. It actually clung, like spiderwebs. She shuddered and stuffed both hands into her coat pockets. Just to be safe. She wasn’t a big fan of spiders.
“Brady!” she yelled and her voice hit the wall of mist and died there, smothered. She took a few cautious steps into the fog, then a few more. Her clear circle of air somehow moved with her, so she made her way carefully toward what she thought was the general direction of the house.
Something dark appeared like magic. Wooden posts strung through with electrified wire; the perimeter fence that enclosed the cow pasture. She sighed with relief. The pasture followed the road all the way up to the barn and from there she could easily find the house. She couldn’t be that far away if Brady had seen lights, so she picked her way carefully along the side of the road, kept an eye out for more icy patches and was careful to keep the fence within sight. She had the irrational suspicion that if it disappeared, she might never find it again.
It was downright creepy, walking alone through the fog. Nevermind that she’d lived on the farmstead for as long as she could remember, right now it felt more like she was trying to navigate an alien planet. Maybe there was something to all those horror movies she’d teased Brady about. Without her there to lend courage, every little noise made Kat near jump out of her skin. She tried to rationalize each snap and rustle away, but all she could think of was that glimpse of a large, dark something slithering off into the mist.
A particularly loud pop from just behind her sent her leaping ahead with a terrified squeal … straight into the electric fence.
She’d touched the fence before. Once, when she was twelve, and it had been on a dare. Except her jacket cuff had gotten stuck on the wire barbs and it took a few extra seconds to free it with her bare wrist caught against the wire. The shocks had been strong enough to make her entire body tingle and all her hair stand on end. Even her tongue had gone numb. But they hadn’t been strong enough to knock her flat on her ass.
That wasn’t the case now. Someone must have turned up the voltage or something, because the resulting zap made Kat’s entire body spasm and her vision flash momentarily white. Even the thick layers she wore couldn’t protect her from the shock. Her necklace burned and she yelped and stumbled backward, landed painfully on her butt in the middle of a half-frozen puddle. Muddy water splashed. Every nerve tingled. Her neck and chest stung where the silver chain touched it. Her glasses slipped from her nose and landed with a plop into the puddle that had already soaked through the seat of her pants and thin gloves. “Sonuva-!”
The curse abruptly lodged in her throat as a little gray-and-black body waddled out of the fog and paused to sniff at her booted foot. She gaped in shock. It was the barn cat from before. Only … it definitely wasn’t a cat. It had a catlike head with large, triangular ears, slitted gold-green eyes and an abundance of whiskers. But its muzzle was a little too long. And its body was round and roly-poly, with a raccoon’s coloring. And there were quills. Lots of quills that rustled softly with each waddling step the creature took.
Finished with its investigation, it plopped down on its haunches, wrapped its fluffy, too-long tail around its paws in a very catlike manner, and proceeded to show off an impressive set of sharp, feline teeth with a wide yawn.
Too stunned to even think of running, Kat was only knocked out of her stupor when another figure abruptly stumbled out of the mist and into her little circle of clear air, irritably swatting at clinging tendrils.
“Kip! Where ye at, ye sneaky, mangy thrice-damned pain-in-the-arse! Always scramblin’ off like yer tail’s on—Oh!” His rant ended on a surprised exclamation when his eyes landed on Kat; he looked just as startled to see her as she was to see him.
He had disturbingly large eyes. Round and dark and shiny, like two polished stones, all pupil and deep brown iris and very little white around the edges. When they fixed on the little creature sitting innocently at Kat’s feet, they narrowed dangerously. “There ye are, ye walkin’ pincushion! What’s the big idea, leadin’ me merry chase through this mess?” He swatted at another persistent tendril of fog. “Ye tryin’ to get us both lost?”
The creature yawned again and used a nimble, hand-like paw to dig around between its needles, as though scratching an itch. It gave the distinct impression that it had heard it all before and couldn’t have cared less.
Kat, on the other hand, continued to gape. She had never seen anyone dressed quite like this boy outside of a Halloween costume party. He looked like he’d stumbled straight out of Middle Earth or something. His pants had seen better days, ragged and patched-up, over which he wore a long, belted tunic in various shades of green and brown. Several leather pouches and a dagger dangled from the belt. The whole ensemble had been topped with a short cloak crudely stitched together from leather patches. He wore no shoes, despite the frigid weather, and his filthy bare feet caught Kat’s attention and held it fast. They weren’t human feet. Rather large, oddly-shaped and furred with short, red-brown hair that extended up his legs past the short hemline of his britches. His toes were too long and his toenails looked more like claws.
A sudden chuckle jerked her wandering gaze back to dark, round eyes that regarded her with open curiosity. Longish chestnut hair curled over his forehead and through the unkempt mop, she caught a glimpse of slightly-pointed ears, lightly furred just like his feet. “Well, now.” He cocked his head this way and that, rather like a curious owl. “What’re ye doin’ all the way out here, Little Miss?” he asked kindly. “Are ye lost?”
“I—Uh—” Kat’s gaze darted quickly to the dagger at his belt. “M-my home’s just up the road,” she stuttered. “I was … on the way there.”
“Ah. Well, best ye get to it, then. Ye don’t wanna be out in this mess. There’re strange things lurkin’ about. Say, have ye seen any odd creatures passin’ by, for chance?”
She hesitated. Did he mean besides him and his weird little pet? She thought of the slithering thing again, but it was probably long gone by now, so she just shrugged. “C-can’t see much of a-anything in this f-f-fog,” she mumbled around chattering teeth. Her jeans had absorbed most of the puddle by now and her legs and butt had gone numb. Her fingers were also half-numb while the other half had started to sting painfully. “I-I’ve g-gotta go now,” she added as she climbed stiffly to her feet.
The little creature suddenly yipped, a noise just like a fox’s bark. The boy glanced down with a raised brow. “What’s got yer tail in a twist?” he demanded. Another soft yip made him frown and glance up; one hand snaked into one of the pouches at his belt. He withdrew it a second later, a clear orb the size of a large marble clutched between his fingers. Kat’s jaw dropped when it slowly brightened with an eerie blue glow.
“Well, now.” He blinked as though surprised, held the strange orb toward her. The glow strengthened. She took a step back and hit a fencepost, immediately eased away before she accidentally gave herself another shock. His eyes had fixed on some point at her throat. “That’s a very interestin’ bauble ye’ve got there,” he commented, gaze sharpened with keen interest.
Kat blinked, confused, and he tapped a hairy finger at his own throat. Her hand instinctively rose to grip the necklace that had worked itself from under her shirt.
He shook his glowing marble a bit and studied it. Gave a soft whistle as though impressed by whatever it was he saw. ”That’s some strong juju right there,” he muttered as he scratched behind one ear. “Must be secrets upon secrets to warrant that sort of protective wardin’. Where did ye happen across a relic like that?”
Kat’s grip tightened protectively. “The jewelry store. It was a gift,” she snapped. “I’ve had it since forever!”
“All right, all right, no need to get defensive.” He chuckled. “I’ve no interest in stealin’ it and I’m not accusin’ ye of the same. I was just curious. Never expected t’ stumble upon somethin’ like that in this place, is all.” He eyed her, gaze intense. “But ye are a mystery, lass. Whoever t’was put the whammy on you was certainly a powerful one.”
She just stared at him blankly, having no idea what he was talking about.
He looked as if he wanted to say more, but another sharp yip from his companion cut him off as the creature abruptly bounded to its feet and took off into the fog, moving with far more speed and grace than its squat body should have allowed.
“Kip!” the boy bellowed, instantly forgetting all about Kat. “Get back here, ye mangy beast!” And without so much as a fare-thee-well, he instantly gave chase.
Kat’s jaw dropped when she caught a brief glimpse of a long, furred squirrel tail poking from beneath his cloak just before he vanished. She blinked, shook her head, blinked again and rubbed her temple with a cold, wet glove. Then she turned and started picking her way back to the house, keeping a sharp eye out for any more strange creatures.
For sanity’s sake, she decided, it was probably best to forget that the whole weird event had ever happened.
Did you enjoy my ongoing story so far? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, Shauna HouserWrite a Review