My nerves were a mess, but the fresh air was helping. My hands were clammy. My heart felt like it would leap out of my chest any second. My anxiety had gone into over drive since we left the inn a little after dinner. I was an awkward person and suffered from social anxiety in an endless list of problems. The pressure of socializing with new people could be a little overwhelming for me.
Madison encouraged me to get to know our new friends. I normally wouldn’t do it, but since coming to Dumont my outlook on life had changed considerably. I no longer wanted to be alone, exiled from the rest of the world. I had a renewed hope for my life and maybe it was time I made real friends. Friends who didn’t sleep in padded rooms. It would be nice to have a friend that didn’t have to be sedated when they got excited.
It was closing time at the diner, but Diana greeted us with a warm smile and asked if she could get us anything before they closed the kitchen. We had just eaten at the Sunnyledge and were both pretty full, but I ordered a piece of pie anyway. Diana’s hair was up in a bun again, suspended there with the help of a pen. Her green eyes sparkled like emeralds under the fluorescent lights.
I was staring, again. Was I drooling?
Our new friends arrived early and were already seated at a corner booth. Sara was there with her boyfriend and another guy who sat across from him wearing a red plaid shirt.
Sara’s boyfriend was Billy, a slender and muscular nineteen or twenty year old on the inside of the booth. Billy had the complete opposite style than Sara. His hair was blond, cut close to the scalp like a soldier’s. Sara on the other hand, died her hair so many times I bet she didn’t remember what her natural color was. She was wearing a tight black leather corset over a shear top, providing an old school goth vibe. Then there was Billy’s varsity jacket, polo shirt, and sneakers, making him look extremely preppy. They were complete opposites, but had found common ground in each other in different ways.
“Charlie, it’s nice to meet you. Diana hasn’t shut up about you all day,” Billy said with a wink. “Isn’t that right, Dee?” He looked up at Diana as she walked by.
Billy touched a nerve with Sara, who didn’t like when he poked fun at their friends. She gave him a little nudge with her elbow and told him to cut it out. Diana didn’t respond to Billy’s comment, but the other guy across the table was smirking.
“I’m just throwing a bone to Charlie,” Billy explained. He wore a letterman’s jacket for baseball, but since he graduated two years ago it had been somewhat sad he was still wearing it. “I’m telling you Charlie, she will totally go out with you.” I wasn’t sure if Billy was being sincere. I thought he might be just showing off for his friend. “Just wear protection, you don’t know where that filly has been.”
“O.M.G, Billy,” Sara shouted as she open hand slapped him on the back of his head, “Shut up!” She yelled, “You have no filter! I can’t believe I even hang out with you.” Sara covered her eyes, aware of how much of a jerk her boyfriend could be. When she uncovered them she said, “Could you make things more awkward between them? Sorry Charlie, Billy’s sense of humor is only funny to Billy. I think he was brain damaged as a child. Maybe dropped on his head a time or two.”
“Stan thinks it was funny,” Billy said in defense. “Charlie, this is Stan Perry. His dad owns everything in this town.”
“Shut up, man,” Stan told Billy, “Nice meeting you, Charlie. Don’t pay any attention to Billy.” Stan shook his head and added.
“It’s okay, really,” I said showing Billy there were no problems between us. “Perry,” I repeated. “I think I met your dad at the barber shop.”
“Yeah, that was probably him,” Stan agreed. “Does anything to avoid my mom.”
“See, everything’s cool,” Billy told Sara. “Charlie gets me, right buddy?” He said as he patted me hard on the back. He showed off his strength with a powerful forearm. “What are we doing tonight?” Billy asked the table. “I say we get hammered.”
Sara gave Billy a kiss on the lips and moved out of the booth, “The only thing you ever do is get hammered, baby. How about we do something different tonight?” Sara grabbed Madison’s hand and pulled her over to the front counter.
“You okay girl?” Sara asked Diana.
“It’s going to take a lot more for Billy to get under my skin,” Diana called over from where she was refilling the ketchup bottles, and loud enough so we could all hear her. “I know Billy is being a meat head, but I can and always will, ignore most of the verbal vomit that spews out of his mouth.” Everyone laughed except for Billy, but he had started with Diana in the first place.
A chime sounded when the door opened. Before Diana had time to see who it was and explain they were closed, Sheriff Brice walked in. His beige sheriff hat was on, which meant his visit wasn’t supposed to be social. He seemed saddened as he continued in with his task.
“Dad, did you find her?” Billy asked the Sheriff, but the Sheriff wasn’t paying any attention to his son. Instead he moved to the counter.
“Go, get Frank.” Sheriff Brice said to Diana. She just nodded and went through the door into the kitchen.
“What’s going on, dad?” Billy asked his father.
“Later,” the sheriff whispered.
Diana came back out followed by a heavy set line cook in his late forties. He was a pudgy man no taller than five foot wearing a cooks apron more greased stain than white. Burn marks covered his hands and extended up his bare arms.
“Sheriff,” Frank greeted, “Did you come with any news about my girl?” Frank wanted to know about his daughter, yet Sheriff Brice was hesitant. Brice seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders, while Frank looked like he was preparing himself for bad news. He had been preparing since his daughter went missing a week ago.
“We found her,” Sheriff Brice said as he suddenly clutched the other man’s shoulder. Frank was about to ask if she was okay, but Brice shook his head before the question could be asked. Tears began to roll down the cook’s cheeks, and his mouth began to tremble. He crumbled away from the sheriff taking a seat at a table close by. His tears switched to anger and his anger exploded with rage. Frank smashed the table with clenched fists.
“Did you find the bastard yet?” Frank grumbled as he tried to compose himself.
“We’re looking,” was all the sheriff could say.
“Which means you got nothing!” Frank yelled. He fell back into his chair. The sheriff went to help, but Frank stood up by himself and pushed the sheriff away. “I’ll wait for you outside. I just need a minute.”
“Dad,” Billy interrupted breaking the silence, “What happened to her?”
Sheriff Brice looked down at his son. “We found Laura’s body in the woods.” No one said a word. “Rhonda already identified the body,” he added. “She was dead when we found her, but that’s all I can tell you right now. We don’t know anything else.”
“Does it look like murder?” Billy asked. Sheriff Brice nodded yes, and walked out.
“Rhonda is Laura’s mom,” Sara explained for Madison and my benefit. “She works as dispatch for the sheriff’s department, but Laura’s parents have been separated for... how long now?” Sara asked Billy.
“Seven years, I think,” Billy answered. “Frank’s only reason for living was Laura. I wonder how he’ll get through this.”
“Let’s go to the clearing,” Stan said. “She’s been missing all this time, don’t you want to know what happened? No offense Billy, but it’s not like the Dumont Sheriff Department is known for their brilliant detective work. No offense.”
Billy thought about getting mad at the slight against his father, but then he thought against it, changing his mind. “They are a bit crap,” Billy agreed. “I guess we can go see.”
“You’re sick, guys” Sara replied. “Laura was our friend and you’re going to insult her memory for what? A stupid adventure?”
“Don’t be such a downer!” Billy called out. “She was our friend. Don’t you want her killer to pay for hurting her?” Billy looked my way. “Charlie’s in, right?” It was more of a declaration than a question. Billy really wanted to get even for something. He felt wronged in some way, but I wasn’t sure why.
“You coming, Charlie?” Diana asked with a smile, “Should be fun!” she added sarcastically. “These guys can play detective and we all can just chill. Not much different than any other night I guess.” I nodded yes as I gazed into her emerald eyes, agreeing with everything she said.
“Anyone else kind of creeped out by this?” Sara asked. “Laura’s been missing for a week, and now the police find her dead body in the woods. She was probably murdered by some crazy pervert. You want to chase that?”
“You want revenge,” I simply explained to Sara, giving my two cents. “You would be empty if you didn’t want some form of it.” I tried not to make eye contact with anyone when I said it, but I accidentally caught Stan’s eyes. He was pleased I stood up for them, but Sara gave me a dirty stare for butting in. Of course they were angry, they had every right to be angry.
Diana closed the diner for the night and locked the front doors. We split into two groups. Diana and Madison were with me, while Sara and Stan drove with Billy in his SUV. I wasn’t sure where we were going, but I didn’t see a problem with following complete strangers through the back woods of a country town.
Nope, no problem with that.
I followed Billy for several miles before we pulled into a gravel lot. A sheriff’s car was still there, but no one else seemed to care about their presence. I had a feeling Billy did what he wanted to. His dad was the sheriff so there was probably very little concern he could get into trouble.
Stan took the lead when we started on a path from the lot. The entire path was lit with overhead lights spread out as far from each other as possible. At the end of the path there was a small clearing wrapped in yellow police tape. The entire area was no larger than a house, and roped off as a crime scene. Billy picked the police tape up and slipped under. We all followed one by one aware we were breaking the law.
I wasn’t sure what we were looking for exactly. I don’t think anyone really knew what to expect. Of all of us, Stan seemed the most skittish about being there. He had been the most excited and out spoken to come, but now seemed to be second guessing his enthusiasm. Was he having a change of heart, or was it finally hitting him that a good friend was gone?
“Billy,” I called over, “What are we looking for?” Billy walked into the clearing towards the center examining the hard bare earth.
“He has no idea,” Sara cursed. “He just thinks it’s a game. I wonder if he can even comprehend that Laura is dead.”
The others had known Laura very well, and each were dealing with their loss in different ways. Diana was completely silent. Several tears ran down her cheek and I could feel her sadness grow as she excepted the truth.
Despair filled my heart and I could feel the pain of their loss. An overwhelming urge to run away came over me, but these weren’t my own feelings. I closed my eyes, but when I opened them again I didn’t see Diana, and I had no idea where my sister was either. All of them had disappeared, completely vanished without a word. My fear grew at being alone.
Without warning my vision was flooded with bursts of blue light. It felt like bubbles were being popped inside my head. Each one was bursting with static, and I could feel the warmth each one left behind.
The silhouette of a woman emerged out of the blue haze, but she wouldn’t come into focus. I could feel the sadness radiating out of the darkness. She was frightened and didn’t know where she was.
A flash light clicked on in the distance and in an instant everyone had suddenly reappeared in the clearing. The foreign feelings had vanished completely, as well as the woman’s silhouette and blue mist.
“Who’s down there?” A strong female voice called out. “You should not be here...” The light and voice moved closer. “You are trespassing at an active crime scene investigation...” When the woman caught Billy with her flash light she shouted, “Shit, Billy, what the heck you doing down here?” The flash light clicked off and a the sheriff’s deputy came running down the hill. “Do you know how much trouble you would be in if your daddy caught you up here?”
“Calm down, Annie,” Billy began to say, with no respect in his voice. “We can be here. My dad is cool with it.”
Annie was a strong looking woman with a gun. Her hair was pulled back into a pony tail, and her sharp features gave way to a delicate feminine appearance. She didn’t wear makeup, but didn’t need to. She was attractive in a plain kind of way.
“William Henry Brice, Jr, the day I start taking orders from you is the day your daddy demands it, not one second earlier.” Her voice was soft, but carried through the clearing well enough. Deputy Annie Blank pulled out her walkie talkie. “Do you want to ask him yourself?” She switched the walkie to open the channel.
“We were just leaving, right Billy?” Stan said trying to pull his friend away. The tension was overwhelming and I was happy to be the first one to leave. I knew it was to good to be true. The hallucinations were coming back, this time in full force.
I didn’t know if the deputy was bluffing, but the others thought she was being serious. They didn’t want to get into any trouble. It didn’t take long to see even the Sheriff’s son had his limits.
“Yeah, sorry,” Billy said as we followed him out of the clearing. “What a bitch,” he finally said when we were far enough from ear shot.
There was no point in staying unless we wanted to have trouble. Madison and I said good night and returned to the Sunnyledge around midnight. Several of the guests were sitting in front of a fire, watching It’s a Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart, on the flat screen.
I tried to sleep, but I couldn’t get the memory of blue haze out of my mind. It was the first time I had a hallucination that was so detailed. It felt like I was feeling someone else’s emotions in that clearing. How was that possible? It must have been another hallucination, but they were usually just dark shadows. There were never weird feelings that came with them.
What about the woman? The woman wasn’t real, I told myself. She was just another figment of my illness. That had to be what she was, but that meant that I wasn’t getting better. The headaches had stopped, but now I was having full blown psychotic episodes.
I laid in bed for another hour staring at the ceiling. As I felt myself getting sleepy I closed my eyes, but the image of a woman I had never seen before haunted my dreams. I could see her, but didn’t know who she was. Her face was hidden in the darkness. I tried to make the vision in my head go away, but no matter how long I tried to think of anything else, nothing worked.
I just couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t going to be possible. I went down stairs to make myself a little snack. My grandmother had a large gourmet kitchen, which was always full of food. I didn’t know what half the gadgets in the kitchen did and wasn’t about to do anything to complicated. Cooking in the traditional sense was not something I excelled at.
One thing I did know how to make, which was also my favorite food, was a peanut butter and jam sandwich. Lighter on the jam, generous on the peanut butter.
Some people chose to drink warm milk or count sheep when they couldn’t sleep. For me it was a simple sweet and savory delight. I couldn’t find grape jam so I went with strawberry. I took my PB & J making skills seriously. I only used creamy peanut butter, and tried to always use jam over jelly. I liked oat meal bread, but my grandmother only had multi-grain. Luckily, it was surprisingly a good choice.
After eating the sandwich I wasn’t tired at all. I still couldn’t go back to sleep. PB & J was usually very helpful, but there was something on my mind that wasn’t just going to go away on its own. I didn’t think Nunny would mind if I slipped out, but I wasn’t going to wake her to find out.
I checked in on Madison to see if she wanted to join me, but she was out cold. It was just as well because I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do. There was something at the clearing I had to see again. Was it possible I was having hallucinations? Of course. It wouldn’t be the first time. My brain could be experiencing buried problems deep within my psyche, bringing them to the surface in a chaotic vision. It was completely probable. Yet, I doubted it.
Something deep inside my heart didn’t think they were just hallucinations. I felt something deep within those woods that didn’t sit right with me. Was I just scared to think that the emotions I felt were really mine? They were horrible and full of fear. It was like someone was scared out of their minds. Kept in a prison of fear. Was it possible my own pain could be that bad?
I set the truck in neutral and pushed it down the drive way. When I got far enough from the Sunnyledge I started the engine and drove off. I didn’t listen to any music or try to find something on the radio. I wanted to be completely focused.
I was determined to prove I wasn’t crazy. My worst nightmare would always be the same. Trapped in a mental ward for all of eternity. I couldn’t go back to Jefferson. It just wasn’t an option for me. It was killing me.
Being alone in the woods in the middle of the night was unnerving. I was a city boy and the only forest I had ever been alone in before was in Central Park.
I waited for several minutes by the police tape looking around for any signs of life. I didn’t have Billy with me to bail me out if I was caught. My heart was pounding faster than normal. I could feel my temple pulsating above my eyes. I needed to get a handle on things if I didn’t want trigger a migraine. I paused at the thought. I was doing really well on that front. I tried not to jinx myself thinking about it.
I watched the clearing, but nothing was different. It was empty and the only sounds I heard were my own breathing. The longer I stood there alone, the more I was convinced I was an idiot. I had imagined the entire thing. There was nothing out here.
I started to feel strange again, like the bubbles were popping behind my eyes. The warmth filled my head and this time radiated down my arms. Out of nowhere the blue haze returned causing the entire clearing to take on a moon type glow. At the center of the mist stood a dark silhouette, still out of focus. As I tried to focus the blue mist was sucked inward and into the shape of a person.
When the blue mist settled I could see her. She was made of the blue mist, but the details of her face were still blurred out. It felt to real to be in my head. This wasn’t just a hallucination, this was something else.
The feeling of abandonment washed over me. Then fear completely overwhelmed me. I wanted to run away, but I knew the fear wasn’t my own. The overwhelming desire to run far away was hers. They were her feelings. I could feel her pain, her deep rooted desire to be saved. The pain turned in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t want to feel these alien feelings anymore. How was I able to feel her emotions? Could I even accept this was really happening? I slapped myself across the face just to be sure.
Her lips moved, but there was no sound. I couldn’t hear her voice, only a low electrical hum from the blue mist. Was it possible I was looking directly at a ghost? If this was a ghost, could it be Laura McDermott’s? As I thought her name she turned to face me. She started to move forward, but the fear we were sharing increased. She was terrified, which meant I was terrified.
A moment later I felt light headed. I worried I was going to pass out. I reached out to brace myself, but there was nothing to catch onto. I stumbled backward until I hit the trunk of a tree shoulder first. Pain rushed up and down my arm. I grabbed my shoulder and regained my balance.
When I looked over, the girl had disappeared and all of the blue mist with it. My head was clear, but the physical pain was hard to ignore.
I slid down the tree until I was sitting on the forest floor. I looked around while the pain faded into a dull ache. I checked my motion and thankfully nothing was hurt badly. I would probably have some bruising, but nothing close to a break.
There was a possibility it was a ghost, but why would I be the only one who was able to see it? The more logical explanation, I was having a full blown hallucination. I haven’t taken any medication since leaving Jefferson. I should have known better. The more I thought about it being a ghost, the more I thought it absurd. It had to be a creation of my imagination.
I knew the police found Laura’s body there. What if it was my subconscious playing tricks on me? I had to give my subconscious credit though. It really knew how to mess with me.
When I got back to the Sunnyledge the sun was already rising. I creeped in through the basement, but my grandmother was up and doing the laundry. I pretended I had just woken up when I passed the laundry room.
“Good morning, Nunny,” I said trying to keep up the farce. I didn’t want my grandmother getting mad at me for being out all night. “I slept like a log, last night,” I said as I yawned.
“You don’t have to lie to me, Charlie. Just let me know where you’re going with a note or something.”
I was surprised that she knew I had snuck out and not been angry. Maybe I had assumed my grandmother would be like all the other adults in my life.
“You’re not mad at me?” I asked confused.
“You’re not a child, Charlie. You can make your own decisions and choices. I won’t make you abide by lots of silly rules. I just ask you let me know so I don’t get worried about you.”
“Nunny, have you seen...” I paused, unsure how to ask. I wanted to know if she had ever seen a ghost at the Sunnyledge, but felt silly for even bringing up the topic. There were so many stories about the old bed and breakfast. I didn’t want to offend her, but she must have known about them. I decided against it and finished my question with, “my hat. I think I misplaced it.”
“I haven’t seen it,” my grandmother replied. “There’s food on the kitchen table if you’re hungry.”
I thanked my grandmother and went to the kitchen to get myself breakfast. When I entered the kitchen an odd sensation washed over me. It was a feeling of love. Of family. Then I saw something that stopped me dead in my tracks. A figure made of blue mist was hovering in the middle of the room. I thought the girl had followed me home, but when I noticed it’s face I realized it wasn’t a girl, but a boy my age.
He was staring out at me with intense dark blue eyes. His face wasn’t blurry like the girl’s, but in highly vivid detail. The boy was made completely out of the blue mist, like the girl from the forest. He was floating in midair and his feet didn’t touch the ground. Even though he looked solid I could see right through him. It didn’t make any sense, but my hallucinations usually didn’t have to make sense.
I thought he was opening his mouth to say something, but before he uttered a word, he suddenly vanished into thin air. In the blink of an eye he was gone, taking the blue mist with him.
I stood there in the kitchen for five minutes without moving a muscle before I decided there was something very wrong with me. There couldn’t possibly be ghosts here. Those stories that Sara and Billy told us couldn’t possibly be true. Stories about ghosts haunting the Sunnyledge had to be made up.
From behind me, my sister cleared her throat. I turned around, unsure of how long she was standing there. I knew I must have looked like weirdo standing still like that in the kitchen, just starring out into nothingness.
“Morning, Madison,” I said to quickly move on. “Can I interest you in something to eat?” I took a bagel and started to spread cream cheese on each side.
“Where did you go last night?” My sister asked while she fixed herself the same thing. “You weren’t here when I woke up this morning. Did you stay out all night?”
“I don’t know what your talking about,” I lied.
“I know you went out, Charlie. I heard you talking with Nunny. Did you see Diana? Are the two of you going out?”
“We’re you spying on me?”
My sister was insulted. “Of course I wasn’t spying on you.” She shook her head. “Never mind.
I hurt her feelings. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be mean. I wasn’t out with Diana. I just needed some time to think. Couldn’t sleep and thought fresh air would help.”
“Well, you should ask Diana out before she figures out how lame you are. She’s not going to wait forever.”
“Did she say anything about me?” I asked like a giddy school girl.
“That’s what I’m telling you, Charlie. Give her a call.” My sister walked away, but added, “She has the day off today. If you hurry you might find she’s available to hang out.” She tossed a small piece of paper on the counter.
When Madison left with her bagel, I grabbed the piece of paper. My heart jumped when I saw it was Diana’s number written in blue ink. I grabbed the phone and dialed the number. On the first ring, I quickly hung up the phone. What was I going to ask her? Where would we go? What would we do. A second later the phone in my hand starting ringing. I looked at the caller ID and instantly regretted it.
“Hi, Diana,” I said when I picked up the phone.
“Hey, Charlie,” she said. “Did you just call me?”
“Yeah, sorry,” I nervously answered. “I wanted to see... I wanted to ask you... if you wanted to... help me paint.”