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Housewarming Gift

By Joseph Hagen All Rights Reserved ©

Horror / Thriller

Housewarming Gift

The day had been exhausting.

Joan's movers had needed constant direction as they brought in her furniture and boxes.  She had been directing them through the house again and again all morning. “The rooms aren’t moving, guys,” she eventually told them through clenched teeth, ignoring her unintended play on words. 

“Mike’s Moving Men” as the backs of their shirts identified them, needed a woman to keep them on task and today Joan was their gal.  The fronts of their shirts identified them as Phil, Jack and, although she had trouble believing that some mother had actually given the name to her own child, Butch.  They were all big strong men, but there wasn’t a brain in the bunch.

Finally only the boxes marked storage were left.  She directed the trio to the room where the boxes needed to be placed, and left them to their work.  While they took care of that, she went to the back of her new home, the room that would soon be her bedroom.  She’d put sheets on the bed and was slipping on a pillowcase when she sensed someone behind her.  Startled, she spun to see Jack standing beside a stack of boxes well inside the doorway. 

"Oh!  What do you want?” She asked startled.

Jack’s narrow eyes, perched over a great beak of a nose, didn’t react to her tone as he asked, “How do you want them stacked?” 

"One on top of the other you idiot!" was almost Joan’s knee jerk response.  Instead she choked down her words and was rewarded with a short, rather intense coughing jag.  By the time she’d cleared her throat and caught her breath, Jack had managed not to move a portion of an inch.  With the same blank expression on his face he stood patiently waiting to see if she’d live to deliver his answer.

“I’ll come up,” she managed, still clearing her throat as she led the way.

The attic level was surprisingly clean.  The prior owner must have used it for some purpose other than simple storage.  Joan moved over to the high, covered window and pulled the half sheet aside allowing sunlight to pour in.  A few bits of dust caught the light as it cut across the twelve by fifteen foot area.  The walls and ceiling were unpainted, and the floor was bare plywood, but there were tell tale signs of use.  Small, spaced nails protruding from the drywall paneled walls, the faint outline of an area rug; there was even an electric outlet.  Despite the peaked roof, the room could easily be made into a useful living space, beautiful even, with the way the midday light spilled in through the high window.

Admiring the space, her eyes scanned the room as she began considering colors and furnishings.  Her brows rose when she spotted a small brown box leaning against the wall and centered in the brightest beams of the sun’s warming rays.  “What’s that?” She asked aloud.

“Huh?” Jack grunted as he stood beside the two boxes he’d already carried up.

As Joan walked over to examine her find she pointed and directed.  “Four high along that wall.  It should all fit pretty easily.”

Jack grunted affirmatively and picked up his boxes again as Joan picked up her’s.

“Bye and thanks!”  Joan called from her front door as Mike’s Neanderthals climbed into their empty truck.  Before they were able to not answer her farewell, she closed the door and shook the brown box while checking her watch.  Casually eyeing the piled boxes and poorly placed furniture, she directed her gaze back to the box and spoke to it,  “Three hours and it’s you, me and a box of cheap wine my little housewarming buddy!”

True to her word Joan was setting up a card table, two TV tables and plugging in a lamp just three hours later.  The lamp shared the top of a short stack of boxes with a floral printed box of Merlot and a coffee cup.  Who knew where the wine glasses were and the evening of a moving day was no time to stand on ceremony.

Turning on the lamp, Joan suddenly noticed how dark it had gotten.  The day has finished and so was she, except...  tired as she was, she had every intention of at least getting started on her attic find.  “The phone isn’t hooked up, my cell is turned off, and the doorbell doesn’t work.  It’s just you and me my puzzling little friend.”  She sighed happily as she filled her cup and took a seat. 

The lid came off easily and she dumped the pieces onto the table top.  What are you going to be, Joan wondered as she began spreading the pieces and turning them over so she could see what clues their printed side offered.  “Oh!  First corner!” she sung happily as she separated the corners from the edges and the rest of the pieces which she spread over the surface of all three tables. 

Looks like about five hundred pieces and no picture on the box to offer any spoiler clues.  A wonderful challenge to tire out my mind and ensure a good night’s sleep, Joan thought as she stretched tired muscles.  Like there’s a chance I couldn’t sleep anyway.  I bet I could sleep through a murder tonight, even my own!  She shivered thinking, Yikes!  Where did that come from?

Half an hour later the full border was completed.  Two cups of wine had passed from the box and Joan’s cup, but neither the Merlot nor the day of activity was moving her to seek rest in her already made bed.  She tightened her eyes as she put in another puzzle piece and pondered what she could see of her mystery picture.  She pouted as she tried to identify some clue, from her bare beginning, as to what the picture was going to contain.  “Too dark,” She muttered but glanced approvingly at the remainder of center pieces which were primarily lighter in shade and included a variety of colors.  She’d already assembled the upper portion of a lamp which would eventually light the view of the completed picture.  In the puzzle the bulb was bare.

Good idea!  Joan thought as she pulled the shade off of her lamp.  Appreciating the better light she rubbed her hands together and then refilled her cup.  Seconds later she’d returned to her efforts.

Slowly the picture came together.  She chuckled when stacked moving boxes became visible around the edges. 

“How fun!” She exclaimed.  “Someone’s moving!  Just like me!” 

What she could see of the pictured room was empty, other than the stacked boxes near the edge, but after a few more pieces were in place a portion of a bed could be seen.  “A bedroom!” she whispered, her excitement growing as she worked her way inward from the dark edges.

Sitting back in her seat, Joan found herself very pleased with how her tiring and often aggravating day was ending.  I love jigsaws, she thought with a smile.  She also loved the added excitement she was feeling from the picture’s similarity with her current surroundings. 

Refilling her cup, she studied what she’d completed along with the remaining pieces.  The lamp in the pictured bedroom still appeared to be the only source of light.  She glanced around the edge and noted the pattern on the wallpaper.  She’d already gathered many of those pieces together so she focused on that for a while. 

In fifteen minutes she’d added at least as many pieces.  “I love that pattern...” Joan murmured as she paused again.  “...but why does it look so familiar?”  A second later she started and looked quickly toward the walls.  A sharp intake of breath and she was silent for several moments as she compared the pattern on the wall with the one in the puzzle.

“Oh, how special, it matches!” she cried.  “Could this have been intended for me?  What a wonderful housewarming gift!  How did they get the wallpaper in...”  Joan paused as she answered her own question.  “A customized puzzle!  They must have taken the picture as they were preparing for their own move.  Oh how kind!  How could they have known I love jigsaws?  Almost makes me feel bad for dogging them down on the price of the house.”  Rubbing her finger over the now recognizable wallpaper pattern on the puzzle she chuckled, “Almost.” 

Before continuing with the puzzle, she got up and retrieved her cell phone from her purse.  Turning it on, she quickly checked the time.  Seven thirty.  If her agent was still in her office Joan wanted to get the phone number of the previous owners so she could contact them and thank them personally.  She thought, They will be so tickled to hear that I not only found it on my first day, but that I’m putting it together in the bedroom where they took the picture!

Sitting again, she set down her cell and poured another cup of wine.  Quickly she took a sip and smiled while eyeing the puzzle further.  Setting down the cup, she picked up her cell and bringing up the directory selected her agent.  Taking another sip of wine, she waited for the connection to be made.  Hearing the agent’s voice, she opened her mouth to say hello, but then realized she was about to speak to a recording.  As she waited for the beep she reconsidered. 

Flipping the phone closed she thought, How do I know this is for me?  It’s a convenient coincidence that I found it today but this may have been a gift for someone else.  A daughter going off to college, maybe even a gift from a friend who helped the previous owners move in.  They might have just left it because they no longer wanted it.

Turning off the phone, she sat back down.  Despite her sudden doubts as to the target of her surprise find, she was enjoying herself immensely and was still not ready for bed. 

She was also very pleased with the quick progress she was making.  Her next realization was a shock as she was able to add the top portion of the lamp to the picture.  She quickly scanned the loose pieces and added the white, oval bottom of the lamp.  Placing the third and final piece she gasped and looked up at the lamp sitting beside her.

“It’s the same!  What an amazing coincidence,” she gasped.  “What are the chances that both of us would have the same lamp and both use it in this room?”  She tapped her fingernail against the picture.  “Amazing!”  Then she smiled!  I love this!

Proceeding, she stopped again as she added a piece and saw letters printed on a note stuck to the side of one of the boxes in the puzzle.  “Jo” was all that could be seen.  She held her breath as she scanned the remaining pieces and then found the match.  She didn’t touch it.  She just stared at the “an”.  After a few moments she realized she could feel her heart beating rapidly.  She then knocked over one of the TV tables as the sound of breaking glass came from the window behind her.

Staggering to her feet she covered herself with wine as she cocked her cup over her head in preparation to throw it.  A sob jerked from her chest as she heard a deep voiced curse.  Her nerves were only mildly soothed by the female voice that immediately followed.

“Oh Henry, you’re such a klutz!”

The male voice came again, “I’m sorry hon.  It just slipped out of my hand.  I'll get a broom.”

Still not moving, Joan listened as steps hurried away.  She suddenly felt light headed and realized that she'd been holding her breath.  With a gasp she began breathing again and, lowering her cup, put one hand on the back of her chair.  After a few moments she heard someone sweeping up broken glass.  Walking to the window she could see a couple she assumed were her new neighbors.  The woman was sweeping as the man she assumed to be Henry stood by with a waste basket and a tray which moments ago must have held the bottle and glasses which were now in pieces on the pavement.  Neither looked up and she walked back to her chair.

Still unnerved she looked again at the “Jo” in the picture.  Licking her lips she tried to think through her confusion and sudden uneasiness.  Still recovering from being startled by the breaking glass right behind her didn’t help her concentration but she soon solved the puzzle.

“They knew your name, goofy,” she chastised herself and exhaled deeply.  “It’s on the house’s contract if nowhere else.  Writing my name on a box in a picture they’d set up would have been the easiest piece of the jigsaw puzzle they were creating!”

That solved, Joan felt a sudden chill and remembered that she’d spilled wine all over herself.  She went to change and while she was at it got into her pajamas.  Putting her stained tee shirt, and the towel she’d used to clean her bedroom rug, into the sink, she ran cold water and left them to soak.  Back in her bedroom she righted the TV table and began picking up the pieces.

I’m picking up the pieces alright, Joan thought as she considered her over-reaction to seeing her name and then Henry’s klutziness.  Pull yourself together girl.  Laughing at herself she added.  Well, the mystery of whether this puzzle was meant for me or not has been solved.  What kind of people go through the effort and expense of such an interesting present!  And for a stranger!

As she finished putting all the puzzle pieces on the table again she placed the piece that completed her name.  “Joan” it read in an odd script.  “No reason why I should recognize the handwriting,” she thought, chuckling at herself for having actually tried to do so.  The remaining writing was too small to read.  “I guess there was no point in going into that much detail,” she decided.  “I will call to thank them.  This is an amazing gift!”   

Taking a deep breath, she leaned forward and got back to work.  Again pieces fell easily into place.  It was as though she’d seen the picture already and knew which pieces went where.  Full stacks of boxes came into being as well as the sheet covered bed.  Along one wall, only partially lit by the lamp, she could see a headboard for the bed.  Beside the lamp she could now see part of a floral printed box.  Tissues? she guessed. 

Two more pieces and she could see a light switch on the wall.  She smirked as she looked up.  The light switch on my wall, she thought as she looked over and saw the original beside the door.  She frowned and looked back at the puzzle then back at the switch.  It’s the same perspective!  Whoever took the picture was standing…  Her head tilted down and back up twice before she continued, …no sitting right where I am.  She compared her view and the picture again.  Exactly where I am! 

Grabbing her cup she muttered, “This is creepy.”  Her brow furrowed as she lifted the box of wine and refilled her cup.  Was the prior owner psychic?  How can there be so many coincidences with this puzzle?

Looking toward the light switch again she gave a quick snort of relief.  Well... she thought a little startled by the sound.  ...that was pleasant. Shaking her head she added with a smile.  So lady like. 

She pushed away her real thoughts of relief, which she didn't want to admit to herself.  The truth was that, despite enjoying the puzzle, she was unnerved by all the similarities.  She appreciated noticing that the two boxes pictured beneath the light switch in the puzzle were not sitting there in her room.

“Knock it off!” she grunted and took another swallow of the Merlot.  Lowering the cup from her lips she looked into the maroon liquid and thought, Maybe I’d better leave this alone for the rest of the night.  It’s making me too open to suggestion.  My own!

Setting the cup on the floor she returned to the puzzle.  Beside the pictured switch she focused on the door frame.  Once started, she quickly fitted pieces into place.  Glancing at the pictured hallway she thought, Dark out there.  Looking up she peered out the actual doorway.  “I don’t have any other lights on in the house.”  Suppressing a slight shiver she thought, Just like in the puzzle.

Pushing the thought away she started collecting pieces for the door and the darker pieces of the hallway.  Both sets were fairly easy to pick out.  The light colored wood of the door stood out among the pieces.  The darker pieces of the hallway stood out as well since the light from the puzzle’s lamp better lit most of the remainder of the unfinished picture.  

Joan started on the door which was easier to assemble than the uneven darkness beyond the doorway.  Once finished, she studied the hallway pieces and began.  Her first piece fit in the lower half and with that piece in place others followed.  Rather quickly she filled the lower half of the opening.  After several more pieces she’d completed the representation of something small, and light in color.  The mysterious object seemed to be floating near the center of the doorway’s dark opening.  Squinting, she concentrated on the object and decided it was a set of keys. 

No. She decided.  One key.  One key on a tag. 

A small, white, almost square tag.  Like the one affixed to the extra house key her Realtor had left on the kitchen counter.  "I need to put that away tomorrow.  Leaving it out where anyone can pick it up could make for trouble,” she muttered without taking her eyes from the puzzle.  Then she did as she looked toward the ceiling thinking,  The only others in the house today were the movers but that threesome didn’t have the wits...  Shaking her head she thought, That’s unkind.  Just because the neander...  Stopping herself she began again.  Just because Mike’s men couldn’t remember my floor plan, despite my showing them again and a...  "Oh forget it!” she sighed.

Determined to finish the puzzle tonight she forced Mike’s men out of her mind and got back to work.  A moment later she looked up from her work.  What was that? She questioned herself, thinking she’d heard a noise.  Eyes toward the hallway she listened.  After several seconds she shrugged and went back to the puzzle. 

Is that really just hanging there? She puzzled studying the key and fob.  Unable to identify what was keeping it afloat, she looked for the next piece.

After placing several more pieces she squinted at the pictured, dark hallway again.  Shaking her head, she sighed and decided, “I need my glasses.”

Standing she looked over the room and spotted the box she wanted at the bottom of a stack.  “Fragile contents” The label on the box read.  “Handle with care”

“Mike’s... men,” she growled as she walked over.  The top box was very light.  Undies, she guessed and carried it over to sit beside her dresser.  Returning to the stack she picked up the next box and set it alongside the wall beneath the light switch.  She lifted the next, much heavier box and noted its label which read “library”.  Her jaw set, she placed that box on top of the other beneath the switch and, turning back, opened the lid to the remaining box.  Along with bottles of makeup, perfume and several paper wrapped trinkets was a glasses case.  Picking it up she sighed.  “I’m glad I only need these occasionally.”

As she straightened, she noticed a note attached to one of the boxes which had previously been hidden from her view by the boxes she’d just moved.  Her breath caught as she read her name in large, almost childish print.  “It’s the same as in the puzzle,” she gasped.  Beneath her name, in the same hand, was a short note:

“I’ll be seeing you.”

Feeling faint, she leaned against the stacked boxes and breathed deeply.  After a few moments the cats stopped tumbling in her stomach.  Straightening, she stepping back and looked at the note again.  After a few seconds she swallowed loudly and hurried back to the puzzle.  Sitting awkwardly she thumped into her seat and peered down at the note pictured on the puzzle.  Her hand to her mouth she made several small whimpering sounds as she looked back toward the box with the note.  Her eyes widened as they shifted to the wall beneath the light switch where the two boxes were now stacked.  They were identical to the two in the puzzle.

Joan's eyes flashed to the open doorway and she made a choking noise in her throat.  With the hall still empty, she gagged down a tight breath and returned her attention to the puzzle’s picture.

Wiping sudden and frightened tears from her eyes, she shifted her view from the puzzle to the room before her.  Down and up her head shifted again and again as she viewed the same things.  Boxes in exactly the same positions.  The door opened to exactly the same angle, both on the puzzle and in her room.  Across the room, almost lost in the darkness, for the picture was darker than her room, was the headboard to her bed.  She choked again as she also identified the floral box of Merlot peeking out from behind the lamp.

A sob escaped her lips as she looked back to the puzzle's dark doorway.  To the figure she almost couldn't see.  Closing her eyes she struggled to take a breath and heard another noise from the front of the house.  Her eyes snapped open but beyond the doorway she saw only the empty, dark hallway.

Unable to get up from the chair, her eyes returned to the puzzle.  She choked down another shallow breath as she looked at the floating key.  "No!"  She squeaked.  Not wanting to hear the fear in her voice again she continued in thought.  Not floating.  The key is dangling from a black gloved hand.

Again she looked toward the doorway and shivered as she found it still empty.  Her hands shaking badly she raised them to the table and looked at the remaining dark pieces.  Clumsily, she picked them up and unerringly placed each into their proper place.

With the dark opening complete, she squinted at the picture.  Something, but no matter how hard she stared, no satisfaction.  Blinking her eyes clear, she quickly checked the real doorway again and took a shaky breath as she saw no change there.  Carefully she picked up her glasses case and opened it.  The click it made startled her and she wasn't certain that she hadn't also heard an echoing sound from the hallway.

On her second try, Joan pulled the glasses from the case and, after wiping her eyes, placed them on her face.  Her eyes closed as she took several deep breaths and tried, unsuccessfully, to calm herself.  Giving up, she opened her eyes again and leaned toward the puzzle.

In the darkness of the puzzle's hallway she could now make out a figure.  Dressed in dark clothing and with gloved hands, the large figure stood looking into the room.  She leaned forward, trying to see the face and stopped breathing as she identified his small, narrow eyes.  Below them protruded a wide, beaked nose and below that a large ugly mouth which was stretched into an unpleasant grin. 

"Neanderthal Jack!" Joan whispered.  Her breath then caught in her throat as she heard a knock from the doorway.

Her arms shook as she supported herself over the puzzle, closed her eyes and jumped.

“Joan!  Hello!” a voice called to her.

Joan’s eyes opened onto a sunny room.  Air rushed up and down in her throat for several seconds until the voice came again.

“Joan!  Hello?  Are you there?”

Sitting up, Joan found herself on the couch in her family room.  The room was bright with full sunlight.  Puzzled, but also still afraid she jumped to her feet and looked around.  Boxes were piled all around her. On the floor, in chairs, on almost every available surface in fact except the coffee table in front of her.  Looking down onto that coffee table her eyes widened as details of her previous evening leapt to crystal clarity in her mind.

“Joan!” the voice called again causing her to jump and gasp. “Your doorbell doesn’t work!  I’ve been knocking out front for five minutes.  Are you alright?”

Joan jumped again as her periphery vision detected movement to her right.  Spinning in that direction she released a relieved sob as she saw her friend Amy standing on the other side of the glass patio doors which opened onto her back porch.  Quickly Joan rushed to the door, threw the latch and slid it open.

“Are you alright?”  Amy asked as the door slid from her path.  “You look like...”  She stopped talking as Joan grabbed her in a bear hug.  Amy’s worried eyes bulged as she hugged her friend back and asked, “What’s happened?  Are you alright?”

Joan just held on for several moments of silence before her chest began hitching with irregular jerks.

Tightening her hold, Amy asked again, “What’s happened?”

The irregular hitching evened out as Joan held on for several more seconds.  She then eased her grip and stepped back.  When she saw the terrified expression on Amy’s face, she put her hands to her face, but continued to laugh.  Amy’s expression slowly morphed into one of deep confusion as Joan shook her head and took another step away.

“I’m sorry.”  Still clearly tormented, Amy began to speak when Joan stopped her by continuing.  “Give me a moment to collect my wits.  I was asleep.  Asleep and dreaming.”

“Asleep?  Dreaming!  Oh Joan.  You scared me to death!  I didn’t know...”

“I know,” Joan answered as she stepped back into Amy’s arms.  “I’ll explain in a moment.  Just give me a sec.”

Fifteen minutes later the two women were seated and nursing still full goblets of wine.  As Joan finished speaking she lifted her goblet and took several deep swallows.  “Hair of the dog that mauled me,” she explained as she set the goblet down and lifted the floral box at her feet.  Twisting the knob she watched the deep red liquid flow and, as it neared the top of the goblet, shut it off again.

“I don’t know how you drink that cheap stuff,” Amy sighed sitting her still full goblet down on the coffee table.  “No wonder you have bad dreams!”

Joan chuckled.  “I’d call it a nightmare.”

“Just proves my point!”  Amy replied with a shrug.

“At least I don’t drink it out of a coffee cup!”  Joan answered raising her goblet in a toast.

Shaking her head Amy looked toward the ceiling.  “At least I’ve taught you that.”

Glancing back at her own goblet, Amy lifted her hand, but simultaneously her mouth pulled slightly to her right.  After a moment she returned the hand to her lap, shook her head and looking back at Joan sighed.  “So after a full day of moving, which you wouldn’t let me come and help you with, you came in here, opened that vile substitute for a Merlot, and worked on a jigsaw puzzle until you fell asleep on the couch!”

With a crooked smile Joan answered,  “That’s the way it went down yes.”

“And then you had this dream.”

“Nightmare,” Joan corrected again.

“And this is the puzzle?” Amy asked with a frown as she leaned forward and studied the picture.  “No wonder you had...” Rolling her eyes, Amy continued, “...a nightmare.  Who is that supposed to be?”

Joan also looked down at the completed puzzle.  The dark, troublesome picture was brightened by a single bare bulb which permitted a view of a poorly furnished bedroom.  Coming through an open doorway was a tall, muscular man wearing an open, knee length rain cape.  He had tight, evil eyes which almost glowed above a large, ugly nose.  His face was completed by an angry wide mouth within which stained, crooked teeth could be seen.  A sharp dagger’s blade caught the light in his extended hand.  Joan frowned, marveling again at to how closely that face resembled the face of her mover from the previous day.

“Joan?” Amy asked, growing concerned over her friend’s troubled expression.

Joan sighed and looked up.  Misunderstanding Amy’s expression, she finally answered, “Oh, the puzzle?  I don’t know, the box wasn’t marked.  I didn't know who he was last night, but now I'm thinking he might be Jack the Ripper.”

                                                    END

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