While I'm waiting to start edits on my first novel Like This You Keep Them Alive, I've started working on the next one, tentatively titled Echoes. This new project is in the very early stages of the first draft, but I decided since I haven't posted on here in a while, I'd share what I have for the beginning. Enjoy!
Her hands are red, as if she’s dipped them in paint. Not paint. Blood. She doesn’t know if it’s hers or someone else’s. Wind whips her hair around her face and whirls dead leaves into small twisters. Where is she? Lazelle doesn’t know this place. It’s dark, darker than night and the sky is black and heavy with storm clouds, but no rain falls. The air smells and tastes of ozone.
Lightning turns the whole world bright and blinds her. It hits something. She hears the explosion. Thunder follows after. She opens her eyes. The tree in the meadow, the giant tree is on fire from the inside. Cracks reveal an interior flame. A man steps out of the woods on the other side of the meadow. His eyes glow like a cat’s eyes, like the lightning or the fire.
“Welcome home,” he says. And she screams.
She woke up, almost sure she was still screaming, but all Lazelle heard was her own breath pushed hard out of her chest. She sat up. Sweat ran down her back, pooled between her breasts and gathered at the bends of her elbows, the backs of her knees. She could still taste the ozone from her dream. Her heart beat so fast, she was afraid she was having a heart attack. She put her hand to her sweaty chest to steady her heart.
Despite the sweat, she was cold. She shivered as she groped at the top of her dresser for the hoodie and sweatpants she had left there before bed. On the other side of the bed, Ethan slept undisturbed.
She pulled her duvet up to her chin and tried to fall asleep, but also tried not to think of the dream. Sometimes, on these nights, she would fall right back into the nightmare and wake up again, sweating and afraid. Tonight, she fell asleep and dreamed of nothing.
In the morning, before work and after she’d eaten breakfast, Lazelle took out her sketchbook and fancy markers, the ones Ethan had chided her for spending so much money on and drew her dream. Or at least the final scene. She put herself in the foreground, a little to the left. Everything was black and purple and blue. The colours of night. Except for the tree’s cracks of flame and the man’s cat eyes. In ink, over the image, she scrawled “Welcome home.”
“What’s that?” Ethan leaned over her shoulder. He took a sip of his coffee and the slurp of it set her teeth on edge. She shut her sketchbook.
“Nothing. I’ve got to get dressed.” Lazelle took the book with her and put it back in its home, hidden among the stack of novels and memoirs on her nightstand.
Still, when they parted ways in the parking lot, she kissed him and told him to have a good day.
There are footprints in the snow outside the barn. The barn door bangs against the side of the barn in the wind, but the horses are safe in their stalls. Hugh wrestles against the wind to shut the doors and bring the heavy beam across to latch them. The horses whinny and he wishes he were with them, warm and safe.
He looks down at the footprints, holding the lantern close to light them. Blood fills the first few and then decorates the snow around the rest with drops. The wind cuts through him. An east wind. Never good. The sky has cleared and the snow reflects back the moon. Everything is clear in the cold night air.
Hugh pulls his scarf up around his face. The woods are dark. It is light here in the yard between the barn and the woods. His cottage is just there and he could go inside, light a fire and go to bed. God forgive him. He could pretend he’d heard nothing, seen nothing. After all, he’s been doing it for years.
But he lifts his lantern and feels at his waist for his hunting knife. There may be a wolf in the woods, although they say the wolves were driven out years ago.
The trees groan and clack and screech as their branches rub against each other, pushed by the wind. The woods are silent otherwise. No animals. No people. Just him and his weak circle of light and the moon. He knows the way. Hasn’t he been walking this path his whole life?
The tree stands alone in the meadow. The footprints he’s been tracking lead right up to it. But no one is there. He walks up to the tree and puts his hand to the crosses marked on it. The bark is rough against his forehead, but he leans into the tree. Something wet runs down his face and he wipes it away. He looks at his fingers, waxen with cold and his finger tips are red. Blood oozes from the crosses carved into the tree. Crosses he carved. He takes out his knife and carves one more, blood welling up as he cuts into the bark.
A wail from behind him. He turns to face it. There’s a woman in a cloak standing behind him. A laugh to his side. A man stands shadowed at the edge of the forest, but his smile reflects back the moonlight. “I’ve missed you,” the man says.
And the woman steps forward. She wails again. It’s an unearthly sound and he remembers stories of the banshee. She takes down her hood and he flinches in anticipation. But it is not woman. It is a creature with a cat’s head and it lunges for him.
A cold nose touched his face and he flailed out with his arm, knocking the cat to the ground. It landed with a thump and a meow. But he heard it run off, so he knew it wasn’t hurt. He sat up and rubbed his face.
“God damn cats,” he said. Outside of the blankets, it was cold. It wasn’t winter. It wasn’t. It was the end of summer. But his dream hung on around him and made him cold. He remembered the crunch of snow under his feet.
Hugh went to his bedroom window and looked out. The lawn stretched out to the cliff’s edge and the lake beyond. He couldn’t see the barn from this angle. And there were no horses there. There hadn’t been since before his grandfather’s time.
“Honey?” she said in a slurred, sleepy voice. It was rare Jen stayed the night. Their arrangement was more casual than that, but sometimes it was too late or whatever and she stayed. It didn’t mean anything really. She would leave tomorrow and they wouldn’t talk again until one of them got lonely or horny or bored. And that was just fine.
“Just getting a drink, go back to sleep,” he said and she mumbled something and was out again if she was ever really awake.
He went to the bathroom and rummaged through the medicine cabinet. He still had the sleeping pills the doctor gave him that long winter after Cheryl died. They hadn’t especially worked then, but maybe they’d work now.
For weeks now, he’d startled out of sleep, sometimes with a nightmare still clinging to him, other times with no memory of what had brought him up out of sleep. But he could never get back to sleep after and he was so tired. Exhausted. Beyond that. He would do anything to rest. So he took two pills and swallowed them down with a generous cup of water. Then he went back to bed. Jen threw her arm across him, pinning him so he stared up at the ceiling. But the pills must have worked because the next time Hugh opened his eyes it was mid-morning and Jen was long since gone.
One of the cats stretched beside him, yawning, opening its mouth wide in a silent roar. Fangs. Lunging. But this cat rubbed its face against his and then jumped down from the bed.