Something’s not quite right about the neighborhood of Woodland Heights. Five years ago six children disappeared in this suburban heaven. When Laura Wagner moves into a house that had been vacant for most of those five years, this something comes alive.
Laura Wagner, divorced mother of two, addicted to alcohol and Valium, sees nothing wrong with her life; she sees nothing much at all. She gets by as well as she can, aided by the solace of her drugs and whiskey, until the day she backs into a police car in the parking lot of her favorite bar and is sentenced to involuntary rehabilitation treatments.
Returning home clean and sober is an eye-opening experience. The spirit dwelling in her house reveals its true, evil nature and begins to prey upon her, her friends, even her children, avid to spread its message of death and despair.
Laura must learn to control her inner demons before she can subdue these outside forces threatening to break free. She must learn how to distinguish hallucinations from reality, learn how to stop the spirit that requires her death and the deaths of her loved ones .
Laura looked up from her study of the melting ice cubes in her glass to the grizzled face of the Sea Shell Cafe’s bartender and gave him a half-smile. “Better not, Ted. I really should be getting back to work.”
He stared over his shoulder at the clock behind the bar. “Why bother now?”
She followed his glance. “Damn.” Once again she had allowed the dark comfort of the bar to steal hours of her life; time that could have been better spent. Too much of her life was like that now, wasted hours that stretched into days, weeks, even months.
I should have stopped at one, she told herself, beginning the silent lecture she’d delivered too many times before. I should have gone back to the real estate office and spent the day on the phone, making contacts and trying to set up new appointments. Instead, I wasted the whole damn day. She lifted her glass and drained the last of her drink, mostly water but with enough of a lingering vodka tang to kick in the craving for another. Laura sighed, wrapping her hands around the empty glass, and looked at her reflection in the mirror behind the bar. She was pale, her complexion looked pasty and dry, seeming even fairer in contrast with her chin length black hair. Her features were blurred, a combination of the smoke-tinged mirror and the many martinis she’d had. As always, she saw three people in her reflection: a dim suggestion of her mother in the droop of her mouth; herself, that shady sadness looking back at her from alcohol-reddened eyes; and Lizzy.
With the thoughts of her youngest daughter, Laura smiled and a spark of life seemed to jump into her face. She would call tonight and talk to both Lizzy and Mandy, her eldest. The happiness of the thought was only slightly overshadowed by the worry that Tony might answer the phone. And if he did, she knew she’d better be sober.
“Actually, I’d like a cup of coffee, please, Ted.”
“Coffee?” Ted raised an eyebrow, his thin lips twisted into the closest he ever got to a smile.
“Yeah, coffee.” Laura’s voice grew stronger in her resolve. “I’m going to talk to my girls tonight.”
“Funny,” Ted said, pouring a mug full of dark strong coffee and setting it in front of Laura, removing her empty glass and making a cursory sweep at the bar surface with his rag. “You been coming here for close to a year now, I’ll bet, and I never knew you had kids. Never even knew you were married.”
“Not married now,” she took a cautious sip from the steaming cup, “but yeah, I have two little girls, although they’re not that little anymore. They live with their father. I guess I never talked about it.”
Ted snorted. “People don’t come here to talk much.”
“No, I suppose not.”
“You got pictures?”
Laura glanced at him briefly. He seemed genuinely interested so she leaned unsteadily from the barstool and grasped the straps of her purse. She set it on the bar and rummaged through the contents, coming upon a small frayed fabric-covered album. Flipping quickly to the last few pages, she pulled out the most recent school pictures that Tony had sent. “This one’s Amanda, she’s twelve.”
“Yeah,” Laura gave a small smile and took another sip of her coffee. “She takes after her father’s side of the family. And this one is Lizzy; she’ll be eight in a few weeks.”
Ted picked up the picture and looked from it to Laura’s face. “She looks just like you.”
“Yeah, everyone says that.” Her stomach twisted as she took the photo from Ted’s fingers and stared at it herself; the resemblance was striking, but Lizzy’s face held promise and youth. Laura knew that most of her youth had been leeched away by too many hours spent in places like this. She gathered up the photos, hurriedly crammed them back into her purse, and pulled out her wallet. “So what’s the damage?”
He went to the cash register and printed out her tab for the afternoon. She grimaced at the total, pulled two twenties and a ten from her billfold and placed them on the bar. Crawling from the barstool shakily, Laura blinked, swaying on her feet, and drained her coffee. “Keep the change, Ted.”
“Yeah, thanks. You okay? Want me to call you a cab?”
“No, I don’t live that far away, I’ll be fine.”
Outside the bar, Laura cursed the bright June sunlight and fumbled in her bag for her sunglasses. Ignoring the disdain in the glances of passersby, she shook her head and mumbled to herself until finally, beneath wads of tissues and crumpled receipts, she located the glasses. She put them on with unsteady hands and fished once more for her keys before looking around to get her bearings.
Locating her car, she got in and started it, adjusting the rear view mirror. She put it into reverse, it sputtered and stalled. Frustrated, she jammed the gearshift into park, restarted the engine and revved the motor. She could still feel the alcohol surging through her system and wondered briefly if she should go back inside and have Ted call her a cab. Or at least have another cup of coffee. Except she feared reentering the bar, knowing that the extra coffee might turn into another vodka martini or two and for once the longing to talk to her daughters was stronger than the urge to drink. “I can have coffee at home,” she told herself firmly, and shifted over in the seat to look into the mirror again, this time to check her appearance. Laura combed her bangs back with her fingers and removed her sunglasses. One glimpse was all she needed; she put the glasses back on to avoid looking at her eyes and the puffy bags underneath that had formed over the past few years.
“Great,” she said, “just goddamned great,” and shifted her car into reverse. Her foot slipped off the brake and hit the gas pedal at full force. This time the car did not stall, but surged backward, directly into a car just pulling into the parking lot. When she recognized the red and blue lights and the uniformed man emerging, she said nothing. She didn’t even swear. Instead, she went back into her purse, rolled down her window and extended her wallet to the policeman. He took one look at her and she gave him a rueful smile. After the questioning and the breath test he returned to his car to make the necessary arrangements. Laura folded her arms over the steering wheel, rested her head on them and slowly, desperately, began to cry.
Three months went by in a blur of appointments, appearances, signing papers and waivers, seemingly countless interviews by clerks and mental health counselors. Eventually, it had been decided she would qualify for the ARD program – Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition. Her final courtroom appearance was just a state-mandated necessity.
Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition. She rolled the social services jargon over in her mind with a cynical laugh. Fancy words for getting my ass in gear, she thought, words to justify locking me away for four weeks, taking away any defense I have against the world.
She panicked slightly at her thoughts, then tried to calm herself down. Even as a passenger, the cab ride from the courthouse had almost completely unnerved her; one of the reasons she worked and lived in the suburbs was to avoid the downtown traffic. As inconvenient as not being able to drive had been the last three months, she hadn’t missed bumper-to-bumper traffic. Her father had promised to take her to and from the courthouse. That he was supportive and offered to drive was not a surprise, but then neither was the fact he’d had an “emergency” at the last minute and canceled. Their telephone conversation that morning was typical of their relationship: brief, but vaguely loving.
“Take a cab, honey. I’ll pay.”
Thanks, Dad,” Laura said.
“And remember, don’t let the bastards get you down. I’m with you on this, honey. Take care, I’ve got to run.”
Laura hung up the phone and indulged in a bitter chuckle. Of course he was with her; he’d faced the same situation so many times himself. He’d gone the rehab route without much effect over the years. She couldn’t remember one special occasion in her life when her father wasn’t drunk: birthdays, anniversaries, funerals. Laura, herself, had discovered the dubious comfort of alcohol at the age of seventeen. It filled the empty spot her mother’s death had left, an emptiness that Tony and the girls had, for a time, alleviated.
“Life’s a bitch, and then you die.” With a brief smile, Laura read the words from a parked car’s bumper sticker, and directed the driver the last few blocks home. The area was residential, very suburban and very quiet. Not quite the typical neighborhood for a divorcee, but the housing values were depressed due to some unsolved kidnappings in the neighborhood years ago. And, Laura thought sadly, I’ve no children to worry about. The cost of the new house had been hard to turn down, especially since Laura was able to finance the whole thing herself with the divorce settlement.
They pulled into the driveway and she paid the driver. He waited a few moments for a school bus to pass, then backed out. Laura stood at her door, house keys in hand, and watched the bus stop a few doors down.
When Mandy and Lizzy were younger and they were still a family, she had looked forward to the arrival of the bus. They would burst through the door, flushed and grinning, hungry for the afternoon cartoons. That was all in the past; with the death of her son, Matthew, before he’d even reached two months old, Laura turned once again to alcohol. And although Tony had begged and pleaded with her to stop, she didn’t. She couldn’t. Each new day, each movement reminded her of the life that she’d carried so close to her, now lost forever.
Tony had left her, finally, taking the girls with him. That had all happened in a different neighborhood, a different house. Here she was making a fresh start.
Laura frowned at that thought as she opened her front door. She’d honestly tried to stop, had tried to discipline her drinking; but eventually it came down to the fact that she had no reason to do so. Tony had seen to that; in one blow he removed her reasons for trying, her reasons for living.
“Shit, Laura, don’t get morbid on me,” she admonished herself, her voice echoing through the house. Then she smiled when she heard a soft padding up the cellar stairs. A scrawny black head appeared through the cat door, followed by a stringy body. “Hi, cat,” she greeted the animal, reaching down to scratch his head. “Did you miss me?”
The cat gave a pitiful, quiet meow and ran to the kitchen. Laura laughed softly, went to the refrigerator and spooned some food into his dish. Leaning against the counter, she watched him eat with a maternal satisfaction. He’d finally begun to fill out since she’d found him outside her new home, no more than three weeks ago, drenched and terrified. It had taken a lot of coaxing and even more patience, not to mention cat food, to convince him to move in with her. But now he belonged here and to her, and Laura felt comforted not to be entirely alone.
He finished his meal and jumped up to the counter, rubbing up against her sleeve. “Hey, baby.” She put her face down to his and let him lick her cheek. Then he jumped up to her shoulder and wrapped himself around her neck, his throaty purr tickling her ear. She walked back to the bathroom of the small ranch home. I’ll have to make arrangements to have him fed while I’m in rehab, she thought with a grimace.
“Rehab,” she said aloud, wincing as the cat dug his claws into her shoulder before jumping down. “Beats jail, I guess, but not by much.” She started running water into the tub, added bath oil, lit three votive candles, stripped off her clothes – the low heeled pumps, navy suit and white blouse worn to impress the judge with her professional status – and kicked them across the room. She turned out the light and tested the water. Satisfied with the temperature, she walked away and went to the medicine cabinet. She opened a bottle and swallowed two Valium, with no water. “A second chance, they called it,” Laura said to herself in the mirror as she ran her fingers through her hair. Her eyes looked better, less red, although the dark circles underneath had not gone away. In the candlelight she looked younger, prettier. Laura smiled at her reflection, stepped away from the mirror, and lowered herself into the tub with a grateful sigh. “I guess we’ll see about that.”
The hot water relaxed her thoroughly and she leaned back and closed her eyes. She shifted her position slightly so that the water covered her ears. The soft drumming in her head was rhythmic, soothing, almost hypnotic. Laura lazily soaped herself, observed by the watchful eye of the cat, sitting in the hallway, grooming himself after his meal. Suddenly he stiffened and arched his back. With a low throaty growl, he took off and ran to the bedroom at the end of the hallway.
Laura sat up and smiled. “Dumb cat,” she said settling back into her previous position. He was so spooked, she thought, but not without cause. The last time she bathed, the phone rang and as she hurriedly tried to answer it, she’d lost her balance and fallen, accidentally dousing him and the entire bathroom with half a tub of water. I guess cats think they’re better off dead than wet, she thought, succumbing to a pervading drowsiness.
The phrase filtered into her consciousness: better off dead, better off dead, better off dead, blending into the pounding of her ears and the beating of her heart.
Laura lay immersed in the water, her body inert and limp, her mind drifting slowly. She was aware of the feel of the water, the scent of the candles and bath oil, but made no connection between these senses and reality. She knew that the words spinning in her head were the only reality.
Better off dead, better off dead, the words lost their meaning in the repetition, like a child’s sing-song chant.
Child, children…the words kicked off warning signals, but her mind, aided by Valium and an unnatural languor, floated past them and replayed the events of the day, then the events of the past few years. Dismally she viewed her life, solitary now and doomed to be forever. She saw all her mistakes magnified; she saw all of the chances she’d lost, the opportunities she’d never pursued. Will it ever get better, she wondered, will it ever stop?
Easy enough to stop, her mind advised.
And the chant continued – better off dead, better off dead. The walls pulsed with the words in her head.
Detached and disinterested, she watched her arm reach out of the water and find the razor she used for her legs. Her father’s old safety razor, its stainless steel sparkled in the candlelight, glinted coldly on the water’s surface. Laura turned it over and over in her hand. This too had no reality.
A new refrain was added, silently, internally, but somehow it echoed through the empty house.
Do it, Laura, do it.
Her fingers moved of their own volition, removing the double-edged blade from its holder. Vaguely she could remember replacing it recently. When had it been? Was it only yesterday? No matter, she knew it would be sharp, not dulled by hair or skin.
Do it, Laura.
There would be no pain, it would not be real.
Do it, Laura, nothing is real.
Yes, her mind answered and the voices that were no part of her agreed.
No pain, no problems. It will be over soon, all be over soon. Do it, Laura, it will be easy, easy enough to stop.
“Yes,” she whispered over the cooling water.
“Yes,” she whispered and watched, uncaring, unfeeling, as her fingers deftly slit her wrists open to the bone.
Yes, the voices sighed.
The water darkened, the room darkened. Before blackness descended she saw the blade drift, gently and silently, to rest on the bottom of the tub.
Officer Mike Gallagher drove slowly through the residential streets, surprised how normal the neighborhood seemed. Children were everywhere. One group of young girls stopped jumping rope to smile and wave as he drove by. He smiled back, turned the sirens on for one second and laughed as they scattered, giggling. Five years ago you would not have seen one child unattended; if the adults were not outside supervising the play, you would see them looking out windows and doors, observant and alert. Still, despite the vigilance, the final count had been six – six children gone, with no clues and no trace. Four boys and two girls, they might have been the brothers or sisters of some of these who played.
There were more houses now and fewer trees; the name “Woodland Heights” no longer quite as appropriate as it had been. Most of the houses had been built since the disappearances.
The Woodland Heights cases had been his first assignment after transferring to the suburban department from Detroit where he’d started his career. It remained their only unsolved case. Of course, most of the occurrences in this township were domestic problems, traffic violations and drunk driving – a complicated kidnapping case was somewhat out of their scope – but to this day he would see pictures of those children on milk cartons and remember his failure.
His supervisor thought he took the whole situation much too personally. “Jesus H. Christ, Mike,” he finally blew up one day, “this isn’t your fault. You didn’t even work here when those kids disappeared. If this thing stumped even the Feds, you know we don’t have a chance in hell of solving it.”
Mike had said nothing, and thereafter had kept his investigations of the matter to himself.
He slowed and made a right hand turn. It’s odd, he thought and not for the first time, that Laura Wagner should live here, on the very street where the children had last been seen. Even knowing it was only a coincidence, he had still been shocked when he saw the address on her license. His first thought had not been the DUI arrest he was making, or the procedures involved. Mike only knew that here was someone who might know something they had missed. In the car on the way to the station, he had found she’d been in the neighborhood for only a short time; she had lived out of state at the time and never even heard about the kidnappings.
Still he saw her as a link, and tried to cultivate her as such. He was gentler and more considerate to her than was normal given the circumstances. She seemed to warm to him because of this and when he had offered her a ride home the next morning, she accepted graciously. Mike discovered that her eyes, when they were not reddened with the booze, were a soft shade of green and her hair curled onto her cheeks like black wings. Even a night spent in a jail cell seemed to have no effect on her looks. She’s so fragile, he thought, and remembered watching her profile as they drove. She was pale and ethereal, as if she were a statue of an elven queen cast in porcelain. Her soft, petite face had intrigued him and Mike wondered if he would ever discover how she had fallen into her present state. He’d wanted to contact her during the time between her arrest and her trial, but knew that would be crossing the line. So he’d waited until today, the day of her trial, to see her again.
His fascination with her hadn’t faded, he discovered. Even though Laura hadn’t met his eyes in court, Mike sensed a connection between them still. After the trial ended with her sentence being suspended in lieu of rehabilitation, he walked up to her and shook her hand. “Good luck, Ms. Wagner,” he said. The touch of her hand felt electric. There’s something there, he thought. Something I should pursue.
Mike knew firsthand what Laura was going through, knew she’d be feeling lost and confused and completely unable to cope with it all. He smiled to himself and pulled into her driveway. Here he was, Officer Gallagher to the rescue, to provide a shoulder for her to cry on, to give her the benefit of his experience. With an expectant grin on his face, he rang the doorbell on Laura Wagner’s house.
Laura’s next awareness was of a sharp stabbing pain in her cheek. She opened her eyes to a blur of black as a small body sped back through the bathroom door. She sat up in the water and put a hand to her face. From far away she could hear a faint ringing, and she tried to pull herself out of the stupor into which she had fallen. Confused and disoriented, she glanced around her, trying to remember what had happened. It was something important, something monumental, but her mind felt hazy and drugged.
The doorbell rang again; this time Laura recognized the sound. She stepped out of the tub and grabbed an oversized pink terry robe from the hook on the door. As she put it on, the fabric brushed against her wrists and she flinched. A panic-filled memory of the gaping wounds she had inflicted suddenly surfaced.
Don’t look at them, she advised herself, just get to the door. Desperately clutching the robe around her, Laura slowly worked her way down the hall. The doorbell rang again. “I’m coming,” she called and was surprised to hear her voice was clear and loud.
Just get to the door, Laura, she told herself again, it’s not too far now. Whoever it is, they can help. The thought sustained her as her vision darkened and she frantically groped at the walls in an attempt to stay upright.
Though seemingly endless, the hallway dwindled at last and Laura was in the living room. Just a few more feet now, she urged herself to keep moving forward. It’s not that big of a house, just keep moving. She winced at the vision of the bloody streaks she was leaving on the carpet and walls, knowing that answering the door was the only thing of importance now.
Finally she arrived with a sigh of relief. Ignoring the cold stab of pain in her arm, she reached down with difficulty and turned the knob. Only when the door was opened did she succumb to the pain and the weariness. The last thing she saw was the smile on the policeman’s face fade away.
Mike reached out and caught her before she hit the floor. He lifted her in his arms and carried her to a couch. She seemed to weigh no more than a child, but as he laid her down, her robe fell open exposing her breasts. He tried not to react, instead he averted his eyes and tucked the robe back around her body. When she was completely covered he regained his professional demeanor. Now she was nothing more than a person in trouble. When I hoped to comfort her in her hour of need, he thought, I had no idea she would really need it.
Mike checked her pulse; it was racing. Her face was ashen, her skin cold and damp. She had been in a state of shock when she answered the door, he knew; her pupils had been dilated and her expression, one of severe panic. But there were no marks on her, seemed to be no reason for her response. He checked her breath and found no trace of alcohol.
Drugs, maybe an overdose? He picked up her cordless phone on the way to the bathroom. Dialing for an ambulance, he turned on the bathroom light and began to check her medicine cabinet. The paramedics would want to know what she took. All he found was a bottle of Valium, properly prescribed for Laura Wagner. It was completely full and he could see no evidence of any other drugs.
He tested the temperature of the bath water as he completed his call and realized the cold water might account for the clamminess of her skin. Mike returned to the living room and found Laura as he had left her, but with some color returning to her face. Her pulse slowed and was now steady and strong. He knelt down next to her and called her name.
Laura fought her way back into the light. The voices had softened, relinquishing their hold on her when the doorbell rang. She felt them still, their anger and disappointment – she should have been dead by now. As she struggled to open her eyes, she was not sure, but she thought she heard a soft wailing and a promise of later.
“Later,” she whispered even as her eyes focused on the concerned face hovering by her.
“Laura?” The voice was strong and deep and pulled her up to the surface of reality. “What happened? Are you okay?”
She recognized the face, searched her mind for the name. Flannagan? No, Gallagher. Mike Gallagher. She managed a confused smile. “Hi,” she said, “what are you doing here? What’s happening?”
“You don’t know?” he questioned. “You opened the door and then fainted.”
“Fainted?” She realized she sounded stupid, but couldn’t help herself. “The last thing I remember was taking a bath. And then I wake up here and find you. What’s going on?” She knew she should be upset over the black out and embarrassed by her half-dressed state, but for some reason her only feeling was one of relief. He had saved her. But from what, she wondered, shook her head and sat up.
“I called an ambulance,” he snapped, “they should be here soon. Maybe you should tell me what you’ve been taking.”
She cocked her head at him, wondering why he sounded angry. Did he think she didn’t want to answer? “Nothing out of the ordinary,” she replied, “I took two Valiums, got into the tub and fell asleep. I think I– ” She rubbed at one of her wrists in confusion. What had happened? “–I think I had a bad dream.”
“Bad dream, huh? I guess so.” He smiled at her briefly, then scowled, intently watching the compulsive movements of her hands. “Why are you doing that?”
“Give me your hands.”
She placed her hands in his. He gently turned them over and looked at her wrists. They were slender and delicate, marked only by blue veins. She watched his face, knowing there was something there other than question and concern, some unremembered pain and despair. Pulling her hands from his, she clasped her robe closed, rose from the couch and slowly walked back to the bathroom.
It was not the same as before. She went to the tub and looked at the water. She picked up the razor, the blade was still inside, clean and unused. Suddenly the dream – surely it was a dream, her fevered mind supplied – came back to her. With a gasp she dropped the razor into the tub and turned to run from the room.
The way was blocked and she tried to push him away. He stood in the doorway, unmoved.
“Let me out,” she pleaded. “I’ve got to get out.”
“Why, Laura?” His voice was soft and compassionate now, “What’s wrong, what happened here?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered, not fighting her tears any longer. She felt a sadness flow from her in a great, dark stream, like the blood in her dream.
“Oh, God,” she said softly as his arms came up to enfold her, “let it only be a dream.”
Karen E. Taylor is a horror/paranormal author, with eight published novels to date and an eclectic assortment of short fiction which ranges from vampires to ghosts to telepathic, romantic dinosaurs. Nominated twice for the HWA Bram Stoker Award (Short Fiction and Fiction Collection) Karen is also working on an urban fantasy and is halfway through writing 22 episodes of an exciting new science fiction web series. All of her novels, including the Vampire Legacy series are available in print and/or e-books. Currently she resides in Alexandria, VA with her husband, son, and cat.