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Said the Spider





By Sasha McCallum




Copyright © 2018 Sasha McCallum

Smashwords Edition


Smashwords License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this ebook, please encourage your friends to download a copy from their favorite authorized dealer. Thank you for your support.


This story is fiction; characters, towns and incidents are the product of the writer's imagination.



Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Other titles




Chapter One

Savage Falls

The roads were steeper, more winding and far lonelier than I remembered, lined asphalt the sole sign of human life for lengthy stretches between towns. A decade living in the hustle and bustle of Mexico City had altered my perception. These ranges were cold and green; foreboding shadows lay in wait amongst meadows of pine and fir. I used to be afraid of straying too far beyond the tree lines when I was little, but now the wilderness on all sides of me inspired a sense of elation. This was the beginning of why I had come back and it was a comfort the first of my nostalgic sentiments was a positive one; I took it as evidence I had made the right choice.

One last lungful of fresh alpine air and I wound the window closed and turned the heating up a notch. The temperature decreased steadily as I climbed further into the hills but it was still the wrong month for snow. I would reach Savage Falls in about an hour according to the GPS; I tried to relax and slow the car down. These roads were dangerous, many a horror crash had occurred during my childhood. I imagined the car accidents formed the backbone of the local news because there was nothing else to report. From the information I'd updated myself with, my destination was still a quiet, sleepy town most of the time; beautiful but boring. Perfect. Confronting the past would provide more than enough to occupy my wary psyche on arrival.

It was time to go home. Weird that I still thought of it as home after all these years. Home is one of those things you can't change, the word and the feelings associated with it lingered forever. In Mexico, my life as Belen Abreu had begun to show cracks; I could pretend all I wanted but I couldn't cover up the attacks of anxiety which had begun to occur when I was supposed to be wearing my public persona. They refused to be silenced, as though something inside me was screaming to get out, something that hated who Belen was. So I responded, I left her life hanging in the shadows, flew back to Big Sky Country and prepared for re-entry to the house I left twelve years ago as Saffron Crowe - notwithstanding a few serious alterations. Maybe Belen could be resurrected if Saffron managed to retrieve her poise, but for the next month, she was history.

It felt good to adjust my appearance, change my hair and make-up style, switch back to English and return to the States. Shedding Belen was easy, but I was profoundly uncomfortable being Saffron again. My inclination was to reinvent myself, start afresh - a powerful urge that needed to be quashed - only Saffron could resolve the issues my subconscious had now. I needed to unravel the pieces of memory I still held and attempt to stitch them together into something coherent. I always knew the day would come but it wasn't clear whether I looked forward to its eventuality or dreaded it. I was a real person when I was last in Savage Falls; more a child than an adult and definitely damaged, but genuine. Back then my identity was uncontrolled, un-compartmentalized. Now each natural quality had been edited and sieved out for use in another mask, another recreation of myself. Over the years, as I met more people, I absorbed their characteristics, mastered and recombined them. Belen may have been paid to act but the pretense had spilled over to every other part of myself. Too often lately I was convinced there might be nothing left underneath the façade, nothing real to salvage. Thus the cracks. And now, here I was.

My plan upon arrival did not involve meeting anyone except the doctor; he was necessary and when I reached deep, I was looking forward to seeing him again. Taking on the identity of someone I barely knew would be difficult but I had a feeling he would be a good guide. Aside from him I would probably blank myself out, keep my head down and my mouth shut; see if anything stubborn began to show through.

My mother would laugh at me thinking like this. She would accuse me of being melodramatic; that no normal person needed to make an effort to be real. In doing so she would imply she was normal and I was not. I didn't need to travel home to face my mother's ghost; she'd always been there, in my head, pointing and sneering, as if I were a prank gone wrong. Ironic I should turn into a narcissist after a childhood spent being put down and criticized. A defensive strategy, I supposed, to cover up deep insecurities. I tried to wipe the frown from my face as I drove, then remembered I was free to create as many lines on my face as I wanted for a while and narrowed my eyes indulgently again. Screw Cait, screw the whole shitty world.

A grievous yowl from the backseat reminded me I had another passenger to consider as I swung around the bends. Guido was protesting in earnest and I eased my heavy foot on the accelerator. It was an illegible mystery for me to be in a rush to meet my ghosts; they could wait.

"Sorry, boy. Not far to go now and you're going to love Linwood. Lots of nature to explore."

In the five years I'd had Guido, he came with me almost everywhere. There was no point in having a pet unless they travelled with you and Guido and I were inseparable. A diminutive, plain, tabby kitten, it had been the obvious scorn in his eyes which attracted me, as he peered at the pet store clientele disdainfully from his cage. Within six months of taking him home he'd grown into a heavy-set, brooding tom with a penchant for salmon, who got pissy if I left him for too long. When I spent a week away last month he'd flatly refused to come near me on my return, sulking for two days before he relented with a lap nap. Generally an easy companion, he spent most of his time snoozing; his occasional screams brought me back to reality, never allowing me to turn in on myself for too long. I needed that.

It was late afternoon by the time I coasted past the Savage Falls welcome sign. The sun long since dipped below the altitudinous horizon; the mist, which would have burned off during the day, was beginning to resettle around the surrounding peaks. That was a familiar sight for me but the town itself had changed, the buildings were more numerous, larger and flashier, turning the photos I'd scanned online into boldfaced reality.

A Safeway supermarket with a giant car park stood at the southern end and many of the non-historic buildings had been torn down and rebuilt over the years, including the police and FWP offices. Driving around some of the roads I remembered, my old elementary school was one of the few places which remained unaltered. Empty and lonely at this late hour, rust colored leaves swirled about the courtyard in the chilly breeze and collected in piles at the edges of buildings and gutters. As it came into view, my return to Saffron Crowe buffeted me and I started to shake and become nauseous. I did not want to hang around in this area but was forced to pull over, lean against the steering wheel and wait for it to pass.

The first of the ghosts was greeting me and it was as unfriendly as expected.

The attack eased quickly and within minutes, I was able to continue my journey. I headed back to Bowden Street, the main road running through the middle of town, and pulled into the Health Centre at the northern end, also newly built. Only two other vehicles stood in the spacious parking area; the culture shock at having so much space occupied by so few people was extreme but not unpleasant. I sat in the driver's seat for a few minutes indulging in the feeling of empty expanse. Sometimes it scared me how an anxiety attack could switch so swiftly into a sensation of pleasure but I would not sacrifice it.

At last, leaving the window open a crack, I got out and stretched lazily; I wasn't accustomed to driving much, let alone for long periods. The front door to the Centre opened and a large, broad-shouldered man in a wrinkled suit emerged.

"There she is!" he yelled as he hastened toward me.

A local GP and probably my mother's only friend had gained weight, grey speckled his thinning hair at the temples and creases lined his face. The deep rumble of his voice and ready smile were still easily recognizable and I was flattered he was kind enough to greet me. My memories of Dr. Hamish Roche were far more cheerful than my memories of my mother but I was still taken aback when he didn't hesitate to envelope me in an embrace. I patted his shoulder, unsure how to react - it had been twelve years after all.

"Hello Dr. Roche. Long time no see."

We'd had little contact other than a couple of superficial emails and the fateful phone call three months ago to tell me my mother had been released from her mortal chains. He stood back and looked me over with a smile.

"Little Saffy Crowe," he said affectionately. "You were never shy about calling me Hamish, no need to start with formalities now you're all grown up. I delivered you, you know."

"I remember."

"You've turned into a stunning creature." He studied my face suspiciously. "Have you had work done?"

"I... No." He watched me splutter and his face broke into a wicked grin, reminding me of all the banter we'd exchanged in my adolescence. "I'd forgotten your dry sense of humor. You're very forgettable." I slipped quickly into the niche.

"A useful trait to discourage long-term enemies," he returned and searched the car over my shoulder. "Are you alone?"

"Did you expect an entourage?"

"You know, Cait told me you married." I raised my eyebrows in amusement and Hamish laughed. "She did have her ways."

"She sure did." She might have been just as big a liar as I was myself. Perhaps the only thing we had in common; I hoped anyway.

"Haven't lost your American accent then." He took the opportunity to change the subject. "Welcome home." He squeezed my shoulder again and I felt a bit like crying at the kindness in his voice. "Come inside and we'll get you sorted out with keys and info."

The inside of the Centre was rustic, dark stained wood walls punctuated with large windows overlooking the outside greenery and paintings of equally green forest scenes.

"It's a big improvement on that ugly little clinic you used to work from," I commented.

"Got two other doctors employed under me now too. Things have changed since you've been gone. I'm done with patients for the day. You have time for coffee and a chat?"

"All the time in the world." Guido was probably asleep.

"Coffee please, Tania," he sang out to a woman behind a reception desk before he led me through to an ample, non-medical looking office. Perhaps he had an adjoining room where he did his examinations - the sheer size of everything from the barren stretch of carpeted floors to the ceilings high enough for a second floor, was impressive. He sat down behind a huge desk and I took a seat opposite him. Leaning back, he rested his chin on his index fingers, narrowed his eyes, putting me under the microscope.

"You've been gone a long time," he said solemnly. "How was your trip?"

That was an easy enough question.

"The flights were awful, the drive beautiful. The temperature suits me."

"That's not what I meant!" he barked and I jumped and stared at him. I wasn't sure how seriously to treat him. "Saffron Crowe, don't you dare pull wool over my eyes," he cautioned.

"I'm not..." I stopped - perhaps I was pulling wool. God, did he really know me so well? Surely not, not after so long. What was he even asking?

Before I could come to any conclusion he reached both arms across his desk and demanded, "Give me your hands."

"Er..." I tentatively pulled my chair close, leaned forward and put my hands inside his. Gripping them loosely, he shut his eyes and breathed in an extravagant manner; I don't know if it was meant that way, but the performance was whimsical.

"You've changed, Saf." He made the announcement with an air of disappointment.

"It's been twelve years, of course I've changed." I wiped the smile from my face and he shook his head impatiently.

"You must be honest with me," he said, eyes still shut. "Why are you back?"

It was spooky that I wanted to answer this impertinent demand, but before I could respond the receptionist entered with a tray and placed it on the broad desk between us. The doctor finally opened his eyes and allowed me my hands back.

"Close the door, please, Tania," he said as she scurried out with a secretive simper. When the door was firmly shut, he relaxed his face and leaned forward, a gleam in his eye. I waited; guarded. "How long are you here for?"

"A month, maybe more. I'm not on a schedule, I'm here to slow down for a while and figure out what to do about the house."

"Belen Abreu," he whispered reverently and my eyes widened in surprise. "What are you running away from?"

"What am I meant to say to that?" No wool. "I thought I was coming back to confront things," I said tensely and he cackled at my discomfort.

"Belen Abreu has made a name for herself in Mexico but you keep your private life out of the public eye surprisingly well."

"It's not so difficult, I'm not big. I'm a bit shocked you know the name."

"Help yourself to sugar," he said with a sweeping gesture.

"I'm not supposed to... What the hell." I added a heaped spoon to my steaming cup.

"That a girl. Would it surprise you to learn that Cait was proud of her actress daughter?"

"I would never believe it. She hated me from the day I was born."

"She didn't hate you, she was simply ill-equipped for motherhood. You were sent to your father for good reasons."

"And I'll always be grateful to you for orchestrating that."

"You knew it was because of me?"

"Of course I did. No one else understood what she was like. No one else cared." I took a sip and felt my eyes roll backward. "Oh my God, that is so good."

"You're kept on a strict diet?"

"Strict everything."

"Cait was a difficult woman right up until the end," he continued sadly, "but in her own miserable way she took pride in you. She let comments slip every now and then. On the surface they were derogatory but, well, you knew her, she wasn't the type to talk about anything unless it interested her and she always had a little glint in her eye with you."

"Before your phone call I'd heard nothing for over six months. And even then it was just one of her letters full of crazy talk, so crazy I never replied to it."

Guilt began to manifest at the image of my mother, lonely and bitter, talking about me with pride. How awful; I tried to wipe it from my mind and attempted to harden my tone.

"Belen was left behind in Mexico, I'd rather you didn't use the name. It's unlikely anyone here would recognize it but still."

"Understandable." He folded his hands on the desk in front of him and smiled gently again. "You were always my favorite, I thought of you as family. Seeing you again, looking so wonderful, has made my year."

"You counseled me through some tough times, went above and beyond." The depth of this truth came back to me as I sat looking at his kind face; it was hard to believe I'd lost a sense of the support he provided me with in my turbulent youth.

"I hope you can still see me that way. I worried about you no end when you left, being in a foreign country at such a young age with a man you barely knew. But look at you, you've done amazing, made something of yourself. Your father treated you well then?"

"He was a dream compared to Cait. He became my manager."

"He didn't push you too hard, did he?"

"I didn't mind, it gave me something to concentrate on, a goal. The world I got pulled into in Mexico was very different. Having a father involved in the business made the transition easier but I think he was as surprised as me that I turned out to be okay at playing roles."

"And how does he feel about his cash cow coming back here?"

"He's pissed I'm unavailable but I never told him where I was going," I brushed the question aside with a sniff. "Tell me about Savage Falls, a lot seems to have changed in only a decade. Is there anything I should know?"

"Well," he huffed, "depends on what regard you ask in, there are many more anonymous faces who rent houses and cabins short and long term to get away from the rat race so people aren't all in each other's business the way they used to be. I wouldn't worry about being incognito, people are unlikely to recognize you as Saffron let alone Belen Abreu - you've changed too."

"You knew who I was," I pointed out.

"Older and wiser than most and I was expecting you, waiting for you. You still have that unmistakable, haunted look in your eyes, I suppose it works to your advantage on screen."

"I don't know," I shrugged. "Maybe it's just being back that's put it there."

"Must be strange. The town has grown, the residents have got wealthier; tourism has blossomed in winter due to the new ski facilities and resort. If you're wondering who is still here..." He scratched his chin. "I think many of the kids you grew up with have moved away but a good majority of them also come back for winter vacations. If you're going to be here a while you might run into them."

The suggestion would have been amusing if it wasn't so tragic.

"I drove past the elementary school, it brought back some unfortunate feelings. I was picked on mercilessly at that place."

"You seemed so impervious to it at the time," he said thoughtfully. "Do you know why they picked on you?"

"The usual, I was different."

"You didn't need them, you were comfortable being alone and they didn't understand that. As unfair as it sounds, I think you bothered them more than they bothered you, no matter how hard they tried they couldn't get a rise out of you."

"Yeah well, I had bigger problems to worry about."

"Cait," he said grimly and shook his head. "And now look at what you've achieved. I doubt any of those other kids could hold a candle to you."

"Are you still married to Vivian?"

"Still," he chuckled. "You will have to come by for dinner while you're here, she'd love to see you again."

"I'd like that, but as for kids from school? I'm here for some space."

"Space we have plenty of... Saffron," he began haltingly with a frown, "hearing you were coming back was lovely, but I must admit, it was a surprise. You could have hired someone to take care of the house and contents. I did not expect you to have any desire to return after your experiences here and now you've made something of yourself down south. If it's not too brazen - why?"

"Mom is dead." Saying it out loud was a figurative smack in the face. There was still a glimmer of fear she would materialize and start shouting at me for calling her Mom.

"Yes," he nodded. "I'm sorry. She left specific instructions in her Will; no funeral, no memorial, simple cremation and her ashes to be thrown into the falls. I did it myself off the lookout point at the top of Gull Road. If I had known then you would be coming home I would have waited, I really didn't expect..."

"No need to regret anything," I said with a dismissive hand flick. "She got what she wanted, it wouldn't have helped me any to be there when her ashes were thrown."

"Good to hear you haven't lost your pragmatism."

"Thank you for being there for her, I know she never appreciated you the way she should have."

"She was a character, entertaining if nothing else." He gave me a lingering stare over his coffee cup, his eyes glittering and sharp through the cloud of steam. "You are disappointed you never got the chance to see her again?"

"Of course I am, this is my mother we're talking about. It was always in my head I would come back one day. It wasn't as if we left off in a comfortable place." It surprised me how easily I could express the regret.

"Cait wasn't the type of person you'd ever get closure with. Even in her lucid states she was all over the place."

"I need to ask something and I hope you'll be honest with me. I know the official cause of death was heart failure but..."

"You want to know how it could happen."

"Yes. From what I remember she was strong as an ox physically and she was only forty nine. Is there something else to it?" I asked and he sighed heavily.

"She was on a lot of different medications and she wasn't sticking to the prescribed dosages. It's not something any doctor could control without having her committed and she always kept herself just north of that possibility. She was putting her heart under too much strain, the failure was drug related."

"Would it have been accidental or could she have done it on purpose?"

"If you're asking if it was a one off suicide attempt then the answer is no. Her ups and downs could be extreme and the strain would have developed over an extended period. At the same time, she wasn't stupid, she knew she was misusing the drugs and that there would be consequences; it's likely she just didn't care anymore but she left no indication of intent and her Will was drawn up more than three years ago. Maybe you'll find an answer when you peruse the contents of the house. I was the closest person to her but it was far from my place to sift through her personal belongings - that was always going to be your job and although it'll be a hard one I'm glad you've accepted it. It shows guts, but it doesn't answer my question."

"Still sharp, old man," I smirked and he chuckled and leaned back, offering me the floor.

"I've been having panic attacks. Sudden and extreme," I admitted. "They started before her death, around six months ago."

"How often?"

"Maybe one every couple of days. They're unpredictable and render me useless for at least a few minutes."

"Panic attacks are fairly common, you mustn't think of them as a prelude to a psychotic break or anything akin to your mothers symptoms. You used to be so paranoid about Cait's illness affecting you," he said and I remembered all too well. I still was.

"I know, it's a scary thing though."

"They don't call them panic attacks for nothing. Have you been given anything for them?"

"You're the first person I've told outright and I'm telling you as a friend not a doctor. I don't want any drugs, I came here to get away from that shit not give in to it. I just need some timeout."

"The pills can be quite debilitating," he agreed with a slow nod, "and highly addictive. Keep them in mind as a last resort though."

Many doctors are effective catalysts in turning prescription drugs to black market accessories. If Hamish was an active participant in this culture, I didn't want to know. It wasn't what I was here for and would sooner bury my head in the sand.

"Do you remember how I always wanted to go to medical school?"

"Of course," he grinned. "I must admit I was a little disappointed to hear you'd gone in a different direction."

"I did end up completing a degree in psychology."

"Ah, far from needing my opinion on panic attacks then. My gosh, you've been busy. Was it because of Cait you took an interest in the field?"

"Not really, I thought understanding the mind would help with my roles. It didn't, it tapered any appreciation I originally had for my acting career. But it's more than that." I paused with a frown. "I'm tempted to call it restlessness but that doesn't cut it, I'm more pissed off than anything. Nothing real or beautiful can survive on that scene which isn't sitting right with me. I've lost any sense who I am."

"You may not appreciate my line of thinking here, always referring to the past, but a lot of children raised in households with a parent as emotional unstable as yours, have issues with self-image. Especially having to adjust to such a different environment during puberty. You could be more right than you know in coming back here."

"Yes," I nodded. "In Mexico, for the first time in my life I found a place not just to fit in but to thrive. Back then I didn't realize the environment I was thriving in was a complete fabrication; plastic and superficial. My identity became built on what was asked of me at the time and nothing else. Everyone keeps telling me to be more grateful for what I have and not to throw it away but, am I supposed to just continue pretending constantly?"

"Certainly not, perhaps your future lies elsewhere. You're in an interesting dilemma, you're not sure if you're here to confront your issues or to escape from them. In your case, perhaps both. Are you certain you want to stay at Linwood?"

"Maybe answers lie in that house."

"That house contains a lot of things, not all of them real or good. Be careful what you wish for."

"At this point it's the only way I see to move forward."

"By going back?"

"Possibly a little sideways too," I said and he laughed. "You said the house was habitable?"

"It's very habitable, Viv and I were there just yesterday to make sure everything was in order. If you hadn't decided to come back I would have suggested you rent it out at least, seemed a shame to let it go to waste. Cait may have been terrible with people but she liked her creature comforts, it's the ghosts I'm warning you about. Let's not mince words, Cait was a sick woman and a terrible mother. And you were so young, you shouldn't have had to...." He trailed off with a troubled expression and stared at his meaty hands. "Memories can lead down difficult paths," he finished quietly.

"The ghosts are why I'm here. They may have things to tell me."

"They always do. Nevertheless, if you find it too much at any point, there's a new hotel up at the top of Featherston Road, it's quite lavish and always has vacancies this time of year." He forced a smile.

"I've done my research on the new places in the area. I'll keep it in mind."

"You realize I'll be calling to check up on you frequently. Under no circumstances am I going to allow you to turn into a hermit like your mother."

"Your concern and complete lack of faith are appreciated."

"You're looking to build a bridge between your troubled past and your uncertain future. They're murky waters to paddle in, one can get lost and slip beneath the surface."

"Exorcising demons was never supposed to be easy." Maybe it was the weight of his warning or the exorbitant reminiscing and honesty of our conversation but abruptly a sense of exhaustion fell over me and I inhaled deeply to repress a yawn.

"You've had a long day." Hamish took the cue. He pulled a large brown envelope from a drawer and pushed it across the desk. "Keys and a bunch of numbers which will be useful while you're here. The electricity's on and there's a load of firewood in the shed if you feel like lighting a fire. I assume you have not forgotten how to light a fire?"

"I doubt it." I flicked through the keys on the chain. Each had a tiny label, I smiled at Hamish's thoroughness.

"You will need to go to the grocery store, aside from coffee, tea and a few tinned goods, there's nothing edible in the house."

"I think I'm going to enjoy that, it might be the first time I've shopped properly without thinking about calories." An indulgent smile spread across my face. "I saw the new supermarket."

"Safeway, yes, been there about six years now. There's a smaller Wholefoods on Pike Street as well."

I shoved the envelope in my bag and stood up. "I better be off if I want to be safely inside before nightfall."

Hamish led the way through the reception area and out the front door.

"Remember what I said?" he asked when I got to my car. "No one would blame you if you needed to stay somewhere else. Call me if you have any problems?"

"I'll be fine. I've got my cat to look after me."

"Oh, big fellow." He grinned as he peered through the back windscreen. He wrapped his arms around me a final time and, this one, I returned properly. "It's good to have you back."

"Thanks for everything." I climbed into the driver's seat with a smile.

Heading back the way I'd come, I drove toward Safeway. I'd underestimated how a reunion with Hamish Roche would affect me, how strong his connection to Saffron had been. One thing at least had fallen into place; I hadn't had to make any effort to be genuine, it had come easily with his direction. I'd been honest, but not too honest. There were things about my life as Belen, Hamish didn't need to know. Even now, returning to my roots and a mentor who had so much influence in shaping my childhood, I still saw myself as alone. Things had always been that way and if someone told me it was about to change I would have considered them a fool.

Inside Safeway was bright and comforting, nineties music played quietly through the speakers. There were few customers and, like me, none seemed in any rush, engrossed in reading nutritional information from packets or groping vegetables. I took my time, lazily wandering down every aisle and tossing far too many things I shouldn't be eating into the cart. Unable to pass by the alcohol section without stressing about my first night back in the old house, I added a selection of wine and bottle of tequila to my purchases. There were too many question marks about necessities which Cait may be missing but I could come back tomorrow if needs be. As a treat, I bought Guido fresh salmon along with his cat food, which I'd cook ....probably not tonight. Damn, I was tired.

By the time I'd finished, the cart was overloaded and the emo girl at the counter gave me a strange, lingering look as she scanned my items. Perhaps because of the amount of alcohol. I was probably just being paranoid so I stared her down restlessly.

Guido let out a noisy complaint at being left for too long when I loaded the cargo bay and finally got back behind the wheel.

"Stop your moaning. You'll thank me when you see what I've got for you."

Linwood, my mother's property and house, lay sprawled behind thick greenery at the end of a cul-de-sac called Freeman's Grove. It was on the eastern outskirt of the town and was reasonably isolated from other residences. As I approached the sensation of déjà vu became intense. The scents, sounds and even the color of the air changed, the world shrunk and I was a child again.

"It'll be okay, things are totally different now," I mumbled and Guido gave a low growl of agreement.

Let's get this over with, I need to take a piss, he was probably saying.

Pulling into the driveway, the house emerged through the trees; a two-story red-brick construction with a dangerously sloping roof, under which stretched ominous attic space. I stopped and stared, hardly breathing. It hadn't changed much from what I remembered, the brick color fading slightly, downstairs curtains closed in brown framed windows. It looked peaceful, tidy, nothing amiss; the wind lightly rustling the trees in the soft evening light. I watched, expecting my mother's silhouette to appear in one of the upper windows. Another growl came from the back and I remembered to breathe, unwrapped my white knuckles from the steering wheel and got out.

Poor Guido's wide eyes were furious as I pulled his cage from the back and let him out.

"Don't go far."

He made an immediate dash for the undergrowth beside the drive and I turned back to the building and swallowed at the small lump in my throat.

My first tentative steps through the house were fraught with tension. Checking every room to be sure it was empty, I felt certain Cait was going to jump out at every corner. But the house was deserted, dusty and neglected.

By the time I brought my bags up the stairs into my old room and unloaded the groceries from the car, I was exhausted and more than a little uneasy. I ushered Guido inside, fed him, opened the tequila and padded around the house again, glass in hand. My mother always had a habit of reorganizing the position of furniture to suit her moods, so although there were still pieces I recognized from my childhood, their places had changed - probably many times over the years. The ancient grandfather clock, still ticking, sat near the front door now, instead of in the sitting room. The china cabinet full of Wedgwood now sat in the back room with the book shelves and the old velvet settee which had belonged to my great grandmother.

A huge ponderosa pine, which had dominated my bedroom window when I was a child, had been felled, probably because its branches were threatening the structure. The rug on the floor was leaking too much dust which I didn't want to have to inhale while sleeping; I hung it over the bannister on the back porch.

Venturing courageously into my mother's bedroom, I peered around, opened the closet door. This had been a sanctified area I was never allowed into when I was a child. She'd caught me once and had treated me like devil spawn for weeks afterward. Stacked on a top shelf were photo albums. Feeling vengeful and slightly sordid, I lifted them down and settled on the floor against the wall, tequila beside me, to flip through them. They contained pictures of her and my father I'd never seen before. She looked so happy and normal in them; why had she kept them in her room? All through my childhood, she had never had a nice word to say about my father, but seeing the photos kept in such a position of esteem made me wonder if, after everything, she hadn't still loved him all these years. Thinking about it saddened me. Fate is cruel.

Chapter Two

Lark

I woke up with my face and ribs squished against the carpet in my mother's bedroom. Disoriented, my immediate thought was that I'd blacked out at another party but the idea departed when I felt the chill beneath me, opened my eyes and recognized the dusty, wooden decor. A wave of nausea flooded my stomach and I lurched up and rushed to the bathroom where I vomited at least two glasses of undigested tequila into the toilet bowl then sat against the wall breathing deeply. The feeling I'd made a mistake coming back subsided with the queasiness; my mistake had been drinking last night, but I was alive and in one piece. I stared at myself in the mirror; a red welt marked where my cheekbone had pressed onto the floor, making it look like I'd just been backhanded, but my appearance wasn't too awful. I'd seen worse.

The house felt empty and strange, as if I was an intruder ready to run for cover if I heard Cait's key in the front door. That it was my house now would take some getting used to. The hallway which connected the bedrooms of the second floor was long and narrow, it had scared me as a child. For reasons unknown there was no light along its length and when I'd needed to pee during the night I imagined there was some loathsome creature lying in wait on the shadowy carpet, ready to snap at my little legs in the darkness. Unlike me, a sober Guido had made himself a nest in my bed and barely gave me a snooty glance when I came to collect some fresh clothes. After a cautious sniff around the house yesterday, his interests lay primarily indoors and it would probably stay that way until he acclimatized properly.

I skulked into a long, hot shower and dressed. It felt outrageously good that no one was going to see me today, not having to worry about looking perfect. Padding back to my mother's bedroom in my socks, I placed the albums I'd been looking through back on the shelf in her closet and picked the tequila bottle from the floor. I must have knocked myself out fairly early because only a small portion of the golden fluid was gone from top of the bottle. My exhaustion had been complete and, despite my excess with other substances, I'd never been much of a drinker - the only reason I found it acceptable to use while here.

I screwed the cap on and headed down to the kitchen holding it away from me in case the scent reignited my nausea.

A wander down to Fountain Creek sounded like an okay plan; fresh air and a proper reintroduction to the area. Investigating the contents of the house could wait. It was obvious Cait had cleared out my old bedroom entirely aside from the bulky furniture and, though dusty, the house generally appeared clean and uncluttered. I hadn't ventured into the attic yet though, which held particular mystique.

It seemed acceptable to spend a few days lounging; the 75" curved QLED TV in the sitting room had not escaped my notice - Hamish had been spot on, Cait did like her comforts. I could spend a few days holidaying in Netflix and Amazon Prime, it had been too long.

Standing in front of the open fridge, I stared for at least a minute before pulling the milk from it to make coffee. Maybe I was still numbed by the night before but being back in the old kitchen didn't feel too bad. Evening grosbeaks with bright yellow plumage were visible through the windows, flitting in the trees on the eastern side of the house, their songs one of the more sanguine aspects of my recollection.

Behind the twittering and sound of the espresso machine, a far more unattractive and unexpected noise broke through and I froze. Perhaps it was an animal or the wind blowing something - the gusts here could be strong and unpredictable. But there it was again; coming from the back porch, it sounded like a cough. A human cough. Linwood wasn't the kind of place random people just happened upon, it could be someone dangerous. The unfortunate truth was, although it might have felt like the most boring place in the world twelve years ago, I wasn't certain what dangerous things prowled this forest now. Standing close to the wall, I pressed my head against it and listened. I ran my fingers through my hair; a small, hysterical part of me wondered if I had time to change my outfit and put on some make-up before I faced my attacker. I shook myself, pulled a steak-knife from its holder and crept to the backdoor that led to the porch.

The cough sounded again as I unlocked it and grabbed the knob; a hacking, pitiful noise. Whoever was making it was seriously sick, bronchitis probably - I could vividly picture the phlegm tossing around at the back of their throat. Pushing the ugly image away, I pulled the door open and tiptoed out, holding the knife in front of me.

A lump lay on the hard wood of the porch bench, huddled underneath the dusty rug I'd hung over the bannister to air last night. My fear dissipated quickly as I edged around to the front and lifted a corner of the rug to reveal a face.

"Hey." I placed the knife on the porch rail and crouched down to her level. Her eyes were closed, her face flushed and she shook; no doubt from the cold - she didn't appear to have anything warm on except this ridiculous rug and it was probably only forty degrees out here. Her lips were dry and cracked. "Hey," I repeated. "Can you hear me?"

She didn't respond, didn't even open her eyes. Maybe she was deaf but surely she had felt me lift the rug. One thing was obvious as I hovered over her, wondering if I was still asleep and dreaming; this girl was not a threat, she needed help. While I'd normally be hesitant to get within ten feet of a person looking and sounded as she did, in those moments I didn't care if she was infectious, my need to help overrode anything else. Just watching her shake was making me cold. I backed away, went upstairs to fetch my mother's heavy, faux wolf fur blanket from her bed. It would be a hell of an improvement on a dusty carpet rug. As I stood assessing my options on how to approach her, she broke into another coughing fit and I was motivated to act.

I tore the rug off her; her eyes fluttered open so briefly before she reached to tug it back. Tossing it against the wall, I draped the heavy fur around her quivering shoulders. She accepted it, pulling it snugly around her before she settled stiffly back on the hard wood. Her state was even more pathetic than I imagined under the rug, her clothing thin and dirty; she wore no coat and clutched a tattered bag to her chest. How long had she been here? Haunted by the possibility she might have knocked on the door last night while I was either drunk or unconscious, guilt dwarfed my confusion. I wondered if I should call an ambulance but dismissed the thought. I wasn't incapable, I could handle this. When I sat next to her on the edge of the wide seat and touched the back of my fingers to her forehead, her lashes fluttered again but didn't open. Her skin was too hot, she clearly had a fever; she couldn't stay out here.

"If you come inside, you can lie down on the sofa," I told her. "It will be comfortable and you can get warm."

She didn't answer but I had a sense she understood me. She was sick and probably scared but she was conscious, as was I of her chattering teeth. I knew that feeling - when the cold seeps right through to your bones.

Unsure how she would react, I put my arms around the faux wolf at her shoulders and tried to guide her up into sitting position and from there, to standing. She let me, she opened her heavy-lidded eyes as we walked slowly inside, allowing me a glimpse of indigo blue. She kept the furry blanket tightly clasped around her as I brought her to the sofa whereupon she quickly resumed the position she'd had on the porch, though a lot more comfortable this time, I deduced.

I stood reconsidering the ambulance, but it was only a fever, no need to be overzealous. I'd spotted a couple of old hot water bottles in the linen cupboard last night; one of those and a hot chocolate might help. I had Tylenol in one of my unpacked bags too, though I guessed that and a whole lot more would be in Cait's medicine stockpile. I'd been too scared to check her supplies last night in case there was something I couldn't resist.

The girl hadn't moved when I returned to the sitting room but was awake because she shifted slightly when I sat down beside her. I lifted the blanket up by her feet, pulled her dirt-caked shoes off and slid the hot water bottle between them, half-expecting her to kick me or protest in some other way but she didn't. Her feet were as I suspected, like icicles, and a small whimper escaped her mouth when she felt the heat of the bottle sink into her. She was too dirty and from what I felt, she was also damp; the temptation was to force her into a bath but that would be pushing it. At least the heat could be drawn down from her head now.

"Can you sit up a bit? I have a drink for you," I said, waving the sugary beverage close to her face. She pulled herself up against the wide armrest and stared at the steaming mug through blood-shot eyes. She reached a thin arm tentatively out of the confines of the fur, grasped the mug and lifted it shakily toward her. "It's hot, be careful," I warned unnecessarily. Though she refused to speak or even look at me, there was intelligence beneath that surface, I could sense it. She held the mug close and concentrated on it, not me.

Escaping to the kitchen, I leaned against the counter and took deep breaths, counting to thirty. I'd hid it successfully but the sight of her arm reaching for the mug had shattered my insides. The thin sleeve of her grubby shirt rode up and reddish-purple bruises marked the bones of her delicate wrist. The police might be a more viable option for emergency services, but she wasn't talking and police would try to bully her. It was something she shouldn't be exposed to unless absolutely essential, I thought protectively.

I brought a bottle of water, tray of tablets and box of tissues to her side and sat down on the coffee table watching her. Her eyes drooped and she was having difficulty breathing through her nose but sipped the hot chocolate slowly and steadily. She was layered with dust and grime; her hair, a mass of dark curls, unwashed, unkempt. Her lashes were long, thick and black, lazily dipping down when she blinked and accentuating the sea blue of her eyes. She had dark blood in her, enough to make her blue eyes unexpected against her caramel skin. Her state was genuine, no make-up, no props. Something about this screamed movie scene though. She may be a time-traveler, I pondered fancifully.

"Can you swallow these?" I popped two pills out of their holders and held them out. "They'll help with your fever." She hesitated at first but eventually picked them daintily from my palm and washed them down with a final gulp from her cup. It seemed that was it for now because she placed the quarter-full cup carefully on the coffee table using both hands, settled back into lying position and buried herself, head and all under the heavy blanket. Her feet fiddled with the position of the bottle before she went still and, after a few minutes, the rise and fall of her breathing slowed. I didn't want her to sleep like that, dirty and damp on the sofa, but she might be more willing to communicate after a rest.

I sat for a long time just watching the heap of faux fur, wondering. This wasn't something I'd seen coming but I didn't resent the intrusion. Worried and confused as I was, being diverted from concentrating on myself was favorable. At least she had taken the pills and a drink. Placing the tissues on the carpet near her buried head, I pulled the throw from the back of the sofa, piled it on top of the fur, picked up her shoes and left her to it.

Her footwear, underneath the mud and grit, were wet and worn; a lace-up canvas and plastic job, they looked like they'd been bought from Walmart or the like. There were no holes in the soft material but there soon would be, they should be thrown away but I couldn't bring myself to. They were hers and she had so little on her. The threadbare bag I'd spotted when I tore the rug from her was far from bulky and likely contained nothing.

I busied myself cleaning the cheap little shoes off as best I could. I would have put them out in the sunshine to dry but the sun was refusing to show its face today, instead, rain threatened to fall from the pregnant sky. I'd test if I still had the skills to make a decent fire; I had wanted to do it last night but was too tired and had got drunk too early. The lump on the sofa didn't stir as I built and put a match to it in the sitting room. A meek pride swelled inside me at the sight of it flaring into action - I still had the skills. Putting the strangers wet shoes out of reach of sparks on the hearth, I settled down with the lap top to check my email accounts.

Reading and ignoring emails was customary but one had come through from my father, unwelcome and demanding attention.

Emilio's been trying to get in contact with you, Matias Cano is casting for a movie, Su Piel, and they asked for you specifically. This is big, a role like this could catapult your reputation and you've been trying to break into movies for years.

If you keep turning down offers, you'll regret it. Don't underestimate how fast this industry moves, keep this up and you'll be throwing your career away, and for what? There isn't a person in this business who hasn't had to detox at least once. I'm asking you to please get your shit together and get back here or I'll come to Montana myself.

It was the last bit which pissed me off the most, the rest he plied me with routinely but mentioning Montana was the icing on the cake. He didn't know where I was but he suspected and I had few reservations he would probably come looking for me if I stayed away long enough. Resentment mounted at him for employing the same coercive tactics he used so many times over the years and the email sunk my spirits. I'd only just arrived and he had already managed to ruin any sense of safety and peace. A part of me was curious about the movie but it was small and distant. Weak. This time things would be different, I needed to buy myself more breathing space.

I told you I'd be gone for at least a month. The more you stress me out with emails like that, the longer I'm going to need, you probably just added another month. Quit hounding me.

I decreed to give it at least three days before checking the account again. As tempting as it was to become angry and add expletives, it wouldn't serve any purpose and would further encourage replies. Keeping words to a minimum, I sent only what I needed to get him off my back for a while.

I found myself staring across at the motionless lump on the sofa again, deep in thought.

"You're a runaway too," I whispered. Though this girl had undoubtedly come from a very different environment.

Abandoning the lap top, I gathered some cleaning products from the laundry room and began wiping and polishing surfaces in the gradually warming lounge. Doing something methodical felt good; the house was large and, after three months standing empty, a dust bucket but I could put a dent in the worst of it. Lucky I didn't suffer allergies.

Just after three my phone rang, loud and meddlesome in the quiet of the afternoon. Hyperaware of the sickly stranger sleeping across the room, I answered immediately and slipped out to the kitchen. The number was new, it could only be one person and I took no issue speaking to him.

"Hi, Hamish."

"Afternoon." His voice affable and unassuming, once again I felt like spilling all to him. "Just checking in. How was your first night?"

"I drank too much tequila. No permanent damage I think."

"No problems with the house?"

"I haven't started looking through anything yet. Just a lot of dust and must."

"You'll stay then?"

"Yes, of course. Hamish, listen..." I hesitated, iffy to whether I should mention the stranger.

"What's wrong?"

"Something a bit weird has happened."

"Did you meet those ghosts you were looking for? I told you..."

"It's not that," I cut him off. "She's not a ghost. At least I don't think she is." Suddenly I didn't know, wanted to go look at her again, make sure she was real.

"Who?"

"I found someone lying on the porch seat this morning. A girl, she's sick, I brought her inside and now she's asleep on the sofa."

"Oh?" He sounded skeptical. "Who is she?"

"I don't know. She won't talk to me."

There was a bloated pause before he asked, "What does she look like?"

"Dark curls, blue eyes, she has a shocking cough. It looks like she's been walking in the woods a while."

"Huh. This is a surprise." Hamish was obviously unsure how seriously to take me. "I've a final patient at five, I'll stop by on my way home. I can check her over."

"No," I disagreed quickly, regretting opening by big mouth. "It's okay, I can deal with it."

"Some stranger shows up on your porch and you don't want to know who she is? Maybe I'll recognize her."

"Alright." I was reluctant but he was right.

"Be there about six."

He was coming to check up on me, make sure I hadn't lost my mind. It was unlikely he believed in my sickly visitor and I imagined my embarrassment if she vanished by the time he arrived.

'Madness runs in the family,' he would tut with a disappointed shake of his head. 'It was bound to happen eventually.'

But when I got back to the sitting room she was still there and coughing into a tissue, no doubt woken by the phone.

"Hi," I said and sat down on the edge of the sofa. She was solid enough but, as before, wouldn't react to my presence. Her shirt was filthy and far too big, hanging loosely on her bony shoulders. While I watched, she allowed the bag she had to fall to the floor beside her and pulled a small, frayed teddy bear from it. She clasped it to her chest before burying herself back under the blankets and going still. The sight almost brought tears to my eyes.

I had a teddy bear like that when I was a child. I loved it more than anything and when I was ten it had disappeared. I'd cried ceaselessly and my mother finally told me she'd thrown it out, that I was too old for it and needed to move on. Odd that this unexpected visitor should remind me of that, I hadn't thought about it in years.

Finally deciding to put in an appearance, Guido came downstairs and sauntered into the sitting room. He peered at the crackling fire then headed over to the couch where he leaned his front paws on the cushions and sniffed suspiciously at the stranger beneath the fur. I wondered what she smelled like to him; she was filthy but I myself had not detected anything particularly repellent. Perhaps her scent told a story to Guido I could never understand. After sufficiently satisfying his nasal curiosity and deciding she was not a risk to be concerned with, he leaned against the hearth and began to lick himself lazily.

Needing to stay busy, I retreated to the kitchen and gathered some of the ingredients I'd bought yesterday to prepare dinner. Cooking relaxed me, sometimes I did it without even eating what I was preparing.

The doorbell rang out just before six while my chicken was grilling. The lump under the blankets, which I'd thought was asleep, moved at the sound; huddled in the corner of the wide sofa, clenching the blankets tightly around her.

"It's okay," I tried to placate her, getting up. "He's a friend, he's a doctor."

She stayed where she was, her eyes half-open and directed at the carpet. The certainty she could understand me was getting stronger despite her refusal to respond. An expectant looking Hamish pulled his coat off as I led him into the sitting room without comment.

"Jeepers," he said on spotting the girl. "Not a ghost then."

The curious tilt of his head and mystified expression told me he had no idea who she was. Approaching, he put his bag on the floor and sat down at her side.

"Hey there. You look a little worse for wear. Mind if I check you over?"

"He won't hurt you, he's just going to make sure you're okay." She stayed put; I got the feeling she realized Hamish wasn't a threat. She may have expected someone specific to come through the door, someone she knew well. "She can understand you but be careful with her, she's scared and uncommunicative."

"I can see that," he said gently. "Have you given her anything?" He pulled an ear thermometer from his bag.

"Hot chocolate, water and Tylenol."

"Good."

"I'll be in the kitchen for a minute," I said and went to check on the oven.


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