Again, the dream creeps in.
It’s a foggy, gray day and I’m in the kitchen, on the phone, talking to someone . . . but that part changes. Sometimes it’s my husband, Wyatt, other times it’s Tanya and sometimes it’s my mother, though I know she’s been dead a long, long time. But that’s how it is . . .
From the family area, the room right next to the kitchen, here in this house, I hear the television, soft cartoon voices speaking, and I know that Noah’s playing with his toys on the rug in front of the flat screen.
I’ve baked some bread, the kitchen is still warm from the oven and I’m thinking about Thanksgiving. As I glance out the window, I notice that its nearly dark outside, dusk at hand. It must be cold, too, as the trees shiver in the wind, a few stubborn leaves hanging onto thin, skeletal branches. Across the bay, the town of Anchorville is invisible, shrouded by fog.
But inside this old mansion, the one my great-great grandfather built, it’s cozy.
Smelling of cinnamon and nutmeg.
And then, from the corner of my eye, I see movement outside. It’s Milo, our cat, I think, but I remember that Milo, a prince of a tabby, is dead. Has been for years.
I squint, suddenly fearful. It’s hard to see through the fog rolling in from the sea, but I knowsomething’s out there, in the yard, behind the hedgerow of roses where the scraggly bushes are thin and bedraggled, a few shriveled petals visible in the dead blooms and thorns.
My skin crawls as a shadow passes near the porch.
For the briefest of seconds I fear there’s something evil lurking just beyond the arrow-shaped spikes of the surrounding wrought-iron fence.
Creeeaaaak! Bang! The gate’s open, swinging in the buffeting wind.
That’s when I catch a glimpse of Noah, my son, in his little hooded sweatshirt and rolled-up jeans. He’s gotten out of the house somehow and wandered through the open gate. Now, in the twilight, he’s running joyfully, as if he’s chasing something, down the path to the dock.
I drop the phone.
It knocks over my water glass in slow motion.
I spin around and think I’m mistaken, that surely he’s in front of the couch by the TV, that . . . I see the room is empty, some Disney thing – Aladdin? – still playing. “Noah!” I scream at the top of my lungs and take off at a dead run.
I’m in my pajamas and my feet feel as if they’re in quicksand, I can’t get through this damned house fast enough, but as I race past each of the windows looking out at the bay, I see him running through the nearing darkness, getting closer and closer to the water.
I pound on an old pane with a fist.
The window shatters!
Still he doesn’t hear me. I try to open the french doors to the verandah overlooking the bay. They don’t move. It’s as if they’re painted shut. Blood drizzles down the panes.
slog forward. Screaming at my son, and for Wyatt, I run in slow motion to the doors. They’re unlocked, one swinging open and moaning loudly, as I push myself onto the porch. “Noah!”
I’m crying now. Sobbing. Panic burns through me as I nearly trip on the steps, then run past the dripping rhododendrons and windswept pines of this God-forsaken island, the place I’ve known as home for most of my life. “Noah!” I scream again, but my voice is lost in the roar of the sea and I can’t see my boy, he’s disappeared beyond the dead roses in the garden, no sight of him in the low-hanging mist.
Oh, please, God, no . . . let him be all right!
The chill of the Pacific sweeps over me, but it’s nothing compared to the coldness in my heart. I dash down the path strewn with oyster and clam shells, sharp enough to pierce my skin, and onto the slick planks of the listing dock. Over the weathered boards to the end where the wharf juts into the mist as if suspended in air. “Noah!” Oh, for God’s sake! “NOAH!!!”
No one’s there.
The pier is empty.
Vanished in the mist.
Noah! Noah!” I stand on the dock and scream his name. Tears run from my face, blood trickles down my cut palm to splash in the brackish water. “NOAH!”
The surf tumbles beyond the point, crashing and roaring as it pummels the shore.
My boy is missing.
Swallowed up by the sea or into thin air, I don’t know which.
No, no . . . no.” I’m wretched and bereft, my grief intolerable as I sink onto the dock and stare into the water, thoughts of jumping into the dark, icy depths and ending it all filling my mind. “Noah . . . please. God keep him safe . . .”
My prayer is lost in the wind . . .
Then I wake up.
I find myself in my bed in the room I’ve occupied for years.
For the briefest of instants it’s a relief. A dream. . .only a dream. A horrible nightmare.
Then my hopes sink as I realize my mistake.
My heart is suddenly heavy again.
Tears burn my eyes.
Because I know.
My son really is gone. Missing. It’s been a two years since I last saw him.
On the dock?
In his crib?
Playing outside under the fir trees?
Oh, dear God, I think, shattered, heart-aching. . .
I can’t remember.
. . . I’m serious, you can’t tell a soul,” a breathy voice whispered. “I could lose my job.”
Ava Garrison opened a bleary eye. From her bed, she heard the sound of voices beyond the big wooden door that stood slightly ajar.
She doesn’t even know what’s going on,” another woman agreed. Her voice was deeper than the first and Ava thought she recognized it, a headache pounding behind her eyes as the nightmare retreated into her subconscious. The pain would recede it always did, but for the first minutes after waking, she felt as if steel-shod horses were galloping through her brain.
Inhaling a deep breath, she blinked. The room was dark, the curtains pulled, the rumble of the ancient furnace forcing air through the registers muting the conversation beyond the heavy oak door which was slightly ajar.
Shhh . . . she should be awake soon . . .” Breathy Voice again. Ava tried to place it and thought it might belong to Demetria, Jewel-Anne’s dour nursemaid. For a woman not yet thirty, tall, slim Demetria always wore a severe expression that matched her harsh hairstyle, dyed black and pulled back, restrained by a heavy clip her nape. Her only concession to whimsy, it seemed, was the hint of a tattoo, an inky tendril that curled from beneath the clip to tease the back of her ear. The tattoo reminded Ava of a shy octopus, extending one questioning tentacle from beneath its hiding spot of thick dark hair and tortoise shell clip.
So what is it? What’s going on with her?” the second voice, deeper and gruffer than the first, demanded. Oh, Lord, did it belong to Khloe? Ava felt a jab of betrayal; she knew they were talking about her and Khloe had been her best friend while growing up here on this remote island. But that had been years ago, long before fresh-faced and happy-go-lucky Khloe had turned into the unhappy soul who couldn’t for the life of her let go of a love that had died so swiftly.
More whispering . . .
Of course. It was almost as if they wanted to have her overhear them, as if they were taunting her.
Ava only caught phrases that were as crippling as they were true.
“ . . . slowly going out of her mind . . .” Khloe again?
Has been for years. Poor Mr. Garrison.” The breathy voice.
Poor Mr. Garrison? Seriously?
Khloe, if it were she, agreed. “How he’s suffered.”
Wyatt? Suffered? Really? The man who seemed intent on being absent, always away? The man she’d contemplated divorcing on more than one occasion? Ava doubted her husband had suffered one day of his life. She could barely restrain herself from shouting, but she wanted to hear what they were saying, what the gossip was that ran rampant through the wainscoted hallways of Neptune’s Gate this hundred-year-old house built and named by her great-great grandfather.
Well something should be done; they’re richer than God!” one of them muttered, her words thin and reedy as she walked away.
For God’s sake, keep your voice down. Anyway, the family’s making sure that she gets the best care that money can buy . . .”
Ava’s head was throbbing as she threw off the thick duvet and her bare feet hit the plush carpet that had been cast over hardwood. Fir . . . it was fir planks . . . she remembered, planed by the sawmill that once was the heart of Church Island, named without a drop of modesty by that same great-great who had built this house. One step, two . . . she started to lose her balance and grasped the tall post of the bed.
Everyone in the family . . . they need answers . . .”
Don’t we all?” A sly little snigger. Please, God, that it wasn’t Khloe.
But we don’t own any part of this damned island.”
Wouldn’t that be something . . . if we did, I mean.” The voice sounded wistful as it retreated.
Ava took a step and a wave of nausea washed up her throat. She thought she might throw up as bile teased her tongue, but she bit down hard, took a deep breath and fought the urge to vomit.
She’s crazy as a loon. But he won’t leave her,” one of them, she couldn’t tell which, said and the words were as crippling as they were true. She clutched the bedpost and silently cursed her cloudy memory, her fractured brain.
Once, she’d been brilliant, at the top of her class, not only a stellar student but a business woman with the acumen of . . . of . . . of what?
Gritting her teeth, she forced herself to the doorway and peeked out. Sure enough two women were stepping down the stairs, their bodies slowly disappearing. But neither was Khloe as Ava’s mind had suggested. They were Virginia Zanders, Khloe’s mother and a woman twice the size of her daughter, the cook for Neptune’s Gate, and Graciela, a part-time maid, who, as if sensing Ava in the door, glanced over her shoulder and offered a smile as saccharine as the iced-tea that Virginia poured on hot summer days. Half the size of her companion, Graciela was petite, with lustrous black hair knotted at the base of her skull. If she wanted to, Graciela could turn on a brilliant smile that could charm the coating off an M&M. Today, her full lips were more like that of a Cheshire cat, as if she knew some deep, dark and oh-so-private secret.
About her employer.
The hairs on the back of Ava’s arms lifted. Like a snake slithering through her vertebrae, cold seeped down her spine. Graciela’s dark eyes seemed to glint with a secret knowledge before both she and Virginia were out of sight, their footsteps fading.
With a quick push, Ava slammed the door shut, then tried to lock it, but the deadbolt was missing, replaced by a matching face plate to cover the hole left in the door. “God help me,” she whispered and drew in a long, calming breath as she leaned against the door.
Don’t give in. Don’t let them make you the victim. Fight back!
“Against what?” she asked the dark room, then angry with her plight and her attitude she stalked to the windows. When was it that she’d become such a wimp? When? Hadn’t she always been strong? Independent? A girl who raced her mare along the ridge over the sea, who climbed to the topmost spire of the mountain on this island, who swam naked in the icy, foaming waters of the Pacific where it poured and swirled into the bay? She’d surfed and rock climbed and . . . and it all seemed a thousand, no, make that a million, years ago!
Now she was trapped here, in this room, while all those faceless people were speaking in hushed tones and assuming she couldn’t hear them, but she could; of course she could.
Sometimes she wondered if they knew she was awake; if they were taunting her on purpose. Perhaps their soft, condoling tones were all part of a great facade, a horrible, painful labyrinth from which there was no escape.
She trusted no one and then reminded herself that it was all part of her paranoia. Her sickness.
With pain shooting behind her eyes she stumbled to the bed and fell onto the pillow-top mattress with its expensive sheets, for the pain to abate. She tried to raise her head but a headache with the power to make her tremble stopped her and she had to bite down so that she didn’t cry out.
No one should suffer like this. Weren’t their pain killers for this sort of thing? Prescriptions to stave off migraines . . . then again she took a lot of pills and couldn’t help but wonder if the pain slicing through her brain was because of the medication rather than in spite of it.
She didn’t understand why they were all out to torment her, to make her feel as if she were crazy, but she was pretty damned sure they intended just that. All of them: the nurses, the doctors, the maid, the lawyers and her husband, most certainly Wyatt.
Oh, God . . . she did sound paranoid.
Maybe she was.
With extreme effort, she gathered her strength and eased out of the bed again. She knew, eventually the stab in her brain would slowly dissipate. It always did. But when she first woke up, it was always bitch.
With a hand on the bed to steady herself, she walked carefully to the window, pushed back the curtains, then opened the blinds.
The day was gray and grim, as it was on that day . . . that horrid day when Noah . . .
Don’t go there!
It serves no purpose to relive the worst moments of your life.
Blinking, she forced her mind back to the present and stared through the watery, leaded-glass panes that looked out from the second floor of this old once-elegant mansion. Autumn was seeping toward winter, she thought as she squinted, looking toward the dock where twilight was descending, fingers of fog sliding over the blackened pier.
It wasn’t morning, but nearing evening, she realized, though that seemed wrong. She’d been asleep for hours . . . days?
Don’t think about it; you’re awake now.
Placing a hand against the cool panes she took in more of her surroundings. At the water’s edge, the boathouse had grayed over the years, the dock next to it listing toward the wind-riffled waters of the bay. The tide was in, foamy waves splashing against the shore.
So like that day . . .
Oh, sweet Jesus.
A chill, cold as the depths of the sea, washed over her, a chill that was born from within.
Her heart clutched.
Her breath fogged on the window as she leaned close to the glass.
The back of her neck tightened in a familiar way; she knew what was coming.
Please . . .”
Squinting, she stared at the end of the dock.
And there he was, her tiny son, teetering near the edge, a ghostly image in the fog.
Noah,” she whispered, suddenly terrified, her fingers sliding down the pane as panic surged within. “Oh, God, Noah!”
He’s not there. It’s your fractured mind playing tricks on you.
But she couldn’t take the chance. What if this time, this one time, it really was her boy? He stood with his back to her his little red hooded sweatshirt damp in the misting fog. Her heart squeezed. “Noah!” she screamed, beating on the glass. “Noah! Come back!”
Frantically she tried to open the window, but it seemed nailed shut. “Come on, come on!” she cried, trying to force open the sash, breaking her nails in the process. The damned window wouldn’t budge. “Oh, God . . .”
Barefoot, propelled by fear, she yanked open the door, raced out of her room and down the hall to the back stairs, her bare feet slapping against the smooth wood of the steps. Down, down, down she ran, breathless, one hand on the rail. Noah, oh, sweet, sweet baby. Noah!
She burst from the stairway into the kitchen, then through the back door off the kitchen, across the screened porch to the sweeping grounds of the house and beyond.
Now she could run. Fast. Even though night was falling swiftly.
Noah!” she yelled as she sped along the weed-choked pathways, past the deadened rose bushes and through the dripping ferns, to the dock where darkness and the fog had disguised the end of the pier. She was breathing hard, screaming her son’s name, desperate to see him, to witness his little face turn around and look up at her, his wide, expectant eyes trusting . . .
The dock was empty. Fog playing in the shadows of the water, sea gulls crying hollowly in the distance.
Noah!” she screamed, running over the slick boards. “Noah!”
She’d seen him! She had!
Oh, honey . . . “Noah where are you?” she said over a sob and the rush of the wind as she reached the end, the last board cutting into her feet. “Baby, it’s Mama . . .”
One last, wild search of the dock and boathouse told her he was gone. She didn’t hesitate, but jumped into the icy water, feeling the rush of frigid cold, tasting salt water as she splashed and flailed, frantically searching for her son in the dark depths. “Noah!” she yelled, coughing and sputtering as she surfaced, but dived down into the black water again and again, searching the murky depths, desperately hoping for some glimpse of her son.
Please God, let me find him. Help me save him! Do not let him die! He’s an innocent. It’s I who am the sinner. Oh, dear, Jesus, please . . .
Again and again, she dove, five times, six, seven, her nightgown billowing around her, her hair loosened from its rubber band, exhaustion overtaking her as she drifted further and further from the dock. As she surfaced slowly one more time she was vaguely aware of a voice.
Hey!” A man yelled. “Hey!”
She dove down again, her hair floating around her, her eyes open and burning in the salty water, her lungs so stretched she thought they might burst . . . Where is he? Noah, oh, God, baby. . .she couldn’t breathe, but she couldn’t stop searching. Had to find her son . . . The world grew darker and colder and Noah ever more distant . . .
Someone dived in next to her.
She felt strong arms surround her rib cage in a death grip. She was weak, about to pass out, when she was jerked upward, roughly dragged to the surface through a ripple of air that had escaped her lungs.
As they broke through she gasped, coughing and spewing as she found herself staring to the stern, uncompromising gaze of a total stranger.
“Are you out of your mind?” he demanded, slinging the water from his hair with a muscular twist. But before she could answer, he snarled, “Oh, hell!” and starting kicking hard, holding her tightly, dragging her to the shoreline. She’d drifted away from the dock, but his strokes, strong and sure, cut through the water and pulled them both to the sandy shoreline, where he deposited her in the waist-high water. “Come on!” he snapped. His arm steadied her as they slogged through the lapping water and up the sandy shoreline.
Her teeth were chattering and she was shivering head-to-toe, but she barely felt anything other than a deep-seeded and painful grief. Swallowing against the pain, she tasted salt and finally roused herself enough to look at this man she’d never met before.
Or had she? There was something remotely familiar about him. Over six-feet, in a wet, long-sleeved shirt and soaked jeans, he was tall and rugged-looking, as if he’d spent most of his thirty-odd years outdoors.
What the hell were you thinking?” he demanded, shaking the hair out of his eyes. “You could have drowned!” And then, an afterthought, “Are you okay?”
Of course she was not “okay.” She was damned certain she would never be even loosely “okay” again.
Let’s get you inside.” He was still holding onto her, and he helped her past a pair of boots thrown haphazardly on the grass, then up the overgrown sandy path toward the house.
Who are you?” she asked.
He eyed her up and down. “Austin Dern.” When she didn’t respond. “And you’re Ava Garrison? You own this place?”
Part of it.” She tried to wring the cold salt water from her hair, but it was impossible.
Most of it.” His eyes narrowed on her as she shivered. “And you don’t know who I am?”
Not a clue.” Even in her state of shock, the man irritated her.
He muttered something under his breath, then said, “Well, now, isn’t that something? You hired me. Just last week.” He was pushing her toward the house.
Me?” Oh, God, how bad was her memory? Sometimes it seemed as thin and fragile as a cheesecloth. But not about this. Shaking her head, feeling the cold water drip down her back, she said, “I don’t think so.” She would have remembered him. She was sure of it.
Actually it was your husband.”