An abridged excerpt from Chapter One of Dead of Winter, created with free text-to-speech software. I’ve been looking into something like this as a cost-effective option for creating audiobooks. Because that was a goal of mine this year: produce one audiobook. While this is okay (just barely) for promos, it’s not appropriate for anything larger. If I could’ve read the section without coughing, guys, I would have. Happy Pollen Season from Vermont! ;D
Anyway, here it is in all its weird glory. Hope you enjoy it!
This had to be a joke. It looked like someone had slapped a thin layer of pavement over a deer trail with the world’s largest frosting knife and then tried to pass the resulting mess off as a road. Oh, and what a ride this was turning out to be. Blind turns, cracked asphalt, nowhere to turn around, no place to pull over unless into the side of a cliff was an option—there had to be a better way to get to the lake!
Leave it to Cody to pick the scenic route over the quickest or safest one. I hunched over the wheel and leaned into the climb with white knuckles and a mouth as grim and crooked as the yellow line that should have been in the middle of the road.
Climb, level-off, twist and turn: two hours passed in this manner while Whiteface, Saranac Lake, and Vermontville faded into rearview memories. More unmarked roads and more glimpses of unknown bodies of water came and went before I finally found the right turnoff.
Was it, though? I double-checked Cody’s last text, then tried shooting one his way, just to make sure.
No service. Great. I thought I’d left the cell phone dead zone behind when I left Warrensburg.
Touring the lesser back roads of Upstate New York with no map, no cell coverage, and a gas tank teetering a breath over its halfway mark hadn’t been on the itinerary when I left the house this morning. I tossed the phone on the seat, then slumped back with a sigh. Should I try it or turn back? The engine ticked in time with my mounting frustration. This looked like it could be the right place. The way to it, anyway.
Not that I could have asked for directions if I’d wanted to. There was no traffic on the road, no houses nearby, and not a road sign in sight. Not even those cute ones people sometimes make for their summer camps: crude arrows, funky cutouts, or studies in wood-burning calligraphy. There was nothing before me but a field of bedraggled weeds and frostbitten Queen Anne’s Lace.
After making a mental note—From now on, Cody doesn’t get to pick these locations—I threw the SUV into gear.
A short time later, I slammed on the brakes. Throat dry, heart pounding, I stared through the windshield while fighting the urge to flip the Jeep in reverse and forget this sorry place ever existed. Because this—what I was looking at right now—hadn’t been in Cody’s directions.
My God, it was here. Really here.
Someone had done a real number on it, too. Rusted chain links, still attached to splintered boards, dangled from one post. The rest of it, warped and lichen-splotched, boards bare and weathered grey, struck a warning chord in me. As did those strips of plastic that fluttered from the gateposts. While some still retained hints of yellow to rival the trembling birch leaves, the rest looked like banners abandoned in a battlefield.
I squinted at them, swallowing hard. Were those pieces of crime scene tape? Cody hadn’t mentioned anything about this being a crime scene, past or present. Not that he would, of course. He never told us what we were investigating or gave us directions until the last possible minute, believing we’d be more open to a place, more receptive to its activity as blank slates. He’d only recount its backstory in piecemeal after we’d had a chance to poke around.
Although I’d never say this to his face—better for all involved to keep his ego in check—his eccentric approach had its merits. Well, it worked for me, anyway, even if the sound of that tape was setting my teeth on edge right now. What the heck was he getting us into this time?
I looked away, rubbing my face with both hands. Of all the places to look for ghosts! Would our site be in the same condition as the gate? Broken and abandoned, left to rot amid ragweed, briars and goldenrod at the edge of a lake?
After freeing my ponytail from the headrest, I glanced over at the gatepost again.
This time, I almost fell out of my seat.
Wide yellow leaves from a climbing vine trembled in the breeze. Leaves, but no tape.
Anyone else’s eyes would have been playing tricks on them after such a long drive, but I knew I hadn’t imagined it. It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened, although usually, it was just a glimpse, the barest flash of insight, there and gone like a scent on the wind. Had the shock of seeing the gate somehow spurred it into being, fleshed it out more fully? Could it be a message? A warning?
Warning. The word rang through me, brassy and dissonant, its echoes radiating out like shockwaves from a gong strike.
The gate, the tape: a crime. This had been a crime scene. It all fit, which made me squirm in my seat. Murder or suicide? Either way, someone had died here. Still a little queasy from the last vision, I didn’t have a sense of who yet, but male or female, those spirits didn’t go quietly, if they left at all.
My chin dropped, following my hands as they fell into my lap. I closed my eyes and took slow deep breaths, hoping to stem the coming vertigo. It never seemed fair for someone who had died horribly to be tethered to the spot after the fact, forever doomed to haunt the place where they’d taken their last breath. Alone, forgotten in the wake of the next big trauma, pushed to the margins of the world to fade into obscurity—it was easy to believe how so many of those ghosts grew bitter and vindictive.
Once the whirling sensation passed, I eased my Wrangler into the narrow space between the posts, pausing only long enough to scan the drive, a dirt track that meandered through the meadow before curving slowly out of sight.
At first glance, nothing about this place screamed death or murder. Anyone else coming upon the road in this sun-dappled meadow would have stopped to take a picture. The birch and hardwoods here, still resplendent in their autumn coats of crimson, ginger and acid green, were postcard perfect!
In the distance, evergreen peaks reared through a thinning and more withered canopy. I squinted, shading my eyes with one hand. No sign of a roofline yet but then, there were so many trees!
Too many. As if the forest was standing in the way of something. Standing guard or hiding something beneath all those soaring trunks and spreading branches, all those fluttering leaves. My stomach twisted at the sight, adding another lump to the one already there.
The whisper threaded through the trees, the voice as thin and worn as the tape on the gate. Fraying and ragged at the ends as if the throat voicing it had forgotten speech. I jolted in my seat, the restraint biting into my hip as my torso swiveled to the sound. Then, leaning forward, I strained to hear more.
A coincidence, I told myself when the wind teased my hair, ruffling it like the bright colors on the branches. An auditory trick, like the spirit voices some people want you to think you’ve heard on an EVP. Another instance of the brain connecting dots, ever insistent to forge a link between bursts of random sound and reality where none ever existed.
Still, when a twig snapped nearby, I locked the door, closed the window, and cranked the radio full blast. My insides, a tangled wreck ever since Cody announced plans to spend the weekend here, were getting more intertwined by the minute.
Because while logic might explain away the wind in the trees, it screeched to a standstill when presented with disappearing crime scene tape and a gate that, until now, I’d seen only in a dream.
While I wanted to ponder the dream and what it might have meant, a recent rain had made the unpaved road to the site slicker than it needed to be. The Jeep fishtailed on the first turn, spewing mud and wet leaves.
A few harrowing turns later, my arms ached, every tendon on my neck stood out in bold relief, and my hands were so cold from gripping the wheel, they felt wet. Where in the heck was this place, anyway? It was getting harder and harder to believe there’d even be a lake at the end of this.
Beyond the clearing, the road leveled off but the forest closed in. A tunnel of storm-tortured trees blotted out the sky, casting a preternatural gloom over everything in sight. I swallowed hard, hoping they wouldn’t be so closely crowded at the site. Wouldn’t loom over it, letting their branches scrape like sinister claws against its windows at the slightest breeze.
All of that wouldn’t be so bad during the day, of course; it’d be easy to ignore while doing other things. But at night…
Another image bled into my mind. A clapboard cabin teetering atop a rocky knoll, its once-blue paint blending with the dying light. Night, descending like a blanket, gnawed at the house and the forest while frogs and insects shrilled alien-throated choruses from the lake. It was a feral darkness, the kind that claws at your last nerve before sinking like a stone to the pit of your stomach.
The Jeep lurched sharply to one side, its sudden movement scattering the image like drops of mercury. Thrown against the door, too shocked to scream, I felt time slow, slowly unspooling itself in those horrible moments while the hood continued to rear.
The door flew open. My body quickly followed, aided by a loosened seat restraint. Screaming, I flung myself in the opposite direction, clawing my way across the bucket seat to cling to the center console with all my might.
The Jeep shuddered, then the cab pitched sharply downward again. It landed on all fours with a force that made every spring, every piece of metal in its undercarriage scream in pain. After juddering forward a few feet, it stalled.
This was not supposed to happen! Not with this car. Not here. Not when I still didn’t know how far I had to go or if I was even near the right place. Crap! What had I hit, anyway? I threw it in park and exited the cab, my entire body shaking so badly that I had to cling to the vehicle’s side for support.
Please be okay; please, don’t let anything be broken… Desperation’s mantra looped through my mind.
No scratches marred the bumper. Mud and squashed leaves choked the tire treads but the ones on the front looked okay. Still plump and hip-high, they had air in them, anyway.
I retraced my steps, pausing at the side to check underneath for signs of damage: obvious dangling parts or leaks. Again, nothing seemed amiss. No hisses or drips, no steaming or streaming anything. The back tires also seemed unscathed by their recent ordeal. Most reassuring of all: no telltale breakdown smells—oil, gas, or chemicals—filled the air.
There was another smell here, however; thick and rank. Its meaty sickness stuck to the inside of my nose and coated the back of my throat. I tottered back, masking my mouth and nose with both hands, although by then, only a permanent short-circuiting of my olfactory sensors could have blocked the smell of death.
Growing up in an old house, I was used to little visitors who left trails of miniscule poop seeds on the countertops. What I could never stomach was what happened after they gobbled up the green squares Mom set out on chipped saucers. Dead mouse funk was enough to gag a maggot but this stench was warmed over death to the tenth power!
On the side of the road, less than a yard from the Jeep, tufts of bloody fur poked through a mound of wet leaves.
A deer, maybe? That would explain the smell. What I could see looked like the right color. But the shape was too small for a full-grown whitetail. It could have been a summer fawn taken down by a bear or bobcat, but if that was the case, why had whatever killed it left it here to rot?
Something about the carcass nagged at me but nudging those leaves away for a closer look would do nothing more than raise more of that awful stench. Preferring to keep my burrito lunch where it belonged, I turned back to the Jeep.