“I have the worst luck, ever,” Amanda muttered, sighing as she leaned forward to wipe at the inside of the windshield as if that would help her see through the torrential downpour, the top of the steering wheel pressing into her chest uncomfortably.
The windshield wipers had stopped working some time back. She couldn’t remember if it was before or after she passed the millionth pine tree that lined the old country road her car was currently floating down. No, she took that back. She wasn’t floating. If she had been in her car, then she would be floating. At this particular moment she didn’t think it would matter that much, because at least her wipers worked! As it was, her car was in the shop due to a stripped transmission or something, and since she was staying with extended family when this happened, they let her use one of their vehicles until hers was fixed…because they were just nice like that.
Amanda had several complaints about the vehicle, the non-working wipers easily claiming the top of the list. Aside from that, it was practically a rust wagon on wheels (except that it wasn’t really all that rusty, she just didn’t like it). It was old and smelled of musk and mold, two things that made her sick to her stomach because every bad memory she had from childhood onward was partly fueled by those horrible smells. The fact that the car actually ran was a miracle in her book; that it could get her from point A to point B without too much fuss was its only redeeming quality.
She slumped back in the seat with another sigh, her hands gripping the wheel tightly as the car crawled along the muddy lane at 5mph, the fastest she was willing to go without being able to see where she was going.
If memory served correctly, she was almost at the fork-in-the-road, and that meant she was getting nearer her destination: Aunt Phoebe’s giant mausoleum of a house.
Amanda’s skin crawled at just the thought of it, having not a single pleasant memory of being there from past childhood visits. Aunt Phoebe’s place always reminded her of a really big grave. It constantly smelled of dirt and decaying plant matter and stagnant water. Everything always felt damp to the touch, and it was like Aunt Phoebe and the rest of her loud, obnoxious brood had never been told there was such a thing as sunlight. Never in all her visits had Amanda ever seen even one of them go outside to play or just sit and soak up the warm rays of the sun or smell the fresh air.
It was a nasty place that evoked unpleasant memories and Amanda really would rather be going anyplace else, but Aunt Phoebe had specifically requested her to visit at least once while she was out in these parts, and Aunt Phoebe was one of those people you didn’t say no to, whether it was against your better judgment or not.
Amanda’s first reaction upon reading the handwritten letter requesting her presence had been an involuntary shudder, followed by a grimace, which was immediately followed by the rather loud, painful sound of her forehead meeting the hard surface of the writing desk that belonged to her third cousin, whom she was staying with. It seemed her life was taking a turn for the worse and she was helpless to prevent it. So, here she was, driving in the dark during a thunderstorm in an antique car that didn’t have working windshield wipers, all because she didn’t have the guts to say no to her aunt, and was apparently unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
A strip of lightning lit up the sky for a second, illuminating the road in front of her for a blissful moment, just long enough for her to see she had arrived at the place she had to check the sign for because she didn’t remember if her aunt’s house lay down the left road or the right road. Only, as she slowed to a stop, she didn’t see the sign. It wasn’t something easily missed; it stood at the center point where the two roads branched off from one another and was rather large and ancient looking. Made of some type of heavy wood, it hung from two sturdy lengths of chain attached to an even sturdier looking post.
That sign was one of the things that Amanda remembered with vivid clarity about her trips to her aunt’s, because it was the marker for the ‘nearly there’ portion of her family’s hellish stay. Yet it was nowhere to be seen. Chewing her bottom lip as she pondered which road to take, Amanda made the decision to take the right one and cut the wheels in that direction. The car made a sputtered sound of protest at being made to move again as she pressed the gas pedal the barest of inches in to get it going.
She had driven maybe a half a mile or so more when the car began stalling. Resisting the urge to scream, Amanda baby talked to the stupid thing, pleading with it to just get her as far as she needed to go before giving out on her completely. Either her baby talk was atrocious, or the car just really didn’t like her, ’cause it gave one last weak attempt at a forward movement before sputtering to a halt. She did scream then, though it was muffled behind her clenched teeth and puffed out cheeks. Not that it would have made a difference, since there wasn’t a soul around to hear her cry of frustration.
After giving the steering wheel a few good whacks with the heels of her hands and hitting the back of her head on the headrest, she closed her eyes and counted to ten in every language she knew, which was only three, but she had trouble remembering some of them because it had been so long since she’d had a reason to say them. Slowly, she opened them and realized there were lights in the distance, which meant civilization. It didn’t look that far away…. She could walk it in this weather…
She opened the door before she talked herself out of it, grabbed her purse from the floorboard and slung it on over her head so that it rested diagonally across her body, then she stepped out of the car, catching her breath at the chill of the rain that soaked her through in mere seconds. She contemplated leaving the door open out of spite, but thought better of it (sure as she left it open, it’d come back to bite her in the ass) and slammed it shut.
Wiping her hair out of her eyes, she started walking, slipping occasionally in the mud. After a few minutes of walking, she began to feel as though someone was following her, yet she didn’t dare turn to look behind her for fear of finding she was right, so she kept on. Something cold brushed against the back of her neck and she shivered. It was a different cold than the rain, almost icy in temperature. Still, she didn’t stop or turn, just kept walking until a streak of lightning rent the sky, followed by a bellow of thunder so loud it hurt her ears, causing her to cringe and pause a bit in her steps. As soon as she did so, she wished she hadn’t because whatever was behind her, real or imagined, brushed up against her. She gasped, eyes widening, and tried to put as much distance as possible between herself and whatever was following her.
She didn’t get far, as the minute she lifted her foot to take another step, a deep, otherworldly chuckle filled her ears, seemingly close enough that whatever it was, was practically pressed against her. Deep and dark, it caused her to shudder, fear clawing at her insides, a scream welling in her throat yet unable to be let out.
“Don’t be afraid, human,” the thing whispered near her ear and Amanda let out a choked sob because if she hadn’t been terrified before, she was now. The next thing she knew, a cold hand wrapped around her neck and squeezed, effectively cutting off her air supply, and the only thing Amanda could do was stand there and let whatever was happening to her, happen. She was completely paralyzed, the thing’s touch immobilizing her.
Her vision, already blurred with rain, became even more so as tears filled her eyes and spilled down her cheeks, unchecked. She was going to die. Choked to death by some otherworldly creature that shouldn’t even exist, or an extremely creepy, deeply disturbed human. A burst of hysterical laughter bubbled up within her just as her vision began to go black around the edges. For what reason the laughter, she couldn’t be sure, and then there was simply darkness and her fears were no more.
* * *
Beads of sweat broke out on her brow, the back of her neck, stinging and cold while at the same time causing goosebumps to spring to life on her arms, down her back, making her shiver and feel too hot all at once. She couldn’t see. She couldn’t breathe. She opened her mouth to call for someone to help, anyone at all, but her vocal chords were locked tight. As panic set in, she managed to open her eyes and realized, after getting her hazy vision to clear and focus, that she was at Aunt Phoebe’s. Apparently she had made it after all.
She almost sighed with relief, then realized how ironic that would be and ended up closing her eyes instead.
The faint tick of a clock reached her ears and she began counting in time with it. One. Two. Three.
A playful tune took the place of the clock’s ticking. Strange. There was never anything playful about Aunt Phoebe’s before.
Amanda opened her eyes again, hoping she could find the source of the song in her dark room. She got out of bed and walked back and forth in search of the sound, pausing when it got louder and looking around futilely. Frowning, she marched back over to the bed and realized the nightstand was where it had been coming from all along. Shaking her head at herself, she sat down on the edge of the bed and looked over the few items atop the heavy wooden stand. There was only a lamp, a comb, a book, and a miniature grandfather clock.
Something didn’t make sense.
Her frown deepening, she reached for the clock and brought it to her ear and realized with a start that the song was coming from it. Blinking in surprise, she listened closer, but wasn’t able to make out the words.
Sighing, she set it back on the nightstand. Or would have had there been a nightstand there. She gasped and dropped the clock, eyes widening as it dissolved into the plank floorboards. Her eyes darted around the room to see if anything else had disappeared, through the floor or otherwise, but everything was as it should be. She started for the door only to come to a standstill in the middle of the room when the walls began melting around her, forming thick, nasty puddles that smelled of musty old rooms and rot.
Her stomach churned as she looked around the room in panic, searching for a way out—any way out. The puddles drew closer and closer and she realized she was going to be swallowed up in it. She opened her mouth to scream but she couldn’t make a sound.
The first bit of thick nastiness touched her feet and began sliding up, circling her ankles, engulfing her calves. She shuddered at the feeling and tried to step out of it but it clung to her like molasses. Higher and higher it rose, seeping into her mouth, making her gag. She couldn’t get her arms to move to wipe it away. It flowed down her nostrils, poured into her ears, filled her up wherever it could.
And then she was sinking so far. Falling into nothingness.
Her eyes snapped open and she jackknifed into a sitting position on the bed, breathing labored, eyes frantically looking about the room in blind panic, not really seeing anything, but trying to find something familiar to latch onto in order to calm down. She found nothing and a choked sound burst from her lungs and suddenly she had an eyeful of a tall, dark-haired stranger standing over her, expression one of utmost concern as he took hold of her shoulders in a firm, yet gentle grip and spoke to her in soothing tones.
“Easy, easy. It’s okay. You were having a nightmare. It’s over now. You’re safe.”
“Who are you?” she gasped, eyes wide. “Where am I?”
“I’m Jace, and you’re in my home at the end of the beginning.”
Amanda frowned and shook her head a couple times in confusion. “What?”
Jace chuckled. “The road you were driving down? It’s called Beginning Lane. It leads to a dead end, the place where you are now, therefore you are at the end of the beginning.”
Amanda stared at him for a moment longer than she probably should have, then said simply, “Oh.”
He smiled at her. “It’s a bit strange, I know, but you eventually get used to it. Are you hungry? I can whip up something for you to eat if you are.”
Amanda nodded, forgoing speaking just in case she blurted out something stupid.
The handsome stranger smiled at her and got up from the edge of the bed. “Okay. Just come on downstairs when you’re ready. The bathroom is across the hall if you want to freshen up a bit.”
Amanda nodded and thanked him, then waited until he was out of the room before doing anything else. She waited until she heard the door shut, then she flopped back into the mound of pillows and rubbed furiously at her face with her hands before flinging her arms out beside her and stared up at the ceiling.
That lasted about a minute before her curiosity got the better of her and she got out of bed to explore the room a bit, the floorboards creaking slightly beneath her feet as she walked about the room. It wasn’t very big, but it really wasn’t small either, and it was pretty plain. Done up in mellow colors and decorations, it wasn’t really made up to impress, but it was cozy and inviting nonetheless.
There was a narrow wooden bookcase on the wall to her left with hardly any books on its shelves. To the left of the bookcase was a chair, its upholstery faded and patchy from sitting as it was beside the single window in the room, which was open, allowing a cool breeze to come into the room, upsetting the thin curtains that had been pulled back, but just barely. The bed was against the back wall and a little area rug lay in the middle of the room, ragged and worn. A few pictures hung on the walls, and a clock above the door.
For all it’s sparseness, it somehow reminded Amanda of her Grandmother Agnes. Which was a little strange, since her grandmother was the most flamboyant, over the top person Amanda had ever known, and comfortable, sparsely furnished rooms weren’t things she indulged in. Everything was big and bold where her Grandmother Agnes was concerned.
She probably thought of her grandmother because of the way the place smelled, Amanda thought with a grin. Grandmother Agnes was always a sucker for sweet smells and the room smelled like a peach orchard with the underlying scent of fresh air and warm grass.
Shaking her head, Amanda went across the hall to the bathroom to wash her face and rinse her mouth before heading downstairs to eat.
The minute she stepped down from that last step, she was bombarded with chaos. The room, which she assumed was the living room, was unlike anything she’d ever been around before. She was used to loud, hectic places with kids and adults running all over the place, and pristine cleanliness that smelled of chemicals. Places where everything belonged and nothing was mismatched, and here she was in the most upside down and turned around house ever. Nothing was new. Nothing was completely spotless. There were books and trinkets piled haphazardly on just about every surface of the room, and the place smelled so sweet.
Strangely enough, the smell reminded her of being in an orchard and a flower garden and a candy shop, all at once. The feelings brought about by the memory of those smells were what overwhelmed her senses as she struggled to take in the mismatched perfection of the room, and came together to form something she would never forget for as long as she lived.
This was the smell and comfort of what she imagined to be childish freedom and innocence. This was the complete opposite of Aunt Phoebe’s, and this was what she had been missing all those summer’s she’d been tucked away in a moldy old house with moldy old people. Suddenly she was very glad to have turned down the wrong road.
With a sense of elation welling up inside her, Amanda crept forward on bare feet, eyes eagerly taking in the things around her. She reached out absentmindedly to run her fingers along the cover of an old hardback book while she looked about the room, only to gasp and jerk her hand back when she felt it move beneath the pads of her fingers. She stared at it wide-eyed for a long minute before tentatively reaching for it again, because what she’d felt had surely been a trick of her imagination and nothing more.
“Ah, I’d be careful with Anthony. He’s very ticklish.”
Amanda whipped around at the sound of Jace’s voice to find him standing an arm’s length away, smiling at her and holding a heaping plate of steaming food. She looked at him with a frown creasing her brow even as she took the plate he offered.
“Anthony?” she asked skeptically.
Jace nodded, smile still in place, and slid his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “Yeah. All these books are without titles and aren’t finished. I’ve taken it upon myself to name each and every one of them and talk to them as much as I can. They get lonely if I don’t, you see,” he said in a stage whisper and gave her a wink, like they were sharing an inside joke, only Amanda had no idea what the punchline was. “So I make it a point to swap stories with them ever so often so they know I haven’t forgotten them, unlike their creators.”
Amanda paused in her chewing to blink. “Mm,” she said, wondering if he was just trying to engage her in conversation, or if the guy had more than a few screws loose.
Jace looked around the room, his gaze seeming to caress everything it swept across. Amanda could have sworn she felt it like a physical touch when it came back to rest on her, and had to suppress a shudder at the feeling.
“Every book, every item in this room, is an unfinished telling of a persons life. Namely those who were afraid to take action to get where they wanted to go, and gave up their desires, their life’s passion to pursue a safer, more sure path. Something that didn’t require all that much of a decision.”
He smiled at her and Amanda swallowed audibly.
“Anyway,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m just the bookkeeper of sorts.”
Amanda didn’t say anything, namely because she wasn’t sure what to say, and also because she thought Jace was just a little weird. So she tried to avoid making too much eye contact with him and continued to eat. She was going to leave, as a matter of fact. Right after she finished this amazing food.
Jace chuckled, jarring her from her thoughts. “You don’t believe me do you?” he asked with a little shake of his head.
Amanda blinked some more and swallowed the bite of food in her mouth. “Um…sure I do? I mean, that book did wiggle when I touched it.”
He stared at her, dark eyes burning with an intensity she’d never been on the receiving end of, and though she longed to break the connection, she couldn’t make herself be the first to look away.
“You’re the first person to come down this road in a really long time, Amanda,” he said softly, yet firmly, then abruptly turned and walked away, disappearing down a corridor Amanda hadn’t noticed until now.
It wasn’t until she’d been standing there a while, gazing off at the place he’d gone, that she realized he’d called her by name, and she hadn’t given it to him.
* * *
After the initial shock of having a complete stranger know her name wore off, Amanda wandered around the house, taking in the unusual knickknacks and touching a few more books just to see if they reacted the way Anthony did. A few scooted away, some actually giggled, and a number more remained motionless and silent. She figured they were ignoring her and so moved on to explore further.
You’d think she would have ran back upstairs to get her shoes and get the heck out of there the moment Jace called her by name, but surprisingly, or stupidly, she stayed, knowing instinctively that neither Jace nor his actions were to be feared. How she knew that, she wasn’t quite sure, but it was a gut instinct and she trusted those implicitly.
Besides, being here was far better than being at Aunt Phoebe’s.
She took her time exploring the simple rooms she came across. A reading room here, a study there, all furnished accordingly and so inviting it was a living wonder Amanda hadn’t decided to simply stay in this place forever. Who said her relatives needed to know she was all right and hadn’t been eaten by wild animals or done in by some deranged maniac? Though, sometimes Amanda thought Aunt Phoebe and her gaunt clan could be labeled as those very things.
It was by chance that she stumbled upon the room Jace had apparently gone off to after his somewhat cryptic words to her earlier in the living room. She knocked lightly on the door frame before stepping over the threshold. He didn’t look up immediately, as he was reading over something on his desk, though she couldn’t be sure what, since he had nearly everything you could imagine piled on its surface, obstructing her view of what he was obviously immersed with. Unable to keep her curiosity at bay, she leaned up on her tiptoes and craned her neck to try and catch a glimpse of what it was as discreetly as she could.
“You won’t be able to understand it,” he said. “It’s in Latin.”
She dropped back to the flats of her feet with a guilty expression, her cheeks flushing at having been caught. She cleared her throat and clasped her hands behind her. “Sorry,” she mumbled.
He laughed softly. “It’s nothing I’m not used to.”
“Oh?” she asked, her curious streak rearing its naughty head again. “I wasn’t aware there were others here.”
“There aren’t,” he said with a shake of his head, still not looking at her. “Well, unless you count Sheldon, but he works more on the outside than here, but when he is here, he makes it his business to know what I’m up to all the time.”
“Ah,” said Amanda, feeling like she’d just been chastised. Very subtly chastised, but chastised nonetheless, and Jace didn’t clue her in otherwise. “Sorry. I’ll just leave you to it, then.”
“You can sit down, you know,” Jace said, a hint of amusement tinging his voice.
Amanda felt herself blushing again and quickly sat in the only other chair in the room, which happened to be situated in front of his desk, then thought better of it and stood right back up. “Actually, I really should be going. My aunt is expecting me, and since I didn’t show up last night, she’s probably worried–“
“Your being here isn’t an accident, Amanda.”
She stopped. Stopped talking, stopped breathing, stopped everything except living, and sat back down.
“What do you mean?” she asked after a bit, voice slightly breathless.
Finally, he looked up, and Amanda was once again taken aback by the intensity of his gaze. “Exactly what I said. If you weren’t meant to be here, there’s no way you would be.”
Amanda shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
Jace smiled at her kindly. “This place isn’t exactly what you’d call ‘normal’, if you haven’t noticed.”
“Oh, you mean books moving and making noise isn’t normal?” she asked teasingly, and felt a rush of giddiness at his accompanying laugh.
“Only to those like us, I’m afraid,” he answered, giving her a wink.
“I’m sorry,” she said with a wave of her hand. “I should stop interrupting you. Please, continue.”
Jace cleared his throat and shifted in his chair, then said, “Like I was saying, this place isn’t exactly normal. No one is able to come down the road unless they are meant to. It doesn’t matter how hard they try, they will always be redirected. And before you ask, no, I don’t know how or why. My job is in here, taking care of the books and other things, not out there monitoring the road. That’s Sheldon’s job.”
A strange thought occurred to Amanda then, stemming from her memory of what happened last night. “Sheldon…is he…?” she let her words trail off as she put her hand to her neck.
Jace nodded. “Yes, I’m afraid so. He’s the transporter of sorts from there to here.”
Amanda swallowed a little uncomfortably. “I see,” she said, though she really didn’t.
Jace fell silent and they just stared at each other for a while.
“You’re free to leave at any time.”
Jace’s words broke the spell Amanda had been lulled by and she shook her head. “But didn’t you just say I was meant to be here?”
“Yes, but not to stay. I don’t know the purpose of your arrival any more than you do. Just that there’s something to be taken from being here, is all. What that is, you have to find out on your own.”
Amanda nodded absently, her mind now on what that could possibly be.
Jace watched her intently, taking in the way she nibbled her lip as she became lost in thought, and the way her brows furrowed. She really was a striking girl, he thought. Certainly the prettiest he’d seen in ages. Plus, he’d always been a sucker for a woman with long, dark hair and a curvy figure. He was almost tempted to ask her to stay despite knowing the repercussions if she did. He wished he knew what to tell her to ease her plight, but he had a feeling she was a very smart woman and would figure it out on her own eventually.
“About my car,” she said suddenly. “…would you–“
“It’s still where you left it…unless Sheldon decided he wanted a snack.”
“As much as I hate the old thing, I really hope that isn’t the case, because it isn’t even mine and it’s the only way I have out of here.”
Jace chuckled. “I’m sure he didn’t really eat it. I was just trying to lighten the mood.”
Amanda smiled faintly and stood. “Well, then, I should go get my shoes and I’ll be on my way. Thanks for breakfast, it was delicious.”
She took her time getting back upstairs, committing everything to memory as best she could, even though she knew there was no way she was going to forget any of this anytime soon. Jace was waiting for her when she came back down.
“I’ll make sure you get down the drive,” he said.
The two of them walked in silence for the most part, exchanging a thoughtful word here and there, and before Amanda knew it, before she really wanted it, she saw her car a little ways in the distance, still in the same spot she’d left it when it died on her. She sighed and turned to Jace with a smile on her face. “Thanks for walking with me this far, but I think I can take it from here.”
He nodded, returning her smile with one of his own. “It was fun, even if it was short. Take care.”
Nodding again, Amanda walked at a brisk pace, needing to put distance between them lest she be tempted to ask to stay a little longer. She paused with her hand on the handle and turned to say something, but the words died on her lips when she saw Jace wasn’t there, and neither was the house, though minutes ago they were. It was like they never existed to begin with. With a heavy heart, she opened the door and slid inside, starting up the car. If her eyes teared up and stung as she drove away, well, it was only because of the dust she’d stirred up. These country roads would do that to a person.
Standing just this side of the veil that separated the normal world from the place where everything existed in the inbetween of action being taken, Jace watched her go, feeling a mixture of sad and happy that she had made the decision to begin with. That was the whole reason she’d been sent here, really. To decide.
“Her story doesn’t end abruptly, does it, Jace?” Sheldon asked from beside him.
Jace took in a deep breath. “No. Hers doesn’t.”
(c) Brianna Somersham