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Stairs to Nowhere Preview




Chapter 1        August, Present Day

 

She had only been in the house two days when the old man went mad.

That’s what the neighbors called it, but Elizabeth called it a psychotic break and wondered if perhaps it was her fault. He’d had surprising strength for someone his age, though there’d been no information on what that was.

His story had been vague and records nonexistent. It wasn’t until a stranger broke into his home that anyone knew he was there at all. Perhaps feeling guilty at the oversight, the neighbors had pitched in for a temporary caregiver until the problem could be resolved.

That brought Elizabeth to the town, to the run-down Victorian house on a quiet street. If they wondered why she came without references, they didn’t ask. She would have settled for a place to stay and a food allowance.

And so a day later, as the old man was strapped to the gurney screaming obscenities to his long-dead wife, Elizabeth tried to calm him. And when they slid him into the ambulance, tears streaming down both cheeks, whispering to her, she nearly cried.

The ambulance’s doors were closed and locked and as it drove away, she slid down onto the porch step, watching, unseeing, as a crow swooped from the eaves of the house and pecked at something stuck on the pavement.

She rubbed her eyes with the heel of her hand, trying to clear her mind, and tried to make sense of what he’d told her.

 


 

Chapter 2        June 1944

 

Machine gun fire burst around him and they were up; two infantrymen, hunched and running as they appeared and disappeared through fog-trapped smoke, rifles tucked tightly under their arms. Black shards of dead trees jutted up through the mist. Shells of houses, now jagged stone walls, appeared like a lost city.

Kace threw himself behind a pile of rock and tried to get his bearings. A grenade shattered the ground and both men were up again, moving fast as rapid fire exploded behind them. Hudson dove behind a crumbled wall; the other rolled into the ditch beside him, swearing, raising a carbine to fire back. Hudson grabbed his arm but Kace pulled away, nerves on edge.

“Kace—no,” Hudson said. “They’ll know where we are. Kace!” He tightened his grip, “Let them think we’re dead.”

“Goddamned stinkin’ bastards. They’re hunting us.” Kace spat the words like a machine gun, hyperalert, straining to see through the fog. “We’ll die out here and no one will know—”

“Shut up,” Hudson hissed. “Shut up and let me think.” The tall man was breathing hard, unable to catch his breath. Shaking, he quickly fingered down the front of his uniform and found the hole in his jacket. Blood stuck to his fingers. He fumbled, tearing the jacket open, knowing what he’d find.

Blood plastered the shirt to his body. Pressing his arm against the wound to stop the bleeding, a gut-wrenching rush of pain signaled broken ribs. How had he run so far? But worse, could he run much further?

In the rubble lay the dirt-dusted body of a dead crow, its wings splayed and twisted at odd angles. From under the broken feathers, a cockroach crawled, scurrying along the rocky ground and dropped, falling on Kace.

“Jesus fucking Cr—” Kace gasped, scrambling to the side, his hands slapping down the legs of his pants. “Shit and goddam, fuckin’ roach. Shit—” He brushed down his uniform, smacking at the insect over and over, unable to escape in the tight space. “Goddamn roaches—” His whole body shivered, twitching like a disjointed marionette.

“Kace, stop it—you’re okay. Calm down.” Hudson pressed harder on the wound and winced. He’s going to break, Hudson thought. Stay calm, stay calm or he’ll get us both killed. Then something seemed to rip open inside and all he could see was yellow bursting like stars and the sound of the ocean rushing in from far, far away.

Kace’s face jerked back to Hudson. “Yeah,” Kace said, his southern accent thicker under stress. “Yeah, I’m okay. Fuckin’ bugs. Hate ’em. You know that, right? You know that.”

Hudson blinked rapidly, trying to clear his vision. “Get over here,” he said between gritted teeth.

“Jesus Christ, lieutenant, what the hell...” Kace scrambled over beside him and immediately regretted it. “My leg. Fuck.” He gritted his teeth, eyes flicking to the dirt walls and back, then refocused. “But you, you look like—” He stopped; blood seeped through Hudson’s fingers matting his shirt to his body. “Le’me see that.” He fumbled with the buttons on the lieutenant’s shirt and tried to keep his face neutral. “I got nothin’ to work with here.” His eyes flitted along the edge of the ditch, his desperate, haunted look deepening. “Lean forward. Le’me see.”

“Ayah.” Lieutenant Hudson hissed through his teeth as Kace pressed shakily on the wound and leaned Hudson forward.

“The bullet went through,” Kace said. “That’s good, right? That way we don’t have to get the bullet out. Right? Your blood’s bringing the roaches in. You know that. You know that, right?”

 Machine-gun fire raked the ground behind them and Kace jumped over to his carbine and fired back, wild, hair matted in sweat against his face.

“Stop,” Hudson whispered, his hands sticky, pressing on the wound, shaking as he tried to stop the bleeding. “You’re helping them...”

But Kace couldn’t hear him above the screaming in his head.


 

Chapter 3        August, Present Day

 

The brakes screeched metal on metal, and Elizabeth cringed, pulling her car into the driveway of a house that wasn’t hers.

In the half-light of early evening, the headlights lit the late summer flowers that ringed the house, maple seedlings sprouting among the weeds. It occurred to her that she should weed Mr. Morrel’s garden, a thought that would disappear once they were out of sight.

It had been a horrible day. Mr. Morrel’s behavior had been so strange, so violent toward her, she was still reeling from the shock. And though she knew there were all kinds of explanations for it—simple aging being the doctor’s favorite—it hadn’t felt like any of those.

He’d recognized her, or at least thought he did. His reaction had been focused, visceral. She’d never seen anyone act like that before. And she’d seen quite a bit.

If she was to be honest with herself, a little part of her wondered if maybe he did know her. He could be someone in her past, someone she couldn’t place. There was a big blank spot in her early years where memories should be. Maybe he was part of that. Maybe, but it wasn’t probable.

And now, with Mr. Morrel in the hospital, she’d not only lost her patient but also her job, her residence, and any sense of control over her future. She knew how the system worked with older people. He wouldn’t be back.

She dropped her purse on Mr. Morrel’s kitchen counter and trudged up the dark front staircase to her room.

The poor man would probably never live in his home again. She’d seen it too many times. Away from everything familiar he’d degenerate mentally. With little walking, his muscles would begin to atrophy, his bones and his mind becoming weaker. And even if he improved, he’d be sent to a rehab center where his home would be his bed and his muscles would weaken further and it would all get worse from there.

Next would be the nursing home with curtains for walls and locked doors to keep the aged from taking over the world. No one wanted to see what aging looked like. It reminded people of death and that scared the hell out of everyone.

In her room, her half-unpacked suitcase still lay across the bed. Toiletries spilled out from a small bag, her laptop open and still plugged into the wall.

She rubbed her forehead, thinking she should probably write her employers. To say what, though? That the old man could hardly look at her, that by the second day he’d lost his mind, ranting, screaming, and had fallen trying to push her away? That he’d whispered a warning that seemed all too true. How could he know? There was no way he could know. Don’t let them take you again.

To be sure, the whole situation had been strange from the start. She hadn’t even met her employers. They’d corresponded electronically, hiring her as an in-home nurse and all around helper for the aging man. But they had paid her moving expenses to the town of Lac du Loup, to Mr. Morrel’s house, as well as her first week’s pay, and that had made the whole thing possible.

She unplugged the laptop and dropped, exhausted, onto the one chair in the room, then pushed herself back up to get ready for bed. If she didn’t do it now, she’d fall asleep right there. She’d write her employers in the morning. 

This was supposed to be a new start and it wasn’t looking good. Wondering if this was her last night in the house, she’d wandered down the hall toward the bathroom. Something wet touched her foot, and she jumped, thinking what now, then followed the thin stream of water trailing along the edge of the hallway.

Dammit—now what? She gave an exasperated sigh and followed the trickle down the hall past the bathroom. Beside the back stairs that led to the kitchen, a door stood solidly closed. A trickle slipped from underneath, snaking down the dark hallway and taking on a reddish hue, a momentary reflection through the window as a car drove past.

She pulled the door open and felt against the wall for a light switch, then remembered water and electricity didn’t mix and opened the door wide. She pushed on the hallway light switch.

It was the oddest closet she’d ever seen. The shelves were steps, starting close to the entrance, beautifully varnished like the front staircase, but built high and close together, ending four feet up at the wall.

An inefficient design for a closet, she thought. Her best guess was that this had been a second set of stairs to the third floor, though that was unusual too. Even mansions rarely had a second set of servant stairs to the third floor. Like these, the servant stairs usually ran up the back of the house, from the kitchen to the third floor. But this home had a set in the front as well.

She pulled out the boxes and bags stored there, sliding them into the hall. An old flashlight rolled down the steps and she picked it up, flicking it on to investigate the closet. Water slipped down the back wall like a tiny waterfall, pooling on one step, then another and another until it trailed like a miniature river down the uneven floor.

Stepping up the narrow stairs, she felt against the back wall, trying to assess the damage. If there was any way to fix it, she should do it now or turn off the water to the whole house.

The leak had been there a while. Wallpaper peeled down from the wall, taking a layer of paint with it and exposing the water-stained lathe and plaster beneath. Touching the back wall of the half-stairway, it dented in, the wet plaster underneath breaking through the heavy paint.

She stepped up one more stair, her foot sliding on the wet wood. As she tried to catch herself, her hand hit the back wall, the plaster breaking inward, scraping her hand on the splintered lathe.

She swore, cursing her luck, the new hole in the wall, the universe in general, and scratched out a nasty splinter the lathe had left under her skin. The broken wet plaster lay cracked off in uneven chunks, hanging by old paint or landing on the steps.

I can patch this, she thought, examining the damage. And maybe fix the leak. Better to do that than to have water ruin the old house. It would be just her luck to be blamed for that. Perhaps she could patch the pipe from here. She couldn’t afford a plumber and didn’t know who to trust even if she could.

Breaking off damp chunks of plaster, dropping them on the steps below, she tried to get a better view of the pipe. She aimed the flashlight in and gasped. Her hands shook as she peered in again.

Then she ran to her room for the phone.


 

Chapter 4        June 1944

 

His hands shook as he lifted his head, peering through the mist drifting over the dark edge of the ditch. Machine gun fire sent rocks and dirt raining down on Hudson and Kace. Both ducked, covering their heads.

Hudson’s vision blurred and later, as he opened his eyes, he’d been pushed against the wall and Kace was talking.

“…Circle ‘round the enemy, he said.” Kace fired a shot. “Find a position and snipe them all, he said.” Kace mimicked the Captain’s voice, muttering under his breath. “But we can’t see nothin’.” He fired another shot. “Don’t know where we are, much less our own men. Can’t even get out of this damned hole in the ground without getting our heads blown off—”

“Kace.” Hudson’s head felt like it was splitting in two. “Ayuh, well, at least we’re still alive.”

But you won’t be for long, Kace thought but didn’t dare say it; saying things made them come true. For a day and into the night they’d been pinned down in a hole blown under what had once been a house, now hastily carved to their advantage. What little they could see had been wasted by strafing, grenades, and machine guns. Grey fog and trapped smoke held the scent of burnt earth and decaying flesh drifting across the dirt. Neither had slept, hypervigilant, trying to stay alive and now the dark was coming again.

Private Kace’s body ached, barely able to move in the tight space, his bloody leg tied off with ripped cloth. But the lieutenant was far worse off; death might come sooner than help. They’d packed the wound as best they could, but Hudson was slowly bleeding out.

He craved a cigarette—there was still half of one in his pocket. Unable to light it, he nervously tore a piece off and chewed the tobacco.

“Here,” he nudged Lieutenant Hudson beside him. “Chew this. Tuck it under your lip. It’ll help you not be so hungry.”

The lieutenant grunted, his dirty hands shaking as he reached for the tobacco. “I’m usually not a smoking man.”

“Good, ’cause there’s no matches.” Something tickled on Kace’s arm. He slapped at it and scrambled backward.

Too hyper, too jumpy, Hudson thought, again seeing Kace’s wild-eyed look. “It’s just a bug. Settle down.” But a new burst of pain surged up through his body and he squeezed his eyes shut as if that would diminish it.

“I hate bugs. Goddamned roaches...” Kace shivered.

When Hudson opened his eyes again, the bug had floundered on its back, then righted itself and crawled away. It wasn’t a roach. It was a deathwatch beetle, a bug that bored into wood. He’d heard them before. They bored into furniture, making a watch-like ticking sound often heard during silent vigils for the dying—the beating heart of Poe’s story—the counting down of his own.

The bug crawled into the shadows and Hudson looked over to Kace again. “Water?”

“Gone.” Kace smacked the canteen aside. “No food either but we can go a while without that.” He could, anyway. He still had Benzedrine, courtesy of the US Army. Kace felt for the tin of bennies in his pocket, flicked it open and dropped one in his mouth. He was going to need the little amphetamine to not feel hungry, to stay alert.

Hudson would be lucky to last another night. Kace adjusted his helmet and peered over the edge of the hole. The rocks beside him exploded and he shrunk back down.

“They never fucking quit.” He cursed and wiped a trickle of blood from the side of his face. “Why won’t they move on? Where are our guys?” He glanced at Hudson. Although the night was chilly, the lieutenant was soaked with sweat; the blood on his chest had spread farther through the wrappings, down his uniform.

Hudson knew it too. He could hear the desperation in Kace’s voice.

“Because you keep shooting back, man. They know we’re here somewhere.”

Kace didn’t seem to hear, his eyes twitching back and forth, too vigilant.

He’s about to break, Hudson thought.


 

Chapter 5        August, Present Day

 

The young man’s nervous eyes looked away from the strobe of the police car. The green-painted house’s windows reflected blue, red, blue, red and his breathing quickened with the pulse of the light.

 What had she done now?

It was unreal. She’d just been there a day and already had reaped havoc on the neighborhood. He’d walked by casually at first, then circled around the block, returned, and jumped a neighbor’s fence. Crouching in the dark, peering between the slats, he could watch without being seen.

He’d seen her twice, when she first arrived and again when the ambulance left with the old man. He’d seen her and had been amazed.

He shifted his weight, trying to find a better position. Slipping his hand in his pocket, he pulled out a pack of cards, shuffling them without thinking. It gave his nervous hands and active mind something to do. Among them was the picture. He glanced at it again.

This, he thought, is something very strange, and slipped the picture back between the cards.

Shadows wavered, the moonlight catching in the trees. Maybe they’d bring her out, arrest her, he didn’t know for what. And he wondered why they were there, why the police took so long, and if they’d found it.

It didn’t belong to them, or to her. But then again, she didn’t seem to belong in this world anyway.

A porchlight flicked on and he was exposed, the neighbor yelling. Police from her yard came running and he jumped the fence again, running full out, then tripped and tumbled down into the woods which, it later turned out, was the luckiest thing that could have happened.


 

Chapter 6        June 1945

 

Hudson had thought he was the luckiest man on earth. He’d had good parents, a great childhood, and friends. When the war started, he’d joined the Army. And then he’d met Betty at the USO—

Shrapnel sprayed down, cutting his face, dusting his clothes with another layer of debris but he couldn’t move, much as he tried, he couldn’t reach Kace, to get him to listen. The ground shattered again and he closed his eyes, covering his face with one arm.

Raised in the Maine woods, he knew predators were good at hiding, like the fox or coyote or the wolf down from Canada. Kace was a city soldier, trained by the military but had survived on the streets with an outward show of strength. Right now it was better to be the coyote and survive to fight later.

The smoke-filled sky turned from dirty lavender to slate to black and the shooting subsided. Rapid pops of gunfire sounded more distant but felt like a trick, a ruse to lull the exhausted into sleep.

“Hey,” Hudson whispered. He picked up a stone and threw it at Kace.

Kace waited a moment, then turned. “Getting’ too dark,” he spat. “Can’t see shit. I can’t see where they are.” He looked at Hudson then. The man was just a dark silhouette, changing with the fog and smoke in the half-moon light. “I didn’t sign up for this. Not for this—” His eyes searched wildly, red with dust and fatigue, overwrought. “I can’t do this.” He scrambled up beside Hudson, clutching his rifle close. “I’m done. I’m done, I’m—”

He’s losing it, Hudson thought. Bring him back, get his mind on anything other than dying. He’s our best hope of getting out of here.

“Slow it down, slow it down…” Hudson tried to slide closer. “You got strength in those southern roots. Use it. Where exactly you from anyway, Kace?””

Kace didn’t say anything for a long minute, trying to do something to his rifle but couldn’t see well enough.

“Where you from, private?” Hudson repeated.

“Blackdeer, North Carolina.” Kace fumbled with his rifle, trying to sight something through the rifle in the dark.

“Blackdeer? Still have family there?”

Hudson heard shuffling in the shadows, then Kace answered. “Yeah.” Kace sat back and tried to breathe. “You, lieutenant?”

“Lac du Loup, Maine,” he grunted, shifting position in the dirt.

“Lacduh—”

“Lake of the Wolves. It’s Quebecois French.” He coughed and wiped blood from his mouth. “Ever been there?”

          “Never.” Kace grimaced. “Sir.”

The lieutenant coughed up a laugh. Blood trickled from his mouth.

Not good, Kace thought, trying to slow his own breathing to get hold of the panic.

“We might not have got this chance to talk if not for this damned hole in the ground. One thing this war is good for—” Hudson shifted his weight. “Gives a man quiet time to talk.”

Kace snorted and pushed himself back against the wall. “How lucky.” After a moment he said, “Maine, huh. That explains the accent.”

Hudson gave a soft breath of a laugh. “Got a girl back home?” The lieutenant was struggling to ease the tension, to not think about dying; Kace knew that. Let the man die remembering why he’s here.

         “Naw,” Kace replied. “No girl. Blackdeer’s a nice city though. Got some friends there still. If they’re not dead from this damned war. How ‘bout you Hudson—I mean, lieutenant—you got a girl?”

Hudson gave a lopsided grin and reached awkwardly inside his shirt. He pulled out a photograph, his hand shaking. Kace took it in his palm and held it up to the half-moon light, then turned it over to read the writing.

            “She’s beautiful.” A redhead, smiling, eyes innocent and shiny, yet somehow exotic. The photograph stirred something curious in Kace.

“Give her back, Kace.” A half-laugh escaped his dry mouth. “She’s mine.” He’d been through this before.

         “She looks like a movie star.”

“Probably could have been. You should hear her voice, like an angel. You know, we met in the USO, San Diego. I was playing piano and she came over to sing. Six weeks I knew her, and that was enough. Married her before I shipped out. Betty drove all the way across from California to Florida to see me before I left. She’d slept in the car and kept driving, all the way from San Diego to Jacksonville.”

“Wish someone cared about me like that.” Kace thought back to his life with his mother. She was not a kind woman.

“It’ll happen. You’ll know when it happens.”

But it had already happened for Kace. It had just happened, in fact. He thought of the picture of Betty and it felt burned into his mind.


 

Chapter 7        August, Present Day

 

“I can’t believe this is happening.” Elizabeth pulled the blanket more snugly around her shoulders and looked over at the two elderly neighbors.

“Well, at least you now know the house had another staircase.” Marie laid her hand over Elizabeth’s, warm and soft and comforting.

“Well, yes, there is that.” Florence stirred steaming milk in a pot on the stove, brushing a wisp of white hair off her forehead with the back of her hand.

“And that staircase has a corpse under it.” Marie patted Elizabeth’s hand. “Not a recent one, fortunately, I guess, but a…”

Desiccated body half-eaten away by time and insects, Elizabeth thought, standing up and pacing. That emaciated thing was once a person, breathing, laughing, doing the normal everyday things humans do. Probably right here. In this house.

“Oh, dear. Do shut up, Marie,” said Florence, who had rushed over as soon as the police pulled up to Morrel’s door.

“Take a sip of this.” Marie pulled a flask out of her purse and led Elizabeth back to the chair. “It will steady your nerves. Sit down, dear.”

“Who could that have been? And why bury him there?” She sat back down, resting her arms on the table. She picked up the flask and sniffed. Whiskey.

“The victim of a psychotic killer perhaps,” Florence mused while stirring the pot.

“What a horrible thought,” Marie said.

Likely, though, Elizabeth thought. Who else would murder and hide a body like that? She pulled the blanket in tighter while Florence searched the cabinet for a cup.

“Drink this. It’ll calm you.” The cup and saucer rattled as Florence slid the steaming hot chocolate next to Elizabeth’s hand. “It’s been a shock,” she said as she pulled out a chair and joined them at the table.

Marie began patting Elizabeth’s hand again. “Perhaps an abused wife or a poisoned husband.”

“Or an innocent in the wrong place.” Florence pushed the cup closer, then sat back to gaze around the kitchen. “This house is a lot darker than I remember it.”

Elizabeth picked the cup up, took a sip and found it good, soothing in a familiar way. Since the discovery, her neighbors, Marie and Florence, had been bustling around her, alternately trying to mother her and invent gruesome scenarios for the deceased’s demise; they were a little overwhelming.

As a nurse, Elizabeth was too familiar with death. It didn’t frighten her. The hospital had been the place where that could be prevented, with luck and skill. But this was not the newly dead; it was a corpse, a shell of a human, without the essence of soul and mind. That was what was under the closet stairs—a dead organism. And it was hard to find a place in her head to put that picture.

What had happened, she wondered, that brought the victim’s life to this strange ending? She sipped the chocolate, huddled at the kitchen table, staring at the door to the back staircase. Police entered, left, and came in again. Blue and red lights alternated through the white linen curtains.

Elizabeth shuddered, pulling the blanket up around her shoulders. “The whole neighborhood is probably awake by now. They’ll be cursing me in the morning.”

“I wish the police would hurry and remove that poor soul,” Marie said. “You need some rest, dear. You must come to our house. You can’t possibly stay here after this.”

“She can’t leave now, Marie. The police still want to talk to her.” Florence leaned over and adjusted the cup so Elizabeth would notice and drink more.

Elizabeth took a sip, the warmth and chocolate soothing, a simple luxury in a crisis.

“What more could they possibly need to know?” Marie scoffed. “She probably wasn’t even born when the corpse was boarded up.”

“Marie!”

“It’s common sense.”

“Which you don’t have.”

Picking up the flask, Elizabeth poured a little into her hot chocolate and drank it down.

“I’m really not worried.” Elizabeth set the cup down with a clack. “The person is long dead and the body will soon be gone. I just need sleep.” She paused, then added, “Though that does explain the odd closet.”

Marie tried not to look excited. “Well, now we have a real-life mystery for our—”

“Don’t you dare,” Florence said.

“Well, why not?” Marie huffed and stood as an officer clomped down the back stairs.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, in all my years.” His voice was deep with the soft northern lilt.

“Samuel Starkey,” Florence whispered to Elizabeth. “He’s a detective.”

He shook his head, then rubbed his temples as if he had a headache.

“Aspirin?” Elizabeth offered him the bottle she had used earlier. He looked at her with sympathy but took the bottle.

“Just a little longer.” Starkey glanced around for a glass, picked one from the dish drainer, looked in it, and put it back down. “I’m waiting for forensics to finish. Do you have someone to stay with tonight?” He threw the pill in his mouth and dry-swallowed it.

“Of course she does, Sam. She’ll stay with us,” Marie said.

Elizabeth wrapped her hands tighter around the warm cup. “Thank you, but I’m staying here.”

“Oh no, dear. You mustn’t. We have plenty of room,” Marie said. “And we’re just across the street.”

“You’ve had a shock.” Starkey shut his eyes tightly and opened them again, trying to focus through the headache. “Maybe you should go with Flo and Marie here.”

“This house is my responsibility. I’ll stay away from the closet. And I’ve had enough changes lately. And I owe it to Mr. Morrel—I still have to fix the leak.”

“We patched the pipe.” Starkey gave a sour look as if the pill had stuck in his throat. “Evidence degradation, don’t you know. It was an easy fix anyway. Zach did it.” Coughing once, he picked the glass up again and ran the tap.

The people are so nice around here, Elizabeth thought. What is wrong with them?

“Zach Penn, his name is, dear,” Marie whispered, patting her hand again. “He’s a forensic something.”

Footsteps resounded down the back stairs. A man ducked to avoid hitting his head on the undersized doorway and emerged into the kitchen.

“That’s Zach,” Marie whispered.

At the same time, both their radios screeched with feedback. Starkey turned to adjust the volume.

More feedback, then a voice, “10-41—”

“That’s Ezriel,” Marie whispered. “There’s a prowler nearby.”

“10-31—”

“Chase in progress,” Florence said. She and Marie look at each other, pleased.

Of course there’s more, Elizabeth thought, and picked up the flask.

 


 

Chapter 8        June 1945

 

Someone screamed in the darkness and Kace cringed, grabbing up his rifle again, pointing it over the edge of the makeshift trench. Rocks and pebbles slid down and Hudson whispered, “Easy, Kace. Take it easy…”

Kace couldn’t see anything. Even the stars were blacked out by the fog.

“You just had a nightmare. It’s all quiet out there. Just take it easy…”

“What the goddamn hell,” Kace rubbed his face. “I’m still in the fucking hole.”

“I said it’s quiet, now. Slow it down and breathe.”

But Kace couldn’t stand to be his own head. “Tell me more about her,” Kace whispered back. He needed to escape. He needed to be anywhere else but here.

Let Hudson die with good memories, he thought. But let him die and get it over with.

The lieutenant’s ice-cold eyes had a far-off gaze, unless he looked directly at Kace— then he seemed to be studying him too intensely, like he was memorizing him—like he was the last human he would ever see. It was unnerving. He’d looked at the picture of Betty that way too.

“You ever been in love, Kace?”

“Yeah, once. This blonde in Raleigh, see, she had me drivin’ back and forth for hours each way, just to see her. I was crazy over her. Would have done anythin’ for her. But in the end, she wanted someone better, richer maybe, someone there all the time. Dumb blonde. Ungrateful, after all the time and dough I spent. Biggest mistake of my life. I’ll hate that woman ‘till the day I die.”

Hudson gave a slight laugh. “Then, mister, you haven’t been in love.”

“Oh no? Why else would I have done all that for her? Not for my benefit.”

“Because when you really love someone, you can’t un-love them. You feel pain and hurt but you still love them. Like you might, say, your kid, or your mother…”

This wasn’t a good choice for Kace, so he thought grandmother instead. She had loved him, no matter what stupid stuff he did.

“…You work and sacrifice and be responsible, all that, but it’s all good because you love them. And if they don’t love you back, you spend the rest of your life wondering why and wishing they did, and trying to make up for it somehow.”

“I don’t know about that.” Kace was having trouble following this line of reasoning, or even this conversation, sitting in a burned-out grave pit from hell, waiting for death to make some kind of decision. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I never loved anybody. Barely anyone loved me, you know, that’s for sure.”

“You never cared for someone—” Hudson hissed in between his teeth and shifted a bit, the sound of cloth against gravel. “Cared so much that nothing they could do would change it?”

Kace grimaced and shook his head. Practically all Kace could see of Hudson was the white glint of his eyes. The man sounded almost like he was talking to himself. It gave Kace a weird, disconnected feeling.

“When you love someone that way, you know, you can change the world. Everything’s different.”

“Naw.” Kace snorted. “I don’t see it like that.”

But Hudson kept talking like he hadn’t heard. “I mean, it’s like you become your strongest and the most vulnerable all at the same time,” then the pain took over and he spoke through gritted teeth. “…Each person trying to find the other.” He looked up toward Kace but his eyes focused somewhere else above him.

Kace folded in on himself, hugging his arms around his knees, listening.

The inescapable fog turned dusky, then ominous and black while Hudson talked, drifting through memories with his girl; how it felt when they’d danced the first time, the sound of her laugh. Smart too, going to school for music…

Music. How Kace missed music. He missed the dancehalls and the bands—

Hudson talked on—how he’d worried when his father had become ill and she was the only one who listened and understood. They only had six weeks but he knew her…

What would it be like to be understood, Kace wondered—

…as if he’d always known her, and the justice of the peace married them before he shipped out…the sound of her voice…how she brushed her hair…

Kace could see it, her vision in a mirror, stroking silky soft hair, smiling at him in the reflection—

Hudson seemed to lose touch for a moment, fading out, eyes closed tight in pain. But when he opened them again, he continued. How she’d moved to Maine, come to live with his parents, waiting for him to come home. He would come home, he’d said…

In a box, Kace thought. The man was dying and there was nothing Kace could do to escape. He could only listen to Hudson’s voice, pretend he was there, living Hudson’s past—

Hudson had letters, he said. She’d been planting a victory garden, working at the post office, helping at the Red Cross when she could. He had letters…he grew more pensive and quiet as the night wore on, fading slowly, hanging on breath by breath.

Kace listened through the night, the usually subdued Hudson talking as if his life depended on it and perhaps it did. All around them the smell of smoke and death closed in, the occasional random burst of gunfire throwing rocks into the pit where Kace would curl up into a ball, wanting to scream.

But then, watching Hudson so calm, the man who had been so taciturn, just talking on and on, roles reversed, he immersed himself in Hudson’s life with Betty, the only good thing that existed right now. Back the lieutenant went in time, living with his mother and father, a small town and friends, playing piano in a house built by his grandfather, hockey in the winter, baseball in the summer…

Far removed from destruction, for a while Kace saw himself as that boy, snowball fights and winter by the fire, dismantling a Model-T and putting it back together on a cousin’s roof as a prank, living another existence, different by far from anything he had experienced.

Maybe it’s the strain, he thought, or the terror or the closeness of death—may as well just go there. Better there than here.

By the time the sun sliced through the thin gray horizon, Hudson was no longer talking, and the story was finished.


 

Chapter 9        August, Present Day 

 

That night, Elizabeth’s dream had been beautiful. They occurred every so often, and in them she was in love, though the word love didn’t define it well enough. It was a feeling so complete and content that it defied words.

The dream was always slightly different, though the feeling was the same. She was always doing something pleasant with someone who was her friend and lover, both. He understood her. He was different from her. And yet they meshed perfectly and she felt as if there was nothing they couldn’t overcome. Nothing.

It was hard to wake up, realizing the person didn’t exist, as true and final as death. And once awake, the feeling of fullness was gone, the world lacking in some dimension that had existed as she slept.

When she awoke in the night this time, and every time, she tried to go back to sleep to stay there just a little longer. But somewhere a door slammed, someone yelled, a siren screamed and there was no going back to sleep after that.

She slid out of bed and walked to the hallway. At the top of the stairway, she paused.

The feeling of the dream returned, briefly…And then she was standing halfway down the stairs, looking down, at something lying on the floor below…She turned as a soldier reached down to her, taking her hand…

“Not there” he said, and turned to lead her up the stairway. She took hold of his hand and felt such trust and joy that she practically ran up the steps and through the hallway, placing her hand against the wood of the closet door, the door she shouldn’t open…She turned and he wasn’t there…he’d left, forever this time...She ran around the corner to the bathroom—paneled in tongue and groove, the clawfoot tub on octagon tiles—to the small door that was now a medicine cabinet…But then the feeling mutated, turning like bad medicine into something gray…dissolving away, starkly gone, and she felt so very cold.

She stood in the bathroom, her hand against the cabinet. For a full minute she stood there, then ran back around to the closet door. She pulled it open and frantically pulled out the broom, mop, dustpan, a bag full of bags, and tossed them all into the hall. She climbed the short stairs and banged on the walls, hitting them with her fists.

Except for the patch, it was solid. All solid. And for some reason she started to cry, as if someone had died, as if her heart was broken.

 


 

Chapter 9        August, Present Day 

 

Dawn sliced through the darkness over stumps and grass and rock as the young man lay on the ground, unmoving, leaves caught up in his clothes, nearly covering him. Though flashlight beams passed along the trees above him on the hill, no one ventured down, and that was good. He breathed in the dirt and musty smell of moss but didn’t move.

Some insect tickled along his ankle. Did they have fire ants here? He’d heard they had fire ants. He hoped that wasn’t a fire ant on his leg. He couldn’t help imagining he’d disturbed a nest and that made his skin crawl.

Even if they stung him, he wouldn’t move. He couldn’t get caught. Nothing would stop him now. He’d waited too long.

And still all his focus went to that one little creature crawling up his leg. There would be more; he knew there would be more. He could just see its pointed legs and slick heart-shaped head and pointy stinger. It crept and crawled and crept and crawled and nearly drove him crazy but he stayed where he was until the flashlights and voices moved away.

Then he slapped at the insect and crushed it against his pant leg, stood up and stamped his feet and shivered like someone had walked over his grave. He hated insects. Hated them.


 

Chapter 10      June 1945

 

Being a tight space with Hudson’s body unhinged Kace. A spider crawled down Hudson’s forehead and Kace wanted to slap it off but couldn’t bring himself to touch it. Their hiding place had become an open grave. The sun was slowly reaching over the horizon; strange wisps of orange and black shadows clawed forward.

The enemy had to be close. Without Hudson he could probably make it out of the hole and maybe to safety. Kace was desperate to get out. He reached over to touch Hudson’s throat. The skin still felt warm. His shaking hand jerked back.

Perhaps Hudson was still alive. No, impossible.

He thought of Betty and with the only courage Kace had left, he grimaced and reached toward Hudson’s jacket, just wanting the picture.

Hudson’s eyes flashed open, found Kace and stared, daring him. The light brown eyes turned unnaturally dark. Panicked, Kace slammed his hand against Hudson’s face. Hudson struggled, trying to twist away. In a burst of terror, Kace’s shaking hand pushed tight against Hudson’s mouth and nose, pinning him against the rocks, cutting off his air. Hudson writhed, staring into Kace’s eyes, fighting with the little strength he had left.

Kace groaned, pushing harder until Hudson’s body slacked and his struggle lessened, weaker and weaker until the thrashing stopped and his life drained away, down into the earth like water.

Kace flung himself backward, breathing in gasps, wiping his hand on the dirt in jerking movements until he felt pain. He held the injured hand in front of his face and watched the blood drip down his skin. His head reeled, twisting his vision as bile rose in his empty stomach, the acid burning in his throat.

He shook it off and with one last surge of energy, reached inside Hudson’s shirt, fumbling for the picture he’d seen last night. Then reaching up to the throat again, he felt for the dog tags, pulled them from Hudson’s neck, thrust them in his pocket and scrambled out of the hole, leaving Hudson behind.

Repulsed, Kace scrabbled down low in the dirt, crawling through the charred debris like a snake on his stomach, frantic to get away, dragging his wounded leg. The fog swirled like ghosts circling the dead. Insects ate at their eyes, their faces. And he scrambled away but couldn’t escape. Decimated bodies in the field seemed to follow, scratching at the earth as he squirmed past. Desperate, he kept moving, senses in overdrive, terror driving his mind, pushing him forward. He snaked his way through the field for what felt like miles of hellish terrain, brimstone and char, until he collapsed, his mind overwhelmed, unable to process what was left of the world.


 

The journey continues!

 

Thank you for your love of reading and for sharing this adventure with me!

 

Stairs to Nowhere can be found by using the hyperlink below or at https://www.wolfprintbooks.com/valerie-campbell-books


Stairs to Nowhere is will be available on Amazon eBook, on Barnes & Noble, Google Books, on December 30th. For those who love non-virtual books, we have also soft-cover copies available.

Please feel free to contact us at WolfPrintsBooks@gmail.com

 


Elizabeth’s journey will continue in Rule of Three, coming in December 2024.

 

In the meantime, check this out!

 

Update or Die

 

Raised in her dad’s antique shop, 16-year-old Drew knows everything about antiques and very little about tech. And this works for her. At least, until she receives chilling texts that make it clear she’s being watched, messages no one else can see. Then the texts predict a death, and a young girl is murdered. There’s only one way to find the truth, to save the others, and perhaps herself. And it’s not virtual—it’s very, very real.


 

Also coming in February 2024…

 

Same Stream Twice

 

A psychologist returns to Maine after a shooting in her Florida office left her deaf and traumatized. Then she finds a book made of human skin hidden in a house she’s been restoring. Strange accidents follow as she tries to bring herself back from trauma, and it all seems to relate back to the distant—and not-so-distant—pa

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