Tuesday, May 6, 2014

National Nurse's Day Surprise

As has become tradition, I'm taking a few minutes to wish my fellow nurses Happy Nurse's Day! There really are few professions as rewarding. There are few professions filled with people who are more compassionate... more selfless... more caring. Because I know so many, am related to several, and admire all of them, I'm proud to be a nurse.

In celebration, I'm releasing the Epilogue from Since Inception (Vanishing, #1). I'll also share the fact that it is teed up and ready to be released. The sooner-rather- than-later release date will be determined by the response received as I share pieces of Rainey's story.

Let me know your thoughts and stay tuned for Chapter 1 and the story within the story, The Princess and the Warrior.



Magdalana Billows

As soon as I hear the knock on the door, I cringe. I knew it was only a matter of time before someone called the police and complained about the shrieks and howls bellowing from the windows, doors, and fireplaces of my family's very old—and very haunted—house. Unfortunately, this is the one day of the year when no visitors are allowed in the house. Not today. Not ever on this day.

I'd known it was coming, though. My visions never lie.

Besides, these antics are not new with the house. They've happened every All Hallows’ Day from midnight to dawn since long before I was born. The difference is this year, the house has begun its tradition of moaning and groaning long before nightfall on All Hallows’ Eve. It's almost as if the Victorian mansion has been holding back something—someone—so long that it can't hold back anymore. A battle had been fought, and the dark side won.

The first heart-stopping shriek began at six a.m. Frantic, I jumped out of the bed and searched the entire house. I was desperate to find the woman being sadistically murdered—based on her unbearable wails—somewhere within the walls, down in the basement, or up in the attic of my home. Hours later, I was left suspecting the house had begun its unwelcomed ghoulishness eighteen hours too soon, meaning the normal Halloween activities and onslaught of trick-or-treaters were nowhere near to disguise the house's bewitching.

Normally, I'm a woman who takes great pride in her appearance. I may be a grandmother, but I've held on to my youth as fiercely as Christie Brinkley. Just like my mother, her mother, and her mother. In fact, I've had people jokingly threaten to harvest my genes and sell them with claims that they've found the Fountain of Youth.

With a siren-sounding and lights-whirling police car sitting in front of my house, I'm left with no option but to answer the door looking like I've gotten an early start on the holiday and have a plan to go dressed as a psychiatric ward patient. By that, I mean I'm still in my handkerchief-thin pajamas—similar to those worn by hospital patients—my legs and feet are bare, my hair is unruly, and the deep, dark circles beneath my eyes signal a complete lack of sleep.

Looking through the peephole, I almost groan aloud when I realize my day can't possibly get any worse now that Officer Drake Sharp, a man I like to think of as my groping stalker, has apparently been assigned to the call.


Based on his sharp intake of air and his wide-eyed reaction when I open the door, there will be few costumes worn tonight more menacing than the one he assumes I've donned. I silently curse the house and its yearly possession when I think about Drake telling my friend and his wife Sophie that he'd been called to my house. Sophie is the busiest busybody I've ever had the misfortune to meet, and I am absolutely sure the entire congregation will get second-by-second details of his visit, including my bizarre appearance.

"Good afternoon, Drake. How can I help you today?" I ask, trying to be as light and bubbly as I can possibly muster despite the ghoulish howls roaring from the basement and the reality of what today is for me.

The house's unexpected growl is so real and so scary that Drake snaps to attention, draws his weapon, and orders, "Get out on the porch now, Mag!"

"Drake…" I begin, planning to lie and tell him all the noises coming from the house are nothing more than props set up in preparation for tonight's costume party, but he, a veteran police officer who is nearing retirement, jerks his head toward his rookie partner, Officer Patterson, who's immediately as alert and prepared for danger as Drake.

I can tell by the officers' full attack mode that there's no reasoning with them so I step outside as is expected. All I can do is hope and pray the house calms down and no one gets hurt.

Both men enter the house, guns drawn. From the porch, I watch as they jerk around corners, prepared for someone to jump out and shoot or stab them. I can tell by the glass tinkling in the curio cabinet and the fine trembling of the trinkets on the bookshelves that the officers' presence is making the house even more irritable.

Standing in front of the wide-open door, I hear and feel the current of air as it's raggedly sucked in right before that same rush of air is blown back out.

Over and over.

Faster and faster.

I've always treated the house as if it were a living, breathing creature. The rhythmic way air moves in and out confirms my suspicions, but I can't concentrate on that right now. The house's response to the officers' search is a clear warning that it's prepared to protect itself, its secrets, and me from intruders. No matter what.

Not only can the house's secrets not be shared, it has always been overprotective of me, the only soul ever to love it despite its demons.

Helpless to do anything else, I wrap an arm around one of the giant porch columns and pat it in a consoling manner. "If you'll calm down, they'll be gone in no time. You've got to wait a few more hours before giving in to all of this. It's just too soon," I whisper, ignoring the fact that outsiders will label me as crazy if they see me talking to the house.

As if responding to my request, I feel a gush of air blow out the front door and hear an almost inaudible sigh as it relaxes. I continue patting the column and whispering reassuring promises as the officers search the historic home. Nearly forty-five minutes later, Drake strolls back out the front door with his gun in its holster and his partner following him. I let out my own sigh of relief.

"What the hell, Mag? How did you do all that?" Drake asks, grinning like I've just pulled off the best prank he's ever seen.

I shake my head. "Drake… it's All Hallows' Eve. I was just testing the sound system and getting ready for the trick-or-treaters. I didn't mean to scare anyone or for them to call the police, and I certainly didn't mean to frighten you."

I laugh, and even to my own ears it sounds nervous. Shifty. Drake could care less about my edginess. There's only ever been one thing he cared about where I'm concerned. He may be married and he may be a deacon at the church, but that’s never stopped his eyes from lingering a little too long on my body and not nearly long enough on my face. Today is no different… especially since this damn gown is so thin my nipples are almost visible. I actually know the instant he makes out what he's seeing because his eyes stop on my chest and refuse to budge.

Stepping closer to me, he calls over his shoulder, "Patterson, let them know we've cleared the house. Mag's going to take me inside and show me her Halloween technics. I think she has some ideas I can use for the church's haunted house."

Like newbies are conditioned to do, Patterson shrugs and follows the orders of his commanding officer by dropping into the patrol car and making the call. Drake puts his arm around my waist in a manner that would make onlookers think we're intimate acquaintances rather than church-only friends. Given the house's current disposition, I decide today's not the day to cause a fuss, acquiescing my only option.

I can handle his inappropriate groping for a few minutes.

Once we're inside, Drake says, "Show me where you have the speakers set up and write down where you downloaded those damn screams. They're scary enough to make people piss their pants."

As if he has no understanding of personal space, Drake takes another step closer and lifts the end of my long hair—the end resting over my right breast. His hand hoovers just above my nipple. He takes a few minutes to debate his next action. In the end, he gives into the temptation and accidentally—on purpose—grazes the bud with his thumb a few times before lifting my hair and slipping it over my shoulder.

"There. That's better. No sense hiding the beautiful view," Drake says hoarsely, not doing anything to hide the fact that he's now fully ogling my breasts.

This isn’t the first time he's cornered me like this. Since I've never told anyone about his unwelcomed advances, he's convinced I'll stay quiet about anything he does today. That knowledge makes him cocky. The fact that we're at my house with no one around makes him bolder.

"Drake… I-I'm not sure what Sophie would think about…" I wave my hand between us. "This."

Then, I tuck my head into my shoulder and try turning my body away from him, but he's not having that. He steps even closer and keeps me from twisting myself too far.

As smooth and practiced as a used car salesman selling a lemon to an unsuspecting victim, Drake nearly drools when he says, "What do you mean, Mag? I'm just showing you some kindness. Sophie's a giving woman. She expects me to be the same."

He stares at me, studying my every feature for several minutes.

"You know… if you didn't have them two girls, I'm not sure anyone would believe you've ever been with a man. You've got to be lonely here in this big ol’ house all by yourself. I can help you with that." He whispers the last few words into my ear, purposefully touching the lobe with his lips, assuming the warmth of his breath is seductive for me.

It's not.

Drake is tall, and despite nearing retirement, his job keeps him in shape and muscular. He's not someone I would ever be able to fend off if he really tried to take me down. While I'm contemplating a viable escape plan, one that prevents the house from realizing how nervous I am, Drake reaches up and pushes the button on the radio sitting on his shoulder. 

"Patterson, Ms. Billows needs my help packing her car for the church festival. Take an early supper and meet me back here in an hour."

"Roger that," Patterson answers as if leaving his partner in a woman's house is an everyday occurrence.

Maybe it is.

I shake my head. "Listen, Drake, I'm not going to the festival so I don't need your assistance. In fact, I'd like it if you'd leave with Patterson and let me finish getting ready for tonight. My help is already on her way." I lie, again, trying to assert more confidence than I have.

Like always, Drake ignores me, pretends as if I've not said a word. "Now, Mag. We both know you don't have anyone coming here. The only person who ever visits you is your granddaughter, and she's at the hospital. I saw her earlier when I dropped off an asshole shoplifter who accidentally rammed his face into my hand."

Stroking my cheek, Drake tries for suave and debonair. In my eyes, he achieves disgusting and perverted. No matter how hard I clamp down on my nerves, the house notices how uncomfortable I am. Around me, I hear boards creaking, splintering, and threatening to give way completely.

At first, I think I'm listening to the sound of my own heartbeat. It pounds so fast and so loud that I feel my chest reverberate. Then, it occurs to me I'm not hearing—feeling—my heartbeat at all. I'm not even hearing Drake’s. It's the house's.

Oh shit!

The bass-deep drum is steady, fast, and forceful. As its caretaker, I'm attuned to the mansion and understand it's getting angrier by the second.

Seeing that things are about to go very wrong very quick, I duck under Drake’s arm and dash away from him before he can grab ahold of me. Over my shoulder and striving for some sense of normalcy, I stammer, "I-I'm going to get myself a glass of water. While I'm in the kitchen, I want you to leave."

Police officer or not, I don't wait for his permission. I round the corner, grab a glass from the cabinet, and make my way to the sink. Between the day, the house's anger, and Drake's forwardness, my nerves have had all they can take. As proof, my hands are jittery, my heart is skipping crucial beats, and there's a cold sweat soaking my thin pajamas and making my teeth chatter.

I need to calm down.

There are a few things I know for certain. One, if I don't stay focused and get Drake out, the house is going to become even more protective and interfere in a definite and final way. 

That's the last thing I need. There are stories that have been told for centuries that prove this house is capable of murder. Drake may make my skin crawl, but I certainly don't wish him dead.

I lift my trembling hand to my forehead.

A drink a helluva lot stronger than water is what I really need.

Until today, I'd have claimed to love this Victorian house—handed down from my father to me—like an elementary schoolgirl loves her beloved golden retriever. Today's drama, the position I'm in right now with Drake has made me doubt the bond in ways I've never before imagined possible.

Instead of living in a house with an unfathomable number of endearing quirks—benign nighttime attic creaks and innocent window whistles to name just a few—I'm trapped—knowing I must protect Drake as a priority—inside a possessed house that is showing a side of itself that has been hidden to me before now.

This All Hallows' Eve has evil oozing from its every nook, cranny, and crevice; malevolence shimmering though the house's windows; shadows creeping from beneath every piece of furniture; and the stench of death wafting from the vents. Today… today of all days, I'm vividly reminded of Papa and his warnings about my connection with the house.

* * *

"Magpie, it doesn't matter how much you love this old house. You need to remember you can't trust it. No amount of love will ever cure it of its need to hurt people. It would be simpler to turn a carnivorous lion into a gentle vegetarian than it would be to exorcise its demons," he said, stroking my hair from my eyes.

It was my eighth birthday, and he'd found me sleeping on the floor of my room. My beloved Papa knew I slept on the bare hardwood in order to be as close to my house as possible. He saw the love I had for every two-by-four and nail holding it together, no matter the warnings and no matter the horror stories.

After lifting me from my pallet, laying me in my bed, and slipping me under the covers, he leaned over and kissed my forehead. With all the love he had in his heart for me, he rubbed my cold extremities until they were warm, all the while reminding me of his visions by retelling his horrific tale for the hundredth time. Through repetition, he hoped I'd heed his warning… understand the dangers awaiting me.

"Once upon a time, there was a giant family. The Antara family. Like every family ever, it was filled with good, bad, short, tall, old, and young members. That's where the Antara's similarities with other families ended. The Antara family tree was filled with dark souls, ones usually told about in ghost stories and always responsible for ghastly deeds," he'd say in his perfectly articulated and absolutely commanding voice. He was a man who demanded attention, and that's what I always gave him.

"But, Papa, everyone in our family isn’t a soul to be feared. Look at you and Mama. You love me and would never do the evil things the dark souls do," I said, cupping his perfect bearded cheek in the palm of my small hand.

"Oh, my little Magpie… if anyone ever tried to hurt you, like I know this house will one day, the dark soul that lives deep inside me would break free. With rage, I could issue a blow that would result in instant death, and I would do it without giving a second thought. That, my little Magpie, is how much I love you," Papa said, taking my hand and kissing the back.

"I love you, too, Papa."

"Then, you should listen to me because what I have to say is very important. You must understand that the dark souls in our family have learned their powers are darker and more powerful if they’re allowed to embed themselves within these walls… if they are allowed to bury themselves beneath the dirt… if they are allowed to exist up in the attic. Those places within this house are designed to act as a catalyst to their powers and to magnify their abilities to levels never before imagined. They will fight for the right to live here. They will fight to have more than they can have without this house. There are few people who know the secrets that live within this house's brick and mortar. If even one of the Antara family’s dark souls were allowed to live here permanently, those secrets would be rooted out and the effects would be catastrophic. That is why this house has been cursed in a manner that makes protecting itself and its secrets its mission. Its one and only mission. It will kill anyone who tries to harm it or look too deep. That, my little Magpie, is why I've not burned it to the ground, even though I know it will one day be the death of you."

No matter how tired I felt, Papa's story—this story—always woke me exactly the way a very real nightmare would. Like every other time, I'd become absolutely enthralled in his every word and tried my best to help him understand what I knew to be true. "But Papa, my house would never do anything to hurt me. It loves me, and I love it."

With a sadness that made his eyes water, Papa said, "Make no mistake, my little Magpie, this house could hurt you… it will hurt you, and it will do the same for the one heir that means the most to you. It's been foretold, and there's no unseeing what's been seen."

Like always, Papa tapped his temple, signaling for me that the memory of my death was tucked safely in his mind as a nightmare for him and him alone to bear witness.

"Papa, why can't you share with me the vision you saw? If you’d do that, I could change the future," I said with the naivety of an eight-year-old.

Papa shook his head. "Magpie, I can never tell anyone the details of my vision. This is a lesson I learned the hard way," his lips quivered. My strong powerful Papa's lip quivered, and I took notice. "I know this because I saw your brother Rogerous’s death. He was working in the forest and running a bush hog when a limb caught him in the throat and threw him backward. He landed on the ground in front of the mowing gear. Before he could get up and out of the way, it mowed over him, ripping him to shreds."

My hand flew to my lips as I worried if it were possible for my very alive brother's fate to come true now, even though it had already been thwarted.

Papa picked up on my unspoken question and shook his head. "I saw it and refused to let him take the job. I've never tried to change the future after having a vision. My father warned me against it. He reminded me there is an evilness about the gift of prophecy, or second sight, that would overtake my body if I gave in to its lure and began controlling people's destiny. I should have known Rogerous's accident was a test, one I'd fail, but I couldn't stand by and watch my oldest son die when I could utter one word and prevent it."

I smiled because Rogerous was still alive. I knew that Rogerous's health had everything to do with Papa's intervention. For me, his regret was pointless, useless, and unnecessary.

I'd have done the same, regardless of the consequences.

Again, reading my mind, Papa said, "Yes, my little Magpie, Rogerous is still alive, but Margory, your twin sister, who was as angelic as you, died in his place. It was with her death that I realized that when the Grimm Reaper comes calling, he'll not leave empty handed. Her death will eat away at my conscience until long after I'm gone… which may be sooner rather than later now that I've interfered with Rogerous's fate."

My smile vanished. He'd never before given me even one detail related to Marg's death.

* * *

Papa's story came back to me with such clarity he might well have been next to me, whispering his words into my ear. Between the reminder, the house's bizarre behavior, Drake's uncomfortable presence in the house on the one day when there should be no visitors, I'm more positive than ever today is the day the house will kill me. My knees nearly buckle.

I wish I could prove that fate can be altered and destiny can be circumvented, but my death is part of the bargain.

Focusing on my last real conversation with Papa, I forget what I'm doing and almost trip on Drake’s feet as he blocks my way to the sink. Before I can react, he grips my shoulders tight, pulls me into him, and kisses me. Nothing about his kiss is warm and gentle. It's demanding, needy, and completely unwelcome. Reacting automatically, I put my hands to his chest and try to push him off me. His hold only gets tighter, sliding his hands from my shoulders to the small of my back.

Electrical sparks course through the house, sounds and scents that make me think frayed wires are touching and a fire is igniting. Coming out of his lustful fog, Drake pulls away from me and turns his head to the side, sniffing the air and listening to the volatile currents sizzling around us.

"Damn, Mag, you’re the best haunted house designer I've ever seen," Drake says appreciatively.

He has no idea what he's in the middle of right now, but I do.

Hoping and praying he'll take the hint and leave, I twist away from him and slide the glass under the water faucet. "Get the hell out of here, Drake! I'm not kidding with you! You've cleared the house. Now get out!"

My orders are loud and vehement, but I'm trying my best to seem calm… like everything is business as usual. I have to do just that if I want to get Drake out of this house alive.

Just as I'm about to take a giant gulp of the water I've just poured from the sink, a red spectrum of light catches my eye and I take a closer look at the glass. It's not filled with clear, refreshing water, but rather dark, thick blood.

As if the glass punctured the palms of my hands, I scream at the top of my lungs and drop it to the floor where it shatters. The red liquid splashes everywhere, violating the purity of the white cabinets and the cleanliness of the kitchen tile.

As if waking from a dream, Drake looks around and sees the splattered blood… notices it's soaking his pants. It's at that moment it dawns on him that I'm not pulling a trick. Danger is near, and his self-preservation instincts kick in. He snatches his gun from the holster and draws it on me like I'm public enemy number one.

"Get down on your knees and put your hands behind your head," he shouts so forcefully a spray of spit follows his words and lands on my forehead.

As soon as the house sees I'm being threatened, the cabinet doors fly open and the entire foundation shakes like we're in the middle of an earthquake. Drake notices the house's response, but he's been trained to keep his gaze firmly fixed on the criminal. In his eyes, that's me.

"I said get on your fucking knees!" he screams. His voice is high pitched and quivering.

This time, he motions with the gun what he expects me to do and where I should do it. I don't bother telling him he's just asked me to kneel in a bed of broken glass. I just do what he asks. I barely moan as the slivers slice my knees to ribbons and the blood from my injuries pools beneath me, mixing with the blood from the glass.

My voice is scary calm when I say, "Drake… you need to leave right now. I'll explain everything to you later. I promise."

"Shut the fuck up! I should have known you were up to something living in this house all by yourself. You've probably been killing people for years and burying them underneath it," he says while reaching toward the radio on his shoulder.

Before he can squeeze the button and call for help, a plate flies over and whirls past his head, missing him by inches when he ducks.

"How the hell are you doing this?" he asks, looking at me with pure loathing.

That's when I see the knife. Drake's too busy watching me to see it floating through the kitchen. Invisible hands hold it less than a foot away from him, lifting the blade in a way that tells me it's about to be plunged deep into Drake's chest.

Without one second's hesitation, I bolt from where I'm kneeling and hug my body to Drake's. I scream long and loud as his bullet pierces my chest at the same time the knife stabs into my back.

Everything goes into slow motion, and I'm more in tune with my body than I've ever been. I hear the piercing of my heart—simultaneously from the front and back—as the bullet enters and the knife punctures it. An instant later, my life's blood spills into my chest cavity and
surrounds my heart until the external pressure prevents it from pumping even one more time.

The last things I remember before sinking into death's black abyss are the stare of pure horror on Drake's face, the ear-piercing wails of disbelief coming from the house's demons, and my best friend's gut-wrenching ache of regret.