Authors: Rebecca Patrick-Howard
Copyright © 2015 by Rebecca Patrick-Howard
Published by Mistletoe Press
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission.
First Edition: March 2015
Printed in the United States of America
All photography by Rebecca Patrick-Howard
In memory of those found…
Molly Bish (
August 2, 1983 – c. June 27, 2000)
Holly Piirainen (January 19, 1983 – August 5, 1993)
Holly Bobo (October 12, 1990-April 13, 2011)
Hannah Graham (February 25, 1996 – September 13, 2014)
And those still missing…
As the radio blared George Strait’s “Check Yes Or No” Cheyenne stood in front of the full-length mirror, gazing critically at herself as she adjusted her tank top and shorts. She was glad she’d used the self-tanner from Bath & Body Works, even if it did make her a little orange. Orange was better than white. She needed to get to the tanning bed, and soon. She’d already straightened her hair and it hung down to her waist in a long sheet of molasses, not like the frizzy mess it usually was. Her eyes, encircled with liner and dazzling with glitter from Maybelline, stood out from her pale face. Still watching herself, she sat down on the laminate bedroom floor amidst the rejected piles of clothes and tugged on her red leather cowboy boots, a Christmas present from last year. She continued to hum with the radio as the song changed from George to Jason Aldean.
School was out–for good, too. With graduation three days ago this would be her first official weekend as a Free Woman. Sure, college was starting in the fall, but fall was months away. She had the whole summer to hang out, enjoy herself, not have to listen to anyone’s rules. She didn’t even have to go to college in the fall if she wanted; she could take some time off and just earn herself some money. She’d thought about that.
But tonight… tonight was what mattered.
There were three hundred people in Cheyenne’s high school, and every one of them would be at her uncle’s farm for the party of the year. Or, at least, everyone who
. Like Evan.
Nobody cared what they did out there. Some of the kids were even talking about skinny dipping, though the creek would be freezing. Then there was the booze. She had free clearance to stay out all night, if she wanted to. She didn’t even have
at prom. But she was an adult now. Today was her birthday and eighteen couldn’t have fallen at a better time.
A gaggle of giggles echoed down the hall and soon the bedroom door was filled with a handful of teenage girls, each one prettier and younger than the other. “Have you seen my straightener?” a leggy redhead demanded with a pout.
“It’s in the bathroom,” Cheyenne replied absently. She stood up, turned around, and looked at her backside in the mirror. It was important to make sure you looked good from all angles. She was almost ready. Being May, it was still a little too cool for her top so she grabbed a jacket, just in case. Her blood was pumping, the anticipation of the night almost more than she could take.
In just about half an hour she’d be sipping on a Bud, dancing around the bonfire, talking to Evan. In just about half an hour she’d be starting her brand new life.
And, by the end of the night, she’d be dead.
re you sure this is it?” Matt asked, his brow creasing in worry.
Taryn held the sheet of directions in her hand and stared at it again. She was almost certain she’d read them correctly, but the gravel road they were bouncing over was washed out in several places, and they’d been on it for at least ten minutes. Walled by towering trees on both sides, there wasn’t anywhere they could turn around; right place or not they’d have to keep moving.
“Yeah, I think so,” she mumbled. “Can’t back out, can’t turn around. We may as well keep going.”
“Okay,” Matt replied, his voice lacking enthusiasm.
“It’s supposed to be a cabin that the director of the program owns. She thought I’d like staying there instead of a hotel,” Taryn explained to break the silence, although Matt already knew this.
“Well, it’s private enough,” Matt winked, casting a good-natured glance over at her, “in case you want to get frisky.”
She laughed and batted him in the arm with the directions just as the road opened up before them. “See!” she pointed. “There it is!”
The cabin looked like a Swiss chalet with its gingerbread trim and decks overlooking the sweeping valley. Dense vegetation and a thick forest grew around it, but the lawn was cleared and offered a gently sloping expanse of greenery landscaped with benches, shrubbery, and arbors. “Oh, and it’s pretty, too!” she gushed.
A silver Camaro idled in the driveway and when they pulled up a short, plump, middle-aged woman in thick glasses got out and waved. “That must be Thelma,” Taryn whispered, even though nobody could hear them. “Be prepared: she’s a peppy kind of person.”
“Hello!” Thelma called as Taryn and Matt got out. Taryn was eager to stretch her legs and thought it felt fantastic after being in the car for almost seven hours. Matt was the kind of person who, once on the road, didn’t want to stop.
“This is beautiful,” Taryn gushed, turning towards her. “Really. I love it.”
“I’m so glad you like it,” Thelma beamed, immediately engulfing Taryn into a tight embrace. She eyed Matt with curiosity but was too polite to ask. “We had it built several years ago and don’t get to use it as much as we’d like. We
like to put guests up in it when they come.” Taryn thought a shadow crossed over Thelma’s face at this, but then it disappeared as suddenly as it came.
Taryn automatically began running the logistics of the place in her head. The small liberal arts college was located half an hour away, but Taryn wouldn’t have to go every day. Her classes ran for two months and only took place on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She’d have the rest of the time to spend to herself, something she was greatly looking forward to. The classes were for the community so anyone could enroll; anyone, that is, who had an appreciation for historical architecture and painting. So far there were already twenty students signed up and classes didn’t start for another week.
“Well, come in, and I’ll show you around!” Thelma hollered, interrupting her thoughts.
Taryn felt grimy from the drive; her long, red curly hair was greasy and tangled. She yearned for a shower, a bath, anything that included running water and soap. She could also do with some junk food but figured that would have to wait.
The cabin boasted four bedrooms and two living areas. The “formal” living room contained a seating area, an antique chest filled with board games and playing cards, and a picture window that looked out onto the yard. The “family room” had a forty-six inch flat screen television, a computer with satellite Internet, two comfortable floral-print couches that also let out into beds, and a fish tank without any fish.
All four of the bedrooms were at the top of a spindly, winding staircase. While Taryn went up with Thelma to check them out, Matt got busy exploring the kitchen. She could hear his enthusiastic moans of excitement over a bread maker and a waffle iron even a floor away. “He loves to cook,” she explained when one particular excited “whoop” echoed through the walls, causing Thelma to jump a little.
“Honey, if you have a man to cook for you, you’ve hit the jackpot.” Thelma patted her arm.
Taryn wasn’t sure how to respond, especially since she and Matt hadn’t discussed the status of their relationship yet, or if they even had one. So she just let the remark go.
The bedrooms were cozy and well-decorated in log cabin style: thick wooden bed posts, mountain landscapes on the walls, rag rugs on the hardwood floors, and patchwork quilts. She placed her suitcase in a room that didn’t get the morning sunlight and decided she’d let Matt figure out his own sleeping arrangements.
Thelma continued walking her around, showing her where the thermostat and breaker box were, just in case, and the log pile if they wanted to build a fire. It was November now and getting cold. “Shouldn’t be any snow for a long while yet,” Thelma laughed. “But you never know. Don’t worry, though. If you get stuck we’ll come in and dig you out!”
“Good to know,” Taryn agreed.
“Listen, I want to give you a day to get settled after your long ride but tomorrow I’d like for you to come in to town, look around, have lunch with us, and see your classroom. Will that work?”
While Matt brought in the rest of the luggage Taryn got directions from Thelma and made plans for the next day. After she drove off Taryn stood on the front porch and let herself quieten down and just listen. The air was almost completely quiet with most of the birds having already migrated further south. She could hear but the faintest sound of the wind rustling through what was left of the leaves. There wasn’t another house for miles and the main road was nowhere in sight. They really were out in the middle of nowhere.
“So, what do you think?” Matt asked as he came out and joined her. He stood a few feet away, hands in his pockets, as though unsure of what he was meant to be doing. His tall, lanky frame was a little awkward, and she found the fact that he bit his bottom lip comforting. He certainly didn’t give off the vibe of someone who worked for NASA and made the money he did.
“It’s nice,” Taryn concluded. “Peaceful. So, do you think you’re going to be able to stay away from your office for a month? Will they live without you?”
“I don’t think so,” he smiled. “What about you?”
“I know I couldn’t,” she laughed.
“So how do you feel? Do you think it’s okay?”
Taryn took a deep breath, looked around, and exhaled. “I think so. Miss Dixie and I took some pictures and it all looks okay.” She patted the Nikon that dangled at her side. “Not a ghost in sight.”
Walking over to him she looped her arm through his and laid her head against his arm. Together, they watched the sun start sliding down behind the trees, the shadows creeping closer and closer.
att had built a fire in the living room fireplace and sitting before it was cozy, especially with a full tummy, but Taryn needed some air. And to be alone. She’d been with Matt for most of the day and still wasn’t used to having someone around all the time. Sometimes she just needed to listen to her own thoughts.
It was too cold to stay outside for long, but she slipped on her old Carhartt jacket and pulled a wool cap down over her ears before letting herself out on the front porch.
That far out in the country, without any lights or haze from the city, it was almost pitch black. She’d never been to this part of Georgia before, not even to drive through it. The northeastern side was different in geography than the flat and sprawl area around Atlanta she was used to.
Thanks to the moon she could just about make out the faint tree line that encircled the lawn, but the trees were hazy at best now. There were very few night sounds this time of year, but the sky was alive with stars and their brightness was dazzling against the darkness.
Taryn crossed her arms in front of her chest and stared into the night, an unsettling feeling sinking in. It wasn’t unlike the feeling of being perched at the top of a rollercoaster hill, getting ready to fall down. Matt’s lasagna and garlic bread had been delicious, and the cheesecake she’d made for dessert (okay, so technically adding whipped cream wasn’t making it, but still…) left her full to the point of bursting. The house was gorgeous, the long ride up not as uncomfortable as she’d made it out to be, and Thelma had been unquestionably pleasant. She was actually looking forward to the job. She’d never taught before but figured it might be time to try something new.
The events over the past six months were enough to make anyone feel a little disconcerted. She’d gone from working in neglected, incredibly interesting old houses with few people for company and little excitement to seeing ghosts and becoming involved in mysteries she still wasn’t sure she had all the pieces to. And her beloved camera, Miss Dixie, that had been her constant companion for years but was now helping her lift the veil between this world and the next. Not to mention, of course, the grief of losing her husband. She still dealt with it on a daily basis, although the hard grief was becoming less and less biting these days; the time was passing by more quickly.
starting to go her way. Matt, her childhood friend of more than twenty years came through for her at the last minute. He’d always been there for her as a friend but now they were starting down a new road together, one neither of them had a map for. They were both timid in this area, despite the fact their physical relationship had escalated quickly, but she felt they might be on the cusp of something great. Taryn was excited and stimulated in a way that was completely opposite to the one night stands she had suffered since Andrew's death.
It was no wonder she was confused.
This place, though… it had potential.
Maybe this is where the rest of my life starts
, she thought with hope. An owl hooted in the distance, as though in agreement.
Miss Dixie hadn’t caught any suspicious images in any of the pictures she’d taken around the property that afternoon. The house itself was rather new, built within the past ten years. She’d experienced no bad or unusual dreams since she’d been sleeping (and literally sleeping) with Matt.
Call her paranoid, but something was in the air.
“Hello, Queen,” Matt called shyly, softly closing the door behind him as he stepped out to join her.
She laughed at his pet name, one he’d given her as a kid when she’d made up a story about descending from Swedish (like she even knew where Sweden was) royalty.
“Hey, sorry,” she apologized. “I just needed to come out for a minute.”
Matt didn’t like to leave her alone for long. He had no problem being alone himself, actually preferred it, but now that she was with him he didn’t like to be more than a short distance away. This both charmed and unsettled Taryn, someone who had gotten used to being by herself most of the time. In a moment of rare abandonment for him, as he was drifting off to sleep one night he’d whispered he was afraid of losing her, of waking up to find she was just a dream.
Still a little unsure what the boundaries were, Matt walked over to her and put his hands in his coat pocket. “It’s a nice night. Quiet,” he remarked.
“You forget how much background noise there is these days, even in the suburbs,” she agreed. “Overhead planes, television sets blaring from next door, car engines, sirens… Of course, I live in downtown Nashville with windows that haven’t been updated in twenty years. I get it all.”
“I like this. I don’t get out in the country much. Mom’s got about ten acres outside of Little Rock, but I haven’t been there in years.”
Taryn nodded, understanding. Her parents had been aloof and disinterested in her before their car crash, but they'd loved her and she felt it. And she’d certainly been loved by her grandmother, someone she’d lived with even before the death of her parents. But Matt had gotten a raw deal. He had never felt love or acceptance from any of his family members and they were all still alive.
“I, uh, put my bags in your room. If that’s okay,” he added quickly, not meeting her eyes.
“If you want me to sleep in another room I can. I just thought…”
Taryn laughed and stepped closer to him. “I would’ve gotten in bed with you no matter where you slept.”