Time doesn’t heal all wounds—at least not according to Drew Harlow. Getting out of bed every day to face the world was struggle enough. Healing? That was for other people. Normal people. All she needed was to get through one more year of high school. Graduate. Move on.
Shuffling through the sand, she seated herself at the edge of a waterlogged tree trunk. She came to this same spot at Jupiter Cove every day. Sitting alone on the empty beach allowed her solace to think without interruption. Without everyone asking her if she was okay. Here, she could stop living on autopilot and breathe—really breathe—keeping time with the steady pulse of the waves as they washed against the shore, dragging small rocks and pebbles back into the deep.
The late October evening left her chilled and shivering. The wind rolled up and over the rocky cliffs leaving her long hair a mess of tangles in its wake. She zipped her sweater and wrapped her arms around her bent knees for warmth.
Somehow, she’d made it through the summer without Shane. He’d been gone nine months now. Nine months and she still had no answers. Shane was gone. Dead. How could she move on when she knew he couldn’t be gone?
Shane wouldn’t leave her. She knew it in her bones just as assuredly as she knew her own name. If his car had crashed into the Coda River, someone would have found him. But his body had never been found. He’d disappeared with nothing left behind other than his car sinking through the icy water.
Heartache gripped her every day. It was like an ice block that refused to melt. Her eyes watered and she dabbed them dry before tears could fall.
A crisp wind sent another shiver across her skin. It was late, and she was cold, but she dreaded going home. Gran would still be up, ready to ask her all sorts of well-meaning questions offering up one platitude or another that didn’t help her at all. She got it; Gran meant well, but there were times…
Drew stood and wiped sand from her jeans before turning for the weathered, wooden steps to the top of the cliffs. She plucked her shoes from the sand and held them as she put one foot in front of the other up the narrow, crooked stairway. No traffic busied the coastal road tonight. It rarely did on Sunday nights. Not in Atlas Cliffs.
But there were other things that moved in the dark.
She scurried across the road to her house. Moths dived toward the streetlamps—like little suicide bombers without a cause. Crickets chirped, but not as fast as they had just weeks ago. Maybe they knew their days of singing were coming to an end.
As she neared the porch steps, she heard a faint voice, barely a whisper, uneven and hoarse. Someone, or rather something lurked in those shadows.
“Please, go away!”
They usually left when she asked. Usually.
Drew’s breaths quickened, misting in front of her as the air chilled around her. She closed her eyes, waiting, hoping, but the voice rustled again, closer, like dry leaves scraping across the pavement. She hated that she couldn’t make out the words. She never knew what they said. But she wasn’t going to stick around to find out. They always whispered the same, unintelligible nothings at her. Maybe they did it to torture her? Or maybe they couldn’t help it. Either way, they’d been a part of her life for as long as she could remember.
She sprinted up to the yellow door and dove inside, throwing the deadbolt. She leaned against the wall. Could a door keep away whatever prowled outside?
Drew waited, listening. Whatever lurked out there seemed content to remain in the cold night and standing around in the vestibule wouldn’t change anything.
A glow of scattered night lights lit the parlor in warm light. The slow drip of the kitchen faucet hitting the metal sink was her only greeting. No ghosts—and no Gran either. She must have gone to bed early. Just as well. Maybe a life of being alone was Drew’s destiny. Her mother had taken off to chase her dreams and follow some guy around the world, only to leave Drew behind with a shattered father. He’d made his living at sea working on fishing boats, but even he’d left her—he sure as hell couldn’t drag a five-year-old with him. So, he’d brought her here to live with Gran.
He used to come home every couple of months with gifts in tow to make up for missed birthdays, and money to help Gran, but those visits had become fewer, the times between them growing more distant until Drew couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen him. And if he did come home, he’d never earn back the title of Dad in her eyes. That ship had sailed. Literally.
She took her bone-weary body up the creaking stairs. She’d been up way too early for work and spent the rest of the day on the water. Surfing alone kept her sanity intact.
A stained-glass lamp glowed atop a pedestal table in the hallway, giving Drew soft light to navigate by. Gentle snoring escaped Gran’s closed door, and not wanting to wake her, she crept to the end of the hall and into her bedroom, turning on the light. An easel loomed in the corner, complete with unfinished artwork. She ran her fingers over the textured canvas. She hadn’t painted in months. Painting used to calm her, but nothing did anymore. Not since Shane.
Rummaging through a pile of wrinkled clothes, Drew found a t-shirt to wear to bed. She shoved the rest onto the floor to deal with later. Changing quickly, she flicked the light off before crawling into bed, burying herself under the duvet.
Tomorrow was Monday. Another week of school. Another week of work at the Casting Spoon, a local restaurant on the boardwalk. Another week of biding her time before she could leave this place. Another week without any news about Shane. Soon, it would be a year since his accident.
Something had to be done. If she couldn’t find Shane, perhaps she could at least find out what had happened. Not what was in the police reports, but what had really happened. Anything to have some peace. Peace for her. Peace for Shane.
Drew fell into a fitful sleep, knowing what was coming: the recurring nightmare that came every night. Tonight, was no different. She always hoped for a beautiful dream where she could see Shane again, one where she’d want to stay forever. But that dream never came. Only this one. It was the same every night, and it terrified her. Knowing it was a dream didn’t help. She could never wake from it of her own will.
Just like the night before, and the night before that, Drew found herself walking along a forest path. Dampness penetrated her body to the bone, freezing her feet with each step. Salt air whirled around her, whipping at her thin pajama bottoms. Below her, rocks and pine needles stabbed her toes. Above her, a full moon illuminated thick fog that rolled through the trees. Spiders seemed to hang from every low-hanging branch, balancing on thick webs. A particularly large one with furry legs weaved its silk around a grasshopper, who struggled in its death throes.
Drew rubbed her bare arms, now pricked with goosebumps. She pinched the skin on her arm, hard, but all it did was leave her bruised and hurting. Why couldn’t she shake herself out of this? She continued, unable to stop.
She jumped, startled as something screeched overhead. It was just an owl. The bird glared at her with yellow eyes, not of this world.
The trail narrowed ahead and closed in on her. She forced branch after branch aside only to have them swing back in her face. Ahead of her, tangled bushes rustled, a low growl rumbling from within. She quickened her pace to a run, only to catch her foot on an exposed root, tripping her. She crumpled to the ground, winding herself.
Struggling for breath, she used an overhanging branch to pull herself up.
That was when everything changed. That is when it always changed—warping, morphing.
The trees melted around her like too much candle wax, the terrain turning rugged, rocky, and wet. Stone slabs rose around her, entombing her in some sort of underground tunnel. She couldn’t breathe. It didn’t matter that she knew this wasn’t real—it felt real. The wet stone beneath her feet was hard and slick; the damp air was cold and penetrating.
Her hands clawed over the walls and ceiling, mud caking in her nails. Something crawled over her arm, and she slapped it. She was going to die. Dream or no dream, if she didn’t get out, she’d suffocate.
A strange force, like she was a puppet on strings, compelled her forward, step after step. She couldn’t stop. She didn’t want to stop. This was either the way out—or pushing her farther into darkness. A peculiar light brighter than any bulb sparked in the darkness ahead of her, illuminating the exit to the cave, and growing brighter.
But this light was meant to torment her. She knew that. Just as she knew she would never reach the exit.
She couldn’t, because a stark figure stood before her, blocking her way.
The image sharpened, like a camera finding its focus. She saw him, not two meters before her, a man, bone-thin and deathly white. He wore a long, ragged coat, which he slung over his skeletal shoulders, and a hat. He turned to her with vacant eyes, completely devoid of color.
She didn’t know who he was, only that he came every night.
The words yelled in her head, but the dream kept rolling on, relentless. It had to end. It always ended. And she’d wake up. Her body trembled and her knees buckled. She hit the ground. Hard. A sudden burning pain cut through her thigh. She ran her hand over her leg, and the thin material of her pajamas came back warm and wet. Blood. Blood coated her hands. And all the while the man gazed upon her and did nothing.
He hovered over her. His cadaverous, wrinkled skin moved as his jaw contracted. Wild, silver hair hung to his chin.
But then something happened. Something that wasn’t supposed to happen—that never happened.
Lifting the sleeve of his ragged coat, he revealed a bony arm and wrist, which he turned toward her. A round, shiny object dangled from a chain hanging over his corpse-like finger. He used that finger to point to a mound of moss-covered dirt in front of a towering barren tree. His thin, pursed lips moved again, but no words came out. Drew’s soundless scream ripped from her like a helpless victim in a silent film.
Bolting upright, she gasped for air. Sweat gathered on her forehead and her hair stuck to her cheeks. She lifted the blankets to feel her leg. No blood.
Breathe, Drew. Breathe!
Another dream. She wasn’t freezing in the wilderness. She was at home, in her bed. The digital clock glowed 7:14. She grabbed an elastic hair tie from the bedside table and secured her damp hair off her clammy neck.
What in the hell did it all mean? Night after night, it was the same. The forest. The cold. That man! But this time was different. This time, he'd pointed at something. The dream—the dream that was always the same—had changed.
Her eyes burned from a lack of good sleep. Her head ached and she flopped back on the bed, letting them close again, only to have the alarm blaring at her. With her face still planted in the pillow, she hit the off button so hard it almost broke. This constantly troubled sleep was kicking her ass. Gran had pills to help her sleep. Maybe she should try one. If she didn’t decipher the dream, and fast, this was going to kill her. Maybe if she could figure it all out the nightmares would stop, and she’d be able to sleep—peacefully!
Peeling herself out of bed, she headed for a quick shower, not bothering to wash her hair. She just needed to get through the day intact. Finish the day. Finish the year and move away from Atlas Cliffs. Maybe if she left, she'd be free from this curse, the dreams, and all the encounters with…them. She didn’t even know what they were. What was she supposed to call them? Ghosts? Shadows? Wandering souls? Her haunted hometown seeped into every inch of her skin like a sunburn. Yes, she had to get away. Get far away. Maybe she would attend college in a big city where no one knew her.
Would the shadows follow?
Time wasn’t on her side. Wrapped in a towel, she dashed to her bedroom and sat on the pink-cushioned chair. Staring at the reflection in the dresser mirror, she leaned closer. A sun-kissed glow clung to her cheeks and shoulders. Bright copper hair dangled out of the elastic all over her head. She yanked it out, flinching as it pulled a few strands along with it. She flipped her head upside down and ran her fingers through to ease the mess of tangles, the curls loosening into gentle waves. A cascade of freckles spread across her forehead and nose. Gran called them bricini. Little stars. Maybe they were cute when she was little, but not anymore.
Dark circles beneath her eyes popped against her pale skin. She grabbed a tube of concealer and blended it to cover what she could. Mascara and lip gloss helped too, but it was all a façade, a lie that covered up everything going on inside her. If anyone actually saw what she did—the sad, troubled face staring back at her in the mirror, how would they react?
It never went well. The only person she could talk to was Shane. But he’d been taken from her.
She dressed in stretchy jeans and a plain t-shirt but caught a glimpse in the full-length mirror behind her door and grimaced at her disheveled appearance. A distraction from her tired face would be better. Yanking the shirt off, she chose a loose, V-neck tunic with an abstract print instead. It would have to do. Grabbing her backpack, she ventured down the stairs to the kitchen.
Gran sat at the bench seat by the kitchen window and looked up with smiling eyes. Her ashen hair draped over her shoulders in unruly strands, but it matched her hippie soul. Drew grabbed a blueberry muffin from a plate on the counter and sat across from her at the table. She pulled a piece of the soft muffin and popped it in her mouth, not ready for the tart berries as they hit her taste buds.
“Good morning. Want me to make you something? That muffin isn’t much for breakfast.”
Drew smiled. Even after all these years away, Gran still hung on to her Irish accent. “No. I have to go, or I’ll be late.”
“Aye. Always running.” Gran turned the page of the newspaper and put on reading glasses.
Drew pushed her chair back and got up. “I’ll be home late. I work tonight.”
“Have you heard from your father?”
Her insides clenched. Just the mention of her father was enough to set her off. “No. Gabe doesn’t contact me anymore.” Gran should have known that. Gabe hadn’t called her since her birthday last January. One week before the accident.
“The boat will be out longer than they thought. He’ll call when he can.”
“Whatever. Let me know if I can bring anything home.” Drew bent down and hugged Gran who patted her arm.
“I’m working until dinner. I don’t need a thing, dear.” Gran looked up over her glasses. Lines deepened across her forehead. “He loves you, ya know.”
She doubted that. Gabe didn’t know what love was. How could someone claim to love you and turn their back on you time and time again?
“That’s debatable. Anyway, aren’t you supposed to be stepping down and letting Nellie run the shop? I don’t think this is what retirement is supposed to be, Gran.”
“I’m keeping my nose out of it. I’m a silent partner now, and we have a deal. She agreed to keep me on part-time. The woman has good business sense, I’d say.” Gran winked and fanned the paper out in front of her on the table. “Be safe, dear.”
“I will. Say hi to Nel for me.”
Drew threw her bag over her shoulder and waved behind her as she walked from the kitchen to the foyer. Shoving her feet into a pair of Converse, she bounded out of the front door with her car keys dangling from her fingers, and down the porch steps.
Their aging Cape Cod house stood across the road from the cliffs and the crashing waves below. Years of salty air had whipped the warm-hued cedar shingles to a faded gray. The sun danced across the water and cut through the sea breeze warming her face, unusual for the end of October, a false calm before the storm. For coastal New England, it meant storms and snow. Just like the night Shane had disappeared. God, she missed him.
A familiar nagging feeling that something was off came over her again, like when dark clouds move in on a clear day and everyone knows a storm is coming. She should skip school and go out on the water. What could she learn in school feeling like this? But she’d missed too much already. If she wanted to graduate, she had to break the cycle.
She tossed her bag into the back seat of the old Volkswagen. Rust started to eat away at the blue paint, and she was paying to have something fixed every other month. She wished she could afford a new car, but the busy season had wound down with the end of summer, and that meant fewer hours. She’d made enough to pay her bills, and she refused to burden Gran by asking for money.
Sliding into the front seat, she started up the engine. Adam’s Ale Road wound its way along the cliffs taking her deeper into town. The rock face protected the land from the ocean—most of the time. Rolling the windows down, she inhaled the salty air. Gulls swooped over the cliffs contemplating their next meal. Leaves on the trees turned their new shades of red, yellow, and orange. It was a gorgeous late-fall day. Postcard perfect. If her insides matched the world around her, she’d be fine, but she was far from that.
The face of the old man from her dream kept creeping back into her mind, but the images were distorted, and foggy. His features, which were always so clear to her in her dream, were so frustratingly vague in the light of day, like a name she couldn’t quite remember. She couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d appear without warning like he was somehow watching her. It was impossible, of course. He only—and always—existed in her dreams.
She rubbed tight muscles in the back of her neck. Her car swerved as she rounded the turn into town a little too fast and she slowed down. Had Shane gotten distracted and lost control of his car like this? The roads had been slippery that night and he crashed.
At least they said he did. But they’d never found him. She couldn’t wrap her mind around it; there was something she was missing.
Side streets branched off the road as it wound through town along the water. Seagulls owned the sky. They cried in warning fighting for food scraps. A sinking feeling came over her. Not the same constant unease that hung over her like a storm cloud. This was different and she couldn’t put her finger on it.
But dammit if she wasn’t going to.