A vacant heart and a dark soul had become his companion for more years than anyone preferred to recall.
The struggle played out where earth and insect had long since dissolved the muscle and ligaments from my silent bones. Trembling hands wiped away stained sweat that slipped from a grizzled chin to the soaked steel blade and saturated earth below. A heartbeat faded in the inky pool invading hallowed ground. Then his blackened fingernails dug furiously into tough hide as he lowered the blade yet again. His life now consumed by brutality, he had once been a gentle man.
It was a secluded shed in the thick woods that captured my life and soul. It should have been safe. I swear we thought it was safe. But we were wrong. There was no way we could have known what would transpire, what kind of darkness lurked within that small black casket.
And I know he will forever blame himself for laying me to rest in the belly of the devil. But, he had no choice, no other way to cover up the unusual circumstance of my untimely death.
Marking a progression of footprints from deserted car to quiet forest, only the crumpled grass seemed to care there was once a breathing presence there.
Frank’s gate faltered when he noticed Amy waiting near the walkway. Her eyes narrowed as he neared. Definitely not the person he wanted to anger. Sweat trickled beneath his collar and he pulled on his necktie to loosen the grip on his throat. He gave her a quick kiss in passing and headed to the waiting vehicle. The engine started and he shifted into drive without another word between them. Amy’s shoulders sank as she turned away.
I hate this place.
Amy detested everything about Eastbend and regretted moving there from the first day she began unpacking her chipped dinner plates and unused china. An existence similar to that of an amoeba under a microscope, she found herself moving, breathing and all the while studied from a distance. In less than a year their lives had been drastically altered. Frank had changed — practically a stranger to his own family — and Amy began to believe that even she had grown distant to her husband and her daughter, Tiffany. She wondered if, someday, her hatred for Eastbend would devour her soul.
That day she had a heavy load on her mind. There was much to be done before the coming winter and she cursed Frank for having to work on the weekend she had planned to accomplish it all. Hopefully Tiffany would behave while she concentrated on the tasks at hand.
Amy skirted the side of the house – approaching the corner of their existence that secluded her contempt from prying eyes – when an uneasy stirring interrupted her thoughts. She turned to see the woman who lived across the street – one of many who refuse to associate with anyone outside of their circle – studying her from the barren porch. Offering a half wave, Amy managed a smile, but there was no returned response. Her neighbor stood still, silently staring through her as if she was seeing something other than a living, breathing person waving at her. Amy looked behind her to see if she was watching something or someone else off in the distance.
A breeze whistled past empty branches in the cool morning air, but nothing of real interest captured Amy’s attention. After a moment, she turned back to the stationary figure across the divide. Just as she caught a glimpse of her felt jacket and disaffected stare, a dark construction vehicle abruptly passed.
Worn tires clicked on the uneven pavement and she could see the words “SymCo Construction” lettered in crimson red and deep green on the side doors. When the vehicle had passed, leaves danced then fell lifeless again on the bitter pavement.
Amy searched the porch of the adjacent house for the woman she despised, but longed to understand. The chalky concrete stoop stood cold and lifeless. Her neighbor was gone.
Confused and alone, Amy stood silently, glaring at the door. She tried hard to remember the words Frank had used to convince her to leave their inner-city flat.
Tiffany would be safe in a small town like Eastbend.
“Tiffany will be annoyed to death here,” she whispered through pale lips.
She flashed one more frustrated glance in the direction Frank had gone before heading to the back yard.
“Stay close and don’t go near the woods!” she called to Tiffany, who was playing on the back patio.
Her daughter said nothing as she focused solely on the box of toys in front of her. Amy smiled gratefully. She was glad to see she was still unaffected by the world around her.
At one time she wouldn’t have thought twice about her daughter’s safety in such a small and peaceful town. That was part of the reason she finally agreed to move here. But the latest incident had frightened her.
What was even more unsettling was that no one talked about it, at least to her. She’d discovered a small article hidden in the personal interest pages of the local newspaper. The reporter callously mentioned additional unconfirmed reports of a disappearance in the area, a deserted car on the side of the highway.
“Local officials say there’s no reason to be alarmed…”
Blah, blah, blah…
Her neighbors disregarded what was happening like they ignored her, as if by keeping it at a distance they wouldn’t have to deal with their fears. Why did everything strange about the town have to be mentioned in whispers or not at all?
Tiffany will be safer here.
It didn’t help calm her fears that the woods along the edge of their property were so deep and thick. There were some well-worn paths, especially the one leading to the Great River schoolyard, but most of the forest was unexplored and potentially dangerous.
Amy also worried that the nearby housing construction would endanger local children should they wander too close to the large equipment or trip and fall into one of the holes dug for a concrete foundation. She looked forward to the impending growth of Eastbend and regretted how long it was taking.
Tiffany would be safe in a small town like Eastbend.
Dark curls fell over Tiffany’s shoulders as she knelt in front of her dollhouse in pink overall pants with worn knees and a chocolate milk-stained, white, cotton shirt. She was seemingly unaffected by Amy’s frustrations and unaware her mother wasn’t the only one watching her play. She began to hum a song her mother used to sing to her when she awoke from a bad dream.
At only five years old she was more perceptive to the emotional struggles of others than typical children her age. She pretended to ignore what was happening between her parents, although she intuitively understood more than they could ever articulate themselves. Her uniquely developed awareness was due to exposure to something dark but illuminating in the deepest recesses of her most awful nightmares – a secret she couldn't explain and her parents had never thought to inquire about.
Most parents in Eastbend wouldn't allow Tiffany to play with their children. They justified it by saying they didn't know the girl or her family well enough, but the truth was they feared her unusual insight. Amy’s heart broke to see her daughter cry over their cruel rejection. She was only looking for a friend to play.
Tiffany also yearned to explore the woods like other kids, but feared it at the same time. Since the trees skirted their property so enticingly, why wouldn’t she be tempted to investigate, even if it was only the portion along the edge of the yard? Someday she would forget the haunting forest sounds – the ones that caused her body to shudder – pleading for her to yield to the voices calling her in the night.
This day was not appropriate for journeying far from home, though. Her Barbie had too many problems to be left alone with a neglectful Ken in their dollhouse kitchen. The time to explore outside her boundaries would come soon enough.
With assistance from her small hands, Barbie and Ken began their day with an awkwardly silent breakfast. Then he gave her a quick peck on the cheek as he hopped onto George, his red tyrannosaurus, and raced off to work at the office.
“Darn Ken. How come I haff ta do all the work?” she uttered in her best Barbie voice.
A sound in the distance captured Tiffany’s attention away from Barbie’s house-cleaning woes. She turned her head to see what had interrupted her play.
Leaves crackled as her mother pushed the cumbersome mower. Blots of yellow and brown drifted to the ground behind her. Otherwise the forest was still. Tiffany stood and faced the tall oaks and thick pine, peered down at the doll in her chubby little hands and then back to the forest. Was something there? She wrinkled her nose and waited for another minute, studying the woods.
The quiet plea echoed from dark soil to circling air and Tiffany stood quietly watching. After a moment, all seemed as usual, nothing interesting enough to distract the young girl from a dilemma of Barbie proportion. She returned to playing, keeping a small recess of her attention on a darkened place somewhere behind her.
“And wash your own plate too! Dumb Ken,” Tiffany shouted through the doll house window.
Barbie went back to cleaning the dishes then sat in the grass for a moment to relax. Her long, platinum hair was tangled in a large, green rubber band and her nails were still perfectly painted red.
There it was again. She was sure of it that time. There was a sound whispering through the trees, one she had never heard before. Someone was calling to her soul. Turning her head to peer behind, she stared in the direction of the forest. This time the sound that aroused her senses kept her attention.
The forest seemed dark. The sun usually brightened up small areas here and there, but on this day it couldn’t reach the places it usually shined most. The sky wasn’t unusually overcast. Warm rays of light shone on the lawn and the patio where Ken was neglecting his wife’s need for maid service. Yet, it seemed as though it could not reach the forest. Tiffany watched, mesmerized by her surroundings, when all at once she saw it.
The forest had suddenly awakened.
At first, she heard a rustling in the bushes, causing branches and leaves to sway. She looked for her mother, but Amy had disappeared around the side of the house. She wasn’t the one calling to her curious soul. So she returned her gaze back to the forest and whatever was waiting for her there.
After a couple moments, she stood from her crouched position in front of the dollhouse and started toward the forbidden woods. It wouldn’t hurt to take a quick look. Just stand at the edge of the forest and peer in.
Tiffany hadn’t gone far when she realized she was missing something. She stopped and looked back at Barbie lounging on the grass and lazy Ken atop his red dinosaur. She returned to the patio, picked up the dolls and smoothed Barbie’s matted hair and crumpled dress. The closure of Ken’s beige pants popped open as Tiffany scratched crusty mac-n-cheese sauce from the top of his slick head. They needed to look presentable. Ken would probably take Barbie out for a make-up dinner later.
She turned back to the forest, to the tall evergreens and brilliant oaks. Alert eyes searched with keen awareness. Something was in there and curiosity began to take over prudence. She was no longer afraid of the darkness in front of her.
Tiffany crept to the edge of the forest. The smell of decaying leaves sedated her as she closed her eyes, enjoying the warm fall sun on her face. A twig snapped in the nearby brush, causing her to startle, and her eyes flittered open in search of the source.
Colored leaves flapped on the wind as the distant, humming lawnmower echoed past the side of the house and through the waiting forest. It was then she saw a dark figure in the distance.
Nearly empty branches fanned the air as if waving for her to play. A flash of black grazed a large bush and made fallen leaves dance. A curious smile crossed her lips. She had to investigate, wouldn’t have to go too far before returning to the patio.
The sun slipped behind a thick cloud as Tiffany moved toward the soft soil that made up the forest floor. Long twisted branches blew toward her in heavy gusts of wind that tugged at her hair and clothing. The thick brush opened like thin, boney arms, allowing an uninterrupted path to proceed.
Just then a clink and a clank broke Tiffany’s concentration as a rush of dirt and leaves circled in the air around her. The sound of bicycle wheels whizzed along the nearby darkened asphalt. Clanks and clunks resonated as tires went from pavement to forest trail. The smile slipped from her lips as she noted a strange figure seated on the noisy bike. An oddly dressed woman rode past, wearing glasses with no earpieces propped up only by the bridge of her upturned nose.
The young girl would have laughed at her silly appearance if she hadn’t felt an uncomfortable chill tingling under her skin. She watched the woman who stared deeply back at her as if she was seeing right through her, as if she knew Tiffany’s deepest secrets.
Once the bicycle and its rider disappeared past the trees and brush, the leaves around her settled at her feet. Tiffany’s attention was drawn back to the woods before her and she took a step forward. The dolls slipped from her hands as she advanced into the woods. The branches and leaves closed in around her, scraping against the crisp white sleeves of her shirt.
The chores were nearly complete when Amy felt the hair on her arms stand on end. Passing it off as merely the cool air, she rubbed her arms until the skin was smooth once again. Leaves circled through the air and slipped carelessly to the pavement in front of her sidewalk. Her eyes followed a trail of dying foliage to the silent front door of the cold, pale house across the road. Staring for no known reason, she pondered the secrets those walls concealed. What unseen darkness tormented her neighbor’s thoughts?
The turn of a dulled, round knob shook Amy from her contemplation. The door was beginning to open. Had her neighbor seen her staring at the house? She would be too humiliated to face the woman with her reproving stare. Embarrassed, she turned her head downward and began pushing the mower again, feeling accusing eyes studying her deliberate movements. All the while she attempted to convince herself she wasn’t a laboratory subject.
I’m not a germ on a slide.
Before she finished mowing and clipping and putting everything away, the wind began to pick up again and the ‘kerchink’ of a bell broke into Amy’s thoughts. Out of habit she searched the forest trail for the oncoming bicyclist. Within moments an old bike with rounded fenders and a thick frame emerged. A woman rode out of the woods with an old-fashioned hairdo, piled high upon her head and glasses on the end of her nose that appeared to have been glued there.
Amy watched curiously as the strange woman rode by, staring back at her as if she could see into her soul. The wind rushed through complacent trees, piercing her thoughts as it whispered to her.
She glanced over at the patio where Tiffany had been crouched in front of her dollhouse. At the moment she realized her daughter was no longer there, Amy felt a lump form at the top of her throat. She couldn’t swallow it back or force it out. Only total relief or all-out panic could settle it.
She turned to the odd woman on the ancient bike, but she was no longer in sight. Amy scanned the back of the house, searching for some sign of her daughter.
Tiffany will be safe.
Amy called out Tiffany’s name in a voice she barely recognized. She cleared her throat and called again, a little louder, heading toward the house and rushing clumsily through the back screen door. She searched every room, calling out her daughter’s name in panicked succession. Echoed cries for Tiffany could be heard into the cold street.
The sound of footsteps racing down the hard, oak planks inside announced her return as she slowly opened the door. Scanning the rear section of their property and the wooded area beyond, Amy’s blood pulsed through the veins and arteries inside her trembling body. Tiny beads of sweat turned cold as they rolled across her exposed skin. The forest was uncommonly still.
Tiffany will be safe… Tiffany will be safe… Tiffany will be safe…
Amy frantically searched the yard for her daughter. As she scanned the edge of the nearby woods again, she saw something lying in the grass at the very edge of the forest. She started down the steps, slowly at first, but then picked up speed as she neared the tree line. She knelt to examine what she had found then stood up immediately and searched the trees ahead of her. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she screamed out into the forest.
Amy’s desperate voice echoed through the trees and the empty concrete foundations nearby as two dolls fell from her hands to the cool grass at her feet. Frank’s voice echoed in her anxious mind once again.
Tiffany would be safe in a small town like Eastbend...
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This page contains the first chapter of The Black Casket Legacy by Bobbi Hughes-Millman as a sample. This sample has been published with permission from the author and/or publisher of The Black Casket Legacy, whoever originally submitted the book for review.