Morgan Wheeler slammed her fist down on the steering wheel. Easing her blue sedan to the side of the road, she parked and turned off the ignition.
“Where the hell am I?”
She glared at her GPS, which had lost satellite several miles ago and never bothered to pick it up again. Irritated, she pushed the "off" switch and yanked it off the windshield, the suction cup of the mount making an audible 'pop' that reverberated off the closed car windows.
Reaching behind her, Morgan grabbed her bag and dug out her cell phone.
Just as she thought. NO SIGNAL.
Sighing, she pressed her head against the steering wheel. “Oh, this is just great.”
Restarting the device in the hopes that would somehow boost the signal, she got out of the car and scanned the road before her.
It was narrow and unpaved with nothing but woods on either side. The sun was low in the sky. She hoped her friends would figure out she was supposed to have arrived at the campsite an hour ago and send out a rescue party.
Morgan leaned against the car door and tried the cell phone again.
“SETI couldn’t get a signal out here!”
A squirrel appeared in the road just then, darting out from behind a rock. Human and creature studied each other for a moment before the squirrel stuffed a fallen acorn into its mouth and scampered away.
Morgan got back in the car and tried to decide whether or not to keep driving. If she did, she may arrive at the campsite after all, but if she stayed put, she’d have a better chance of being found.
She’d lost the main route about an hour ago, and Larry and the gang were probably on their way. They knew the drill. If Morgan was driving, Morgan was getting lost. It didn’t matter if she set out armed with a GPS, a map, a compass, and some breadcrumbs.
She had no sense of direction.
A flash of movement in the rearview mirror caught her eye. Morgan gasped and turned.
Though she’d seen just a brief glimpse, she would stake her life that what she’d seen was a man darting across the darkening road behind her car.
Morgan swallowed hard as her eyes scanned from left to right, trying to locate the shape again. She suddenly felt as she did whenever she saw a spider in her bedroom. If she left to get a can of Raid and came back to find the offending creature gone, her fear doubled.
The spider you couldn't see was much more frightening than the one you could.
Morgan started her car and pulled back onto the road before she fully realized what she was doing. She pressed her foot down so hard on the gas pedal, she stirred up a cloud of dust and her tires spit pebbles against the side of her car as she sped away.
She punched the radio dial, and a hard rap song thundered over the speakers. Flinching, she lowered the volume and pressed the scan button to find another station. She rolled her eyes. She swore her brother purposely left the volume cranked to kill whenever he borrowed her car just to scare the daylights out of her.
Morgan checked the rearview again. As if I’m not already scared enough.
Her eyes lit up when she saw the bright green sign.
ROUTE 32 WEST NEXT RIGHT
She’d need to turn around and head east to get to the campgrounds but, thankfully, she’d finally found the right route.
As she drove, however, her sense of triumph began to wane. Instead of widening into a paved main road, the dirt road looked as though it was narrowing.
Morgan screamed and yanked the steering wheel hard to the right as the car began to skid. It shuddered painfully along the edge of the road, taking out a few low-hanging branches before skidding to a graceless stop.
Morgan jumped out and ran to the passenger side. It was worse than she thought. She’d hit a sharp rock and blown out not one, but two of her tires and her entire passenger-side door looked as though it had been attacked with a rake.
Saying a silent prayer, she dug her cell phone out of her pocket once more.
Fighting back the urge to scream again, she got back into her car and slammed the door. The sound bounced off the trees, creating a hollow echo that seemed to go on endlessly.
Morgan watched as the last few rays of sunlight slipped behind the mountains. The scene would have been a peaceful one if it weren’t for her mounting sense of dread.
Scenes of terror filled her mind. Would that man (she was sure it had been a man) who’d been lurking in the woods find her stranded out here? Would he mug her or worse? Would she have to stay out on the road all night, vulnerable and alone?
Despite her best effort to maintain control of her emotions, a sob burst from Morgan's chest and she covered her face with her hands.
She hated getting lost. Nothing ever made her feel more helpless. Ever since she was a child, she got lost so easily, even her teachers would make fun of her. Unless escorted, she couldn’t even find her way from her classroom to the playground.
Thankfully, it got a little easier as she got older. She learned that as long as she had a route memorized by landmarks, getting from place to place was pretty easy, as long as she knew the area well.
In this flat, unfamiliar landscape, however, she was completely out of her element. There were no highway signs, and she’d been turned around for so long now, she didn’t even know which direction she was facing.
Morgan pulled her hands away from her face and wiped her eyes. Leaning her head back against the seat, she forced herself to take several deep breaths.
A flicker of light in her periphery made her turn. She squinted. Firefly? No. The light had an electric yellow cast, and it wasn’t flickering. It stayed on.
She stepped out of the car, and her heart leaped.
It was a house, and somebody was home!
Grabbing her purse from the back seat, she closed the car door and walked in the direction of the light.
As soon as she stepped into the woods, a swarm of insects encircled her. She batted them away with her hands, but they refused to budge, instead, hanging over her like a dark cloud.
“At least they’re not biting.”
As if the insect world misinterpreted this observation as a request, a mosquito landed on the back of her hand, another on her face. Morgan slapped at them and missed, throwing herself off balance. She went down hard on one knee and winced in pain.
Using a nearby tree for support, she righted herself and brushed off her jeans. Hobbling a bit now, she continued onward.
As she walked closer to the light source, she could see what she’d thought was a house was actually a log cabin.
It looked like something out of a storybook.
The cabin was small and made of a light-colored wood. As Morgan climbed the stairs, she saw that the open porch had an old-fashioned chair swing.
Morgan had just raised her hand to knock when the door to the cabin flew open. She gasped, jumping backward.
A man, perhaps in his mid-sixties, stepped forward, breathing hard. Steel-blue eyes narrowed on her, looking her up and down. He was so tall, his balding head skimmed the top of the door frame.
She cleared her throat, tucking a strand of blonde hair nervously behind her ear. “I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I didn’t mean to intrude. I just blew out my tires and my cell phone isn’t working. I was hoping I could use your phone?”
A crack in the man’s voice startled her. She looked up and saw that the hard lines around his eyes had softened. His gaze was wide now, searching.
“Julie?” he repeated.
Was it a trick of the fading light, or did she see tears in this man's eyes?
“Um, no,” Morgan said, taking another step back. “My name is Morgan. May I use your phone? I’ll just be a minute.”
“Of course, come on in.” He stepped backward, opening the door wide for her to pass.
The man smiled. “I’m sorry,” he said, his tone now calm and even. “I’m Nathan. You startled me. It’s just that you look so much like my daughter.”
“Oh.” Morgan could think of nothing else to say as she skittered past him and into what looked like a dark living room.
Nathan pointed to an old-fashioned landline phone on a desk in the corner. As he did this, the sleeve of his flannel shirt pulled taut past the elbow and Morgan could see, for a man his age, he was powerfully built.
“Are you hurt?”
The question startled her and she turned.
“Oh, the limp,” Morgan said. “No, I’m alright. I just slipped back in the woods. No big deal.”
“Why don’t I make us some tea?”
Nathan was out of the room before Morgan could decline the offer. She heard cabinets opening and closing in the kitchen. A drawer slid open and closed, followed by two more. Whoosh. Bang. Whoosh. Bang.
The man obviously didn’t know his own strength. If he kept yanking the drawers that hard, they were liable to fall off.
Taking her cell phone out of her pocket, she looked in her address book for Larry’s number. Then, she picked up the receiver to Nathan’s phone and began to dial.
It wasn’t until she’d pressed the seventh digit that she realized there was no dial tone.
She frowned and clicked the receiver button twice. Nothing.
“Uh, Mister… Nathan?”
The old man appeared from the kitchen, holding two steaming mugs. He looked from her face to the phone and shook his head.
“The phone is out again, isn’t it?” He said, putting one of the mugs down in front of her. He took the receiver from her hand and listened. He nodded and sighed as he hung up. “I’ve been after the phone company to come out here and fix it for weeks. The service keeps cutting in and out.”
“Well, it must be hard getting service way out here in…”
She waited for him to finish the sentence for her, to let her know what town she was in, but he only shook his head once more and sat down.
“Won’t you drink your tea?”
Morgan glanced down at the dark liquid, sudden panic rising in her chest. “I’m allergic.”
The older man chortled. “Who’s allergic to tea?”
“It’s the caffeine in it. It makes me sick.”
Morgan was surprised at how easily the lie slipped from her. No way was she going to drink something she hadn’t poured herself.
Nathan nodded slowly, his gaze never wavering from her face.
“Do you know if maybe one of your neighbors has a working phone?”
“Nah, the only neighbor I had lived about a mile away,” Nathan said, jerking a thumb toward a heavily curtained window. “He died a few months back.”
Morgan’s green eyes flitted about the room, taking in her surroundings. The sole source of light came from the desk lamp where she stood. It provided a warm, ambient light that reflected on the pale wood and sparse interior furnishings. The place was homey, neat and clean.
Her eyes landed on Nathan again and she quickly looked away.
“I’m sorry,” Nathan said, as though he’d read her mind. “I know I’m staring. Let me show you something.”
Morgan watched as one of his large hands slipped down to his pants. For one terrible second, she thought he was going to do something lewd, but then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a photo.
When he handed it to Morgan, her eyes widened at a dark stain along the inside of his flannel sleeve.
He didn’t seem to notice.
“This is my daughter, Julie.”
She took the photograph and turned it over. Her mouth dropped open. The picture had to have been taken over a decade ago but Nathan was right; Morgan and Julie could have easily been sisters.
She sank down in the chair opposite the old man, her fear suddenly replaced by awe and curiosity. “My God.”
“It’s uncanny, isn’t it?”
When Morgan looked up, she saw an echo of the emotion she’d seen earlier. “Where is your daughter now?”
Nathan heaved a deep sigh. The chair creaked as he leaned back. “She died.”
“I’m so sorry.” Morgan handed back the photograph quickly, no longer wanting it in her hand.
“It was cancer. She was only 19.”
“She’d be in her thirties now, probably married with children of her own.”
“You’d be a grandfather.”
“Did you have any other children?”
“I have a son, but we haven’t spoken in years.”
Morgan caught sight of a framed photograph hiding in a shadowy corner of the desk. “Is this him?” She examined it. The man looked to be in his mid-forties. He had his arms draped over an attractive brunette about the same age.
“Yes, that’s Fred and his wife, Ginger.” Nathan took the photograph from her and studied it. “I’ve never even met her. This photo came in a Christmas card last year. I think it was mailed by mistake.”
Morgan shifted in her seat. This man seemed to have a lot of troubles in his life, and she suddenly found herself wondering what she was doing sitting here listening to them.
“Listen, I hate to be a bother, but I really would like to let my friends know where I am. Is there any way you could drive me to the nearest gas station?”
Nathan’s face fell. “I can’t do that.”
Morgan felt a twinge in her chest. His tone had sounded so final.
“My truck has been in the shop for two days.”
Morgan sighed. She got up from the chair and walked toward the window. Pulling back the drapes, she looked outside. From where she stood, she could just make out the outline of her own vehicle, sitting uselessly in the road.
“Tell you what.”
Morgan could hear the chair creak again as Nathan got to his feet behind her.
“Why don’t you spend the night here? Sleep on the couch?”
Morgan turned and narrowed her eyes on the old man.
Nathan held his hands up in defense and once again, Morgan saw the dark stain. It ran all the way down the length of his arm.
“I won’t lay a hand on you. I sleep upstairs.”
Morgan eyed the front door. If she tried to go for it, would he try and block her way? “How will I get to town in the morning?”
“My buddy, Sam, from the general store always stops by on Saturday’s to drop off supplies. He’ll take you into town.”
Morgan’s shoulders tensed. She crossed the room and went to the door. He made no move to stop her.
“I hope you don’t plan to walk in the dark.”
His concern sounded genuine.
She opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. The night air was crisp. The temperature had dropped significantly since the sun had gone down.
Morgan looked back at the old man standing in the middle of the living room. It was then that she was struck by how out of place he looked in comparison to his surroundings. He looked like a lumberjack or a hunter who spent all his days in the wood, and here he was, in a tiny cabin done in soft pastels and filled with dainty furniture, serving tea, no less!
Still, despite his threatening stature and awkward appearance, there was an almost helpless, pleading quality to him.
He looked... lost.
Morgan felt a sudden rush of pity for him. This time, her smile was genuine as she crossed the threshold and closed the door.
Morgan pulled an old, battery-powered radio out of her purse and slipped the buds into her ears.
Nathan had just gone upstairs, yawning and ready for bed. In spite of his strangeness, she’d found herself warming to the man as the hours wore on. He’d invited her into the kitchen with him and she’d watched him putter around as he made them both soup. She figured there was little possibility of him poisoning something canned. Plus, she’d been starving. He'd used a pot to heat the soup, surprising her by explaining he didn’t know how to use a microwave.
Morgan couldn’t even imagine that.
She’d listened while he told her stories of being in the military and his childhood in Vermont. When the subject of his deceased daughter came around again, Morgan found Nathan’s intense stare no longer bothered her. It was obvious to her now that he was just a lonely old man.
Settled now under knitted blankets on a plump couch, Morgan flipped the station dial and picked up nothing but static. She pulled out the antennae and aimed the radio at the window.
A Sarah McLachlan filled her ears and Morgan closed her eyes.
She was just beginning to drift off to sleep when a break in the music snapped her back to reality.
“…last seen traveling west on Route 32. Again, this man is considered armed and dangerous. Do not approach under any circumstances. Please call your local authorities if you believe you have seen him. We will have updates on the Riverview breakout as we receive them.”
The broadcast ended and the song resumed.
Morgan sat bolt upright, her breath catching in her throat. She flipped off the radio and pulled out the ear buds.
Riverview? The psychiatric hospital?
A cold thrill of fear radiated through her like someone had touched the tip of a knife to her spine.
Once again, the memory of the blurry shape in her rearview mirror popped up. Could that have been him?
Morgan got out from under the covers and stood up. She inched toward the desk where she'd seen a lamp earlier. She needed the light on for comfort.
She was about to flick the switch when she saw the shadow of a hulking shape pass by the picture window.
She gasped, dropping behind the desk. “Nathan?” Her voice came thin, shaky.
When she glanced up again, the visage was gone.
Moving up on tiptoes, she held her breath as she crept toward the stairs. Every nerve alert as she climbed, she kept her back to the upper landing.
A sudden gust of wind rattled the windows. The porch swing creaked.
She wished he could hear her. She didn’t know how much protection the old man could afford her, but at least he was built powerfully enough to scare off an intruder, especially in the dark.
Her foot hit the smooth floor of the landing and she turned around. In the dark, she could make out the outline of two wooden doors on either side of a narrow, windowless hall.
She gripped the handle of the one on the left and opened it slowly, saying a silent prayer the hinges wouldn’t squeak.
A thin stream of moonlight poured in through a small, open window and Morgan realized she was standing in the doorway of a bathroom. She was just about to close the door when she noticed the oddly shaped rug spread out along the tiled floor.
She took a step forward and peered at the shape, her brain trying to make sense of the strange design.
As she inched forward, a glint of light rose up off the surface. She gasped and stepped back.
The thin white curtains of the window flapped toward Morgan, like ghostly fingers reaching out. She had to close it. She couldn’t chance the maniac getting into the house.
She stepped forward onto the rug and her foot slipped. Biting back a scream, she looked closer and realized what she’d thought was a rug was a puddle of water.
But why was it so dark?
Something indistinct dangled from beneath the shower curtain. Morgan turned. As though she were no longer in control of her own body, she watched her right hand move the shower curtain aside and reveal the foot beneath its edge.
There were two people in the tub. It was filled with dark water. In the moonlight, Morgan could see that the bodies, submerged, naked and blue once held the souls of the couple she’d seen in the photograph downstairs. The people Nathan claimed to be his son and daughter-in-law. The woman’s eyes were still open, dark hair matted to her face. Clutched in the man’s left hand was a long, white shirt torn at the sleeve.
Realization came crashing into her like a punch to the gut.
Nathan. The shirt would fit Nathan perfectly.
No. No! No! NO!!
Jerking back in horror, Morgan nearly slipped into the puddle of blood again, but she righted herself just in time. Her heart hammered in her chest, her eyes went wide, and her breath was coming in short, shallow gasps.
Nathan. Nathan had done this. He wasn't the owner of this house, he was the escapee from Riverview, and he was still in the house!
Morgan gasped and clapped a hand over her mouth. Moving cautiously into the hall, she moved her eyes left, right, and left again.
The spider she couldn't see.
Where was he?
A noise from downstairs nearly stopped her heart. Hot tears spilled down Morgan's cheeks and right hand as she clamped it over her mouth even tighter.
No, please. Oh, God. Why did I agree to stay here? Because an old man told me some made-up story about a dead daughter and an estranged son? What is wrong with me?
The noise came again, and this time, Morgan realized it was a knock.
She recognized the voice instantly.
She clambering down the stairs and hurled herself at the front door.
“Morgan! It's me. Are you OK?”
Morgan opened the door and threw herself into her friend's arms.
“We have to get out of here. We have to get out of here NOW!”
Larry pulled her away and held her at arm's length. His eyes darted down to her socks.
“Wait. Is that blood?”
Morgan followed his gaze and felt her stomach turn and her head swim.
“Hey!” Larry caught her before she hit the porch.
“There are dead people in the bathroom,” Morgan said numbly.
“What? What are you talking about? Morgan?”
Morgan looked up into Larry's face, her eyes glassy and wide.
“What made you come here?”
“When you didn't show up, I figured you got lost, and I doubled back on route 32 to find you. I saw your car, and—”
Morgan cut him off. “We need to get out of here.”
“Where is your stuff? I'll get it.”
Larry gently placed her on the porch swing and walked in through the front door.
“No!” Morgan stood up when she realized what he was doing. “You're going to die!”
In moments, Larry was back, her purse in one hand, her shoes in the other, a strange and slightly bemused look on his face.
“I'm fine. There's nobody in there.”
Anger, fear, and panic rose in Morgan, coming to a crescendo. She let out an animal-like screech and grabbed Larry's hand, yanking him off the porch and toward his car.
“Drive!” Morgan screamed when Larry got behind the wheel.
“OK! OK!” Larry sped off into the night while Morgan craned her neck to look back at the cabin. No shape. No shadow. No man with a knife chasing after them. It was over.
Trembling now, Morgan hugged her purse to her chest and fresh tears spilled down her cheeks. They drove this way for a quarter of a mile, Larry's eyes on the road, Morgan quietly crying beside him.
Larry's voice punched through the silence.
“Hey. Did you hear about the guy who escaped from the nut house?”
Morgan's head snapped around, and she glared at her friend.
“Yes. I heard. He was the one in the house. He killed the couple who lived there, and I found them dead in the bathtub. I thought it was his place because when I got there he was so nice to me.”
Larry drifted over the line, nearly crashing into an oncoming SUV, and then jerked the wheel hard to get it back into his lane. The person in the other car leaned on the horn but continued on. “What?!”
“That's what I was trying to tell you.”
“Holy shit! We've got to call the cops!”
Morgan nodded, retreating back into herself, numb once again as the miles sped past.
When they hit a large pothole, Morgan was sure they were going to blow a tire. A replay of her own experience flashed in her mind, and she thought she was going to start screaming, but if she did, she knew she wouldn't be able to stop.
In that same moment of hitting the pothole, something popped out of the side pocket or her purse and fluttered to the ground.
Morgan stared at the photograph of Julie, her doppelgänger, Nathan's long-lost daughter. Fingers trembling, she reached for the photo and regarded it carefully. Just then, the car went under a headlight, and Morgan could see through the image to the back of the photograph. There was writing.
She turned it over and read it.
Julie, I understand. Thank you for coming back and reminding me of who I used to be. I'll always love you. Dad.