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Unexpected Arrival

The image shows an abandoned car surrounded by fog facing a ghostly apparition.

I stopped at a gas station two blocks from the diner I’d just left, hopefully for the last time, and pulled out my map. According to my calculations, it would take over four hours to get from Philadelphia to New York City. Once there, I would have seven days to find a new job, apartment, and life. If I failed, I would return to Philadelphia and carry on as usual. The thought of going back filled me with a sense of dread so intense it momentarily took my breath away. No, failure was not an option.

After a few more minutes of checking and double-checking the route, I finally felt confident enough to pull onto the road and join the hundreds of others. According to the clock on the dashboard, it was only five fifteen, yet the storm clouds had turned the sky black, and the constant patter of rain, along with the headlights from other cars, made it difficult to see. Once on the freeway, my mind drifted as thoughts of what waited for me in New York, thoughts I had suppressed until now, invaded my consciousness, springing to life a hope I had never dared to allow myself to feel.

As the unmistakable sound of a siren rents the air, I snap back to reality. A quick glance in the rear-view mirror showed a police car, lights flashing brightly behind me. With a sigh, I looked around for a safe place to pull over, confusion replacing my dread; the four-lane freeway had been replaced with a two-lane road. ‘When had that happened?’ I asked out loud.

The more I looked around, the more confused I became. There was no shoulder; the road was heavily lined with trees, and while the rain had stopped, some kind of fog or swirling mist had taken its place. I pulled over to the side of the road as far as I could and rolled down my window. While I waited, I continued to study my surroundings.

The first thing I noticed was no other cars on the road, which was very strange considering the number of cars going in my direction not long ago. As I continued to look around, the light from the clock on the dashboard caught my eye. “Nine-thirty,” I muttered, “Wait—what???” I practically shouted. I stared at the clock, willing the numbers to change. There was no way over four hours had passed; the clock was wrong; it had to be.

“Ahem.”

Startled, my head whipped toward the officer at my window causing a mixture of fear and relief. “What time is it?” I asked frantically.

He made a show of checking his watch. “Nine thirty-two. You must be in a hurry. Suppose that would explain why you’re doing seventy in a fifty-five.”

I opened my mouth to reply, but no sound came out. Finally, I asked the only question I could come up with. “Where am I?”

The officer studied me momentarily, an unreadable expression on his face. Then, he bent down and pointed at something off to the right of my windshield. It was difficult to see through the fog, but at that particular moment, it cleared just enough for me to make out the words’ Welcome to Graybrook Hollow, population 221.’

“Graybrook Hollow?” I looked up at him in question. “Where is that?”

“You’re around fifty miles outside of Amherst,” he replied.

‘Fifty miles from Amherst,’ I whispered. “But Amherst is in Massachusetts,” I protested.

“Yes,” he drawled out. “Ma’am, I need to see your ID,” he said, his hand open expectantly near the window.

I shook my head, then handed him my driver’s license. I felt a strong urge to try to explain myself but managed to hold my tongue; I had already given him more than enough reason to look at me with suspicion; anything more, and I might end up in the back of his police car.

Officer—Brandt, his name tag read, studied my license, then blew a low whistle.

“Well, Samantha, you’re a long way from home, aren’t you,” he stated. “What brings you up here to our neck of the woods?”

I managed to avoid rolling my eyes. I was not that far from home, and what I was doing there was none of his business. Not that I actually knew what I was doing there, but that was beside the point.

“I’m on vacation,” I said curtly.

“Where you headed?” he asked.

Of course, he would ask that. He would become even more suspicious if I admitted I was supposed to be on my way to New York. Which meant it was time to lie.

“I’m headed to Boston,” I replied as I tried to quickly calculate how much farther I would need to travel to get there. Or if I was even on the right road. Since I hadn’t planned to go there, I wasn’t as confident in my calculations.

He alternated between looking at me and my driver’s license, little frown lines deepening between his brows. Clearly, he didn’t believe me, but without proof I was lying, there wasn’t much he could do about it. Finally, he handed back my license.

“You’re a bit off course,” he said.

“I must have missed a turn or something,” I said weakly.

He nodded. “It’s late,” he motioned toward his car. “Follow me and I’ll take you into town. You can stay at Maude’s for the night and then get back on the road in the morning.”

“I’d rather not,” I protested. “I still have a long way to go—”

“Which is precisely why you should stop for the night,” he said sternly.

The last thing I wanted to do was spend the night in some podunk town in the middle of nowhere. Could he really force me to do that?

As if reading my mind, he called over his shoulder. “It’s either Maude’s or the station,” he said. “Your choice.”

“On what grounds?” I shot back.

He held up his hand and began to count on his fingers. “Speeding, reckless driving, suspicion of driving under the influence, just to name a few.”

Sensing defeat, I shook my head. “Whatever,” I muttered. With a final sigh, I pulled out behind him and followed him past the ‘Welcome to Graybrook Hollow’ sign and into town.

💀💀💀

When I woke up, it was pitch black. Immediately concerned, I tried to recall where I was, but nothing came; the last thing I remembered was following Officer Brandt into town, yet here I was in a bedroom, judging by the feel of the thing I was lying on. What the hell was going on, and why did I keep blacking out for long periods?

Unsure of what to do next, I looked around and discovered a sliver of light near the floor opposite the bed, which I then made my way over to. After a few moments of grasping wildly about, I found my target and slowly opened the door.

I don’t know what I expected to find, but a normal-looking hallway was not it. Didn’t Officer Brandt say he was taking me to a place called Maude’s? From the looks of it, what little I’ve seen, Maude’s was a bed and breakfast. Had I really become so jaded I expected something much more…sinister? The answer was a definitive YES!

Now that I knew I was safe, at least for the time being, I felt along the wall for a light switch. I looked everywhere but couldn’t find one, so I returned to the bed and felt around on the little table next to it. After what felt like forever, I found what I thought was a candle and a small book of matches. It was hard to tell in the semi-dark, but I gave it a shot anyway and managed to light the candle.

The candle did not provide much light, but it did allow me to look more closely at my surroundings. To my immense relief, my purse was lying on the nightstand next to my watch, which I held close to the light: eight twenty-two, it read. I study it closely, dread filling my chest. If the darkness was any indication, it was night again, and almost twenty-four hours had passed. I quickly shook my head, my desire to get out of there growing by the second.

I carefully searched the room for the rest of my belongings, but aside from my shoes, there were none. It would have been nice to change out of my clothes before I got back on the road, but alas, it was not meant to be. I grabbed my purse, put on my shoes, and returned to the door. As I reached for the handle, I spied something out of the corner of my eye.

Should I inspect or ignore it? My increasing sense of dread compelled me to move on, but my curiosity got the better of me, and I quickly approached the flash of white that had initially drawn my attention. A…bathtub? It hadn’t been there a few minutes ago when I searched the room, but with the sudden lapses in memory, could I really be sure? I reached down to test the water and discovered it was hot and, after the days I’d been having, oh so inviting. Would ten more minutes really hurt? This was supposed to be a vacation after all, wasn’t it?

I closed and locked the door, set the candle on the table by the tub, then got in and allowed myself to relax for a few minutes; then drug myself out of the tub. The thought of putting dirty clothes back on was infinitely worse now that I was clean, but I was determined to get moving, so I reached for my clothes, only they weren’t there. I could have sworn I set them on the edge of the bed, but no matter where I looked, they were gone. ‘How is this possible?’ I asked out loud, my voice tinged with panic.

I checked the door, but it was still locked, just as I’d left it. So what happened to my clothes? More importantly, what do I do now?

A bathrobe hung on the back of the door (was that there before?), so I grabbed it to wear just long enough to get the suitcase out of the trunk. Upon closer inspection, the bathrobe turned out to be a dress. Since beggars can’t be choosers, I threw it over my head, grateful to have something to wear. However, when I looked down, I was shocked to see it looked like I had just stepped off the Mayflower. Was this some kind of joke? Did Maude participate in some sort of pilgrim re-enactment?

The more I questioned the events of the last twenty-four hours, the more intense the urge to flee became. I grabbed my purse, thankful it, at least, was still there, threw open the door, and ran barefoot down the hall to the stairs at the opposite end. I took them two at a time, stumbling on the last couple of steps and falling head-first to the ground.

I closed my eyes and braced for impact, only to find myself pulled up against something hard instead. A pair of strong arms circled my waist, and when I opened my eyes and looked up, I found myself staring into Officer Brandt’s electric blue eyes. He was a handsome man, somewhere around my age, but for some reason, that made him seem even more scary.

“Whoa, there,” he frowned. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”

“Um,” I stammered. I stepped back, anxious to distance myself, and frantically searched for a way out. I might be paranoid, but something was wrong, and it all started when I met him. “I need to go,” I said as I bolted toward what I hoped was the front door.

“Samantha, wait!” he shouted.

I knew he was right behind me, but I didn’t care; I had to find my car; it felt like my life depended on it. The second I stepped outside, I stopped dead in my tracks. There was so much fog I could barely see my hand in front of my face, much less locate my car. Not to mention, it was dark, so very dark. I stumbled around blindly, my breathing heavy and labored as tears stung my eyes and slipped down my cheeks.

This was it, the end. All I had wanted was a better life. Instead, I would die alone in the dark and dressed like I was cos-playing as Wednesday Addams. What would my obituary say? Did it even matter? No one I knew would read it. No one would care.

I was just about to sit down and surrender to my despair when those same strong arms encircled my waist again.

“Come with me.” Officer Brandt whispered in my ear. “Please.”

With no choice but to obey, I allowed him to take my hand and cautiously followed him. Once we were safely back inside, I looked around, momentarily relieved to see we were back at the bed and breakfast.

“Where am I?” I whimpered.

“You’re at Maude’s,” he replied.

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it,” I growled, what was left of my fighting spirit straining to get out.

He studied me for a minute, a myriad of emotions crossing his face before finally speaking. “You must be hungry. Why don’t we talk over some breakfast? I’m sure you’ll feel better after you’ve eaten.”

My stomach growled in agreement as I realized the truth of his statement. “Wait,” I called out. “Did you say breakfast? What time is it?”

He turned to look at me, an unreadable expression on his face. “It’s a little after nine,” he said, glancing at his watch. “Why are you so obsessed with time?”

“Nine at night, right?” I asked, ignoring his last question.

“No,” he said slowly. “Nine in the morning.” He grabbed my hand and began to pull me along with him to the other room.

That did not make sense. I didn’t trust him, but the only way to get the answers I desperately needed was to follow along, so I did. When we reached the dining room, I looked around in surprise. Let’s just say my dress did not look out of place. This begged the question, was this a themed bed and breakfast? I’d heard of things like that but never quite to this extreme. And that still didn’t explain my memory lapses or why it was so dark at this hour of the day.

Officer Brandt led me to a sideboard where a breakfast buffet was laid out, and I quickly filled a plate. After a very unladylike display of shoveling food in my mouth, I finally felt ready to face the inquisition I knew was coming. However, I had a few questions that needed answers first.

“If it’s morning, as you claim, why is it so dark outside?” I asked.

“The weather has been stormy,” he shrugged. “Surely you remember the rain from last night. Or is that something else you’ve forgotten?”

“I remember the rain,” I snapped. “But in the twenty-eight years I’ve walked this earth, I have never seen a storm that turned day into night.”

“Just because you haven’t seen them doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

There was some truth to his words, but they still didn’t quite ring true. Whatever game he played no longer mattered; I just needed to get out of there. “Will you please help me get to my car and back on the road?”

He eyed me warily, his brow partially raised. “Do you remember anything from last night?”

“Um…” I trailed off, uncertain and scared. The answer was no, and I had a sinking suspicion I would not like whatever he said next.

Officer Brandt sighed. “Your car broke down on your way into town. It’s currently over at the mechanic shop, so unless you want to walk to—where is it you claimed to be headed— oh yeah, Boston, you’re stuck here for at least another day.”

I sucked in a breath as I fought to keep a panic attack at bay. No matter how hard I searched my memory, I couldn’t recall anything that happened after I agreed to follow him. If he was lying, I had no idea. What I did know was that I needed help to get out of there. What also seemed apparent was that help would not come from him.

“Where’s Maude?” I asked, hopeful I could find an ally in the owner.

“I’m sure she’ll be around soon,” he said noncommittally.

Before I could argue, a large woman with gray hair and grayer eyes appeared in the doorway; the look on her face extinguished all hope for an ally.

“You’re cutting it awfully close, Simon,” she said. She approached, her eyes never leaving mine. “We only have a few hours until the harvest moon; usually, we have weeks.”

“I can only do so much,” he shrugged.

Maude continued to study me, her gaze unwavering as I squirmed uncomfortably.

“Fine,” she said, her gaze shifting to Officer Brandt. “Take her to the others and get her ready.” Maude turned to leave. “And Simon,” she called over her shoulder. “Make sure she agrees. We can’t afford another incident.”

“What is she talking about?” I asked. “What incident? What others?”

Officer Brandt stood and held out his hand. “Come with me, and you’ll find out.”

“I don’t want to find out,” I said. I stood so fast I knocked over my chair and almost fell over it in my haste to back away from him. “Look, I just want to go home. Please, let me go home.”

“Samantha,” he said sternly. “You can come willingly or unwillingly, but you will come. The choice is yours.”

Officer Brandt, or Simon as Maude said, was blocking the only path out of the dining room. Since there was no way I could beat him in a fight, my only option was to pretend to go along with whatever he had planned until I could find a way out.

“Okay,” I said meekly, hopeful my sudden change in demeanor didn’t make him suspicious.

He held out his hand again, and I obediently took it. Returning to the darkness and fog was terrifying, but it could also mean my escape if I played my cards right. As if sensing my plan, his grip tightened, and he pulled me close to his side. This would not be easy.

“Where are we going?” I asked, careful not to sound like the hostage I felt like.

“To meet the others,” he said.

“Who are the others?”

“The rest of the townspeople,” he squeezed my hand. “Don’t worry, they’re going to love you.”

That was…strange. Why would the townspeople love me, and, more importantly, why would I care? Thoroughly unnerved, I focused on my surroundings, surprised to see light up ahead. The closer we got, the more I began to feel a hum in the air. It was almost—electrical. Or perhaps energizing. It was hard to place it, the feeling so foreign yet somehow familiar.

When we reached the light, I abruptly stopped, unwilling to take another step regardless of how hard Simon yanked on my hand. Each sight was more terrifying than the last. There were hordes of people, dozens, hundreds, thousands, I couldn’t say; it was impossible to tell where the people ended and the darkness began. All were dressed in outfits similar to mine, and all of them gave me the same curious look.

The light, I could now see, came from hundreds of candles arranged in patterns around the edge of a circle. And in the middle of the circle, the most terrifying thing of all, an altar that looked suspiciously like one made for human sacrifice. That is why I was brought here; I could feel it in my bones.

Once the initial shock wore off, I yanked my hand free and ran as fast as I could back in the direction we’d just come, zig-zagging through the darkness to throw off Simon as he chased me. My lungs burned and begged for air, but I ran as years of twelve-hour shifts finally paid off.

Then it hit me, or more specifically, he hit me, and I went down hard, my breath expelled from my body. I lay there and gasped, his body still on top of mine, making it harder to catch my breath. For the briefest moments, I feared it wasn’t Simon but someone else who had caught me. Someone who might even be worse. With nothing left to lose, I threw my elbow behind me and shouted with joy when it made contact and knocked the guy off of me.

As I tried to get up, he grabbed my leg and pulled me back down, so I kicked him with my free leg. How long we continued this dance, I couldn’t say. Just as I thought I was about to get away, I ended up flat on my back, Simon’s face coming into view as he pinned me to the ground.

“Are you done?” he asked.

My body shook, and my breath came in shallow gasps. I felt the bruises that were sure to appear by the following day, should I still be alive, yet he looked the same; despite the kicks and jabs I knew I had landed. Had I any breath to spare, I would have screamed in frustration. Instead, utterly defeated, I nodded.

Simon stood and gently helped me to my feet, then held me steady as I swayed from dizziness. When he seemed confident I could walk without falling, he led me back to the circle.

“Why are you doing this to me?” I whispered.

He remained silent until we reached the edge, then positioned himself behind me, his arms around my waist, his head against mine.

“Graybrook Hollow is a special place,” he said. “All these people,” he waved his hand to indicate the horde, “Are special people, just like you.”

“Like me?” I asked, confused. “What do you mean?”

“Every ten years, we open our gates and invite one person to come home. A person who is lost and alone, a person who needs a family. This time, that person is you, Samantha. Don’t you want to come home?”

I shook my head as tears stung my eyes. I had spent my entire life looking for a place to call home. A place where I belonged. But not here, and definitely not like this.

“What do you want from me?”

“You see all this?” he asked, pointing to the darkness and fog. “We need you to make it disappear. Once you’ve done that, this place will return to life, and we’ll live in peace again. Doesn’t that sound nice?”

“How do I make it disappear?” I asked even though I already knew the answer.

Simon hesitated, his arms tightening around me. “There has to be a sacrifice; there is no other way.”

“You plan to kill me,” I choked out, my voice barely above a whisper.

“I promise it won’t hurt, and once it’s done, you’ll be one of us.”

“But that doesn’t make sense,” I protested. “How can I be one of you if I’m dead?”

“Sweetheart,” he said in my ear. “We’re all dead.”

Despite his grip, I managed to turn enough to stare at him, sure I’d either misheard him or he was joking. The look on his face proved otherwise.

“We exist on a plane just outside the one you come from, have for hundreds of years. Maybe longer,” he shrugged. “It’s hard to explain. All you need to know is that we need you as much as you need us.”

“No,” I shook my head, unable to stop. “You can’t do this to me, please,” I begged.

“If I let you go, what then? You go back to the miserable life you were trying to escape from? You continue that life in a new location, still alone, still miserable? The facts are not going to change. Outside, you have no one. But here? Here you can have a family. An entire community of people who will love and care about you. In what way is that not better?”

I wanted to argue but couldn’t; he was right, and we both knew it. No one would miss me or even know I was gone. It was so tempting to say yes, but then a thought occurred. “You said you’ve been here for hundreds of years, which means you’re trapped. If I stay, I’ll be trapped, too. What if I hate it here? At least in my old life, I had death to look forward to.”

Simon motioned to the crowd. “Raise your hand if you don’t like it here.”

I searched the crowd, but no one raised a hand. “Maybe they’re just afraid to tell the truth.”

“If you don’t agree to do this, the darkness will overtake us, and we will move on to the next plane of existence, whatever that may be. If we weren’t happy here, we could simply sit back and allow that to happen.”

“How do you know these things?”

“How do we know anything?” he asked in return. “How do you know you won’t die someday and end up in a different plane of existence? I don’t have all the answers; all I know is we need you, and more importantly, we want you here with us.”

“Why?”

“Because you belong here.”

I searched his face for signs he was lying but couldn’t find any. Either he was very good at it, or he was sincere. The longer I stared into his eyes, the more at peace I felt.

“Will you stay with me?” I asked. “While it happens?”

“I promise I’ll never leave your side. You’ll go to sleep, we’ll perform the ritual, and then you’ll wake up one of us.”

“What happens after that?”

“The light will return, the gates will close, and we will be free to live in peace and happiness once more.”

I wanted to believe him. It would be so easy to believe him. But the altar and the candles…why would the dead require a sacrifice to maintain their existence? Maude’s words came back to me, ‘Make sure she agrees; we can’t afford another incident.’ They need me to be a willing participant in whatever’s going on.

The light around us grew brighter. I looked up at the sky and saw the moon in brilliant shades of orange, yellow, and red: the harvest moon. The crowd began to murmur and shift in what I can only assume was anticipation for the ritual. Simon tried to move me toward the altar, but I dug in my heels and held fast.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t.”

I took one final look into his beautiful blue eyes before I pulled away and began to run, my heart full of sorrow. This time, no one chased me. I raced for the gate, praying with each step I was headed in the right direction. I glanced behind me and saw the darkness and fog had begun to swirl as lightning flashed and the wind whipped.

The gate came into view, the normalcy of the other side in stark contrast to the horror behind me. With a final push, I leaped through the gate as it slammed shut, locking its inhabitants inside forever. As the fog dissipated, I sunk to the ground, and the world faded to black.

💀💀💀

“Excuse me, I’m looking for Frank,” I announced with a light tap on the open door.

“Who wants to know?” the other man replied.

“I’m Officer Brandt with the Highway Patrol. We’re looking for Samantha Perry and heard she’s a waitress here?”

“Who?” Frank grunted.

“Samantha Perry,” I repeated. “Young woman, worked here around ten years…”

Frank stared blankly momentarily, then snapped his fingers. “Oh yeah, she’s the one that left on vacation a few weeks ago and never returned.”

“You don’t seem too upset by that,” I said.

Frank shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time a waitress no-showed, won’t be the last. She in some kind of trouble?” he asked curiously.

“I’m not sure. Her car was found abandoned on the side of the road about fifty miles outside of Amherst. Judging by the damage, she had a pretty bad accident and is likely hurt or worse.”

“Is she okay?” Frank frowned.

“That’s just it; there’s no sign of a body, so we have no way of knowing. All her belongings are still in the car, so…I don’t know. It’s like she vanished into thin air.”

For a moment, Frank appeared concerned, then shook it off. “What do you want from me?”

“If you hear from her, will you give us a call?”

“You got a number?”

I pulled out a card and handed it to him, annoyed at his attitude. “Don’t forget, okay?”

“Fine, fine,” he said as he opened the top drawer of his desk and dropped the card inside. “Is that all?”

“Yes, Sir, thank you for your help.” I turned on my heel and marched out, surprised and sad at the lack of concern and consideration for someone who had spent the last ten years of her life there. The boss was somewhat expected, but the other waitresses were too busy or stressed to answer my questions.

The poor woman was truly alone in the world. No one noticed she was gone. No one cared.

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