Read an Excerpt
Ginny Bergeron stood in front of the cafe's plate-glass window and stared into the swamp. The setting sun cast an orange glow on the cobblestone street in front of the cafe and the thick range of cypress trees that littered the swamp beyond the edge of the small town. It was the same view she'd had every day for sixteen years, yet today, it felt different. As if something wasn't right.
"You gonna finish cleaning that coffeepot or just stare out the window all day?"
The booming voice of the heavyset woman behind her made Ginny jump, and she spun around to face Madelaine, the woman who was, for all practical purposes, her mother.
"Sorry," Ginny said. "I guess I wandered there for a minute."
Madelaine gave her an understanding smile and glanced out the window. "It's a beautiful sunset. I finished up in the back, so as soon as those coffeepots are washed, we can leave." She grabbed one of the pots off the warmer behind the counter. "Since you're up here lollygagging, I'll help."
Ginny smiled at Madelaine's teasing, more because she knew her mother expected it than because she felt like smiling. The beautiful sunset wasn't what had caught Ginny's attention. In fact, Ginny couldn't put her finger on exactly why she'd been staring out the window, or what she expected to see. But she could feel itsomething out there didn't belong.
Ginny grabbed the half-empty coffeepot off the table where she'd placed it a couple of minutes earlier and headed behind the counter. Madelaine already had hot water running in the huge stainless steel sink, so Ginny poured out the old coffee and stuck the pot under the stream of water. Some of the steamy water splashed onto her bare hands and she flinched. Her mother glanced over at her bare hands and shook her head, her expression one of long-standing exasperation worn by parents who'd told a child something over and over again in vain.
"I have a pot roast in my Crock-Pot," Madelaine said. "Why don't you come over for dinner and a movie?"
"Great minds think alike. I put a roast in my Crock-Pot this morning."
Madelaine wiped the coffeepot with a clean rag and set it on the counter. "Well, if you're sure."
"I'm sure," Ginny said and placed her clean coffeepot on the counter next to her mother's.
"I guess we'll both be eating pot roast for a week then." Madelaine stared at her for a moment, the uncertainty clear on her face, but finally, being a parent won out. "I worry about you spending so much time alone. You sure you're all right? You've seemed on edge lately."
"I'm fine, and I'm perfectly happy alone. I have a good library of books." She smiled. "You ought to know, since you gave me most of them."
Madelaine didn't look convinced. "A book isn't the same as having someone else around. Like a man. Then maybe I wouldn't worry as much."
"Really? I haven't noticed that being a problem for you. In fact, in my years with you, I've never known you to even date."
Madelaine waved a hand in dismissal. "That's not the point. I made my choices long ago, and I'm happy with them. I had my run at that hill in my earlier years. Enough to know it wasn't for me. But you haven't so much as taken a step toward it."
Ginny shook her head. "You know good and well that the only single men in Johnson's Bayou are under ten or over sixty. Which would you prefer I take up with?"
"Ain't no one saying you got to remain here the rest of your life. That university in New Orleans wanted to give you a scholarship before. I bet you could get one again."
"And do what?"
"Leave. Leave all this behind and start a new life. A good life."
Ginny placed a hand on Madelaine's arm. "I have a good life. Maybe someday I'll want something different, something else, but for now, this is what's right for me."
Madelaine sighed and kissed Ginny's forehead. "All right then. I'll see you tomorrow morning. Ought to be a busy one with everyone in town preparing for the Fall Festival."
Ginny nodded then followed Madelaine to the front door of the cafe and locked it behind her. Ginny gave the cafe a final glance to make sure everything was in order, then hurried up the staircase at the back of the cafe kitchen to her apartment.
The apartment consisted of a small living area, an even smaller bedroom and a tiny kitchenette and bathroom. Madelaine had provided her with a worn couch that Ginny had recovered in coarse fabric with light blue and white stripes. An old nineteen-inch television sat across from the couch on a stand with peeling paint that Ginny had bought at a garage sale but hadn't had time to refinish.
She'd taken her bedroom set with her when she'd moved out of her mother's house, and the bed, dresser and nightstand left only a small walking area in the narrow bedroom. The kitchen had room in the corner for a tiny table and two chairs, but nothing else. Some people probably wouldn't consider it much, but for Ginny, it was perfect.
What some would see as sparse, Ginny saw as uncomplicated.
Her life in Johnson's Bayou certainly hadn't started out that way, but Ginny had been determined to make it that way. She'd always found comfort in knowing that today was the same as yesterday and would be the same as tomorrow. But lately, complicated thoughts had roamed her mind, unbidden. Despite her attempts to ignore them or change her mode of thinking, the thoughts kept popping back up, unwanted and uncomfortable.
She laid her keys on the breakfast table and opened the blinds on the window behind the table. The sun had almost disappeared behind the swamp, but she could still see the roofline of the old mansion just above the top of the cypress trees. The LeBlanc School for Girls. Or at least it had been.
What had happened there sixteen years ago? And had she been a part of it? Is that why the house seemed to call to her in the night? All these years, she'd had no inkling of her past, as if her mind had been scrubbed clean of the first six years of her life. She had no answers to the bizarre questions that surrounded her arrival in Johnson's Bayou, despite a significant amount of effort by the local police into searching for those answers.
Ginny had never searched for answers.
Sometimes she thought it was because she was afraid of what she'd find. Other days, she thought it was because nothing she found would change who she was today, and that's all that mattered. Curiosity had never compelled Ginny to visit the LeBlanc School. The police said the fire had completely destroyed the room the resident records were housed in, so no answers were contained there now, even if they had been before.
But lately, she felt anxious
drawn to this window where she could see the top of the house, tucked away in the bayou. Drawn to seek answers to questions she'd never asked out loud. It was as if a giant weight was pressing on her, but for no particular reason that she could determine. Why now, after all these years?
She reached for a shipping box on her table and opened it up. She'd told Madelaine it was supplies for her beadwork. With the festival coming up, Madelaine hadn't even blinked at her explanation of the heavy box. Ginny's jewelry had become quite popular in
Johnson's Bayou, and she'd even had sales to some New Orleans shops. But the item that lay inside wasn't the beads or wire or tools she'd claimed.
She pulled the spotlight out of the box and glanced once more at the woods that lay just beyond her apartment. Every night for a week, she'd taken the spotlight out of the box, determined to walk into the woods, even if only a couple of feet. Determined to prove that nothing was there. That her overactive imagination was playing tricks on her. And every night, she'd placed the spotlight back in the box, closed the blinds and drawn the curtains, trying to eliminate the feeling that she was being watched.
But tonight was going to be different.
She still wore her jeans and T-shirt with the cafe logo but didn't bother changing. In the time it took to change clothes, she could come up with a million different reasons to delay her trip another night. Before she could change her mind, she hurried out of the apartment and slipped out the back door of the cafe.
She stood at the edge of the swamp, her strength wavering as she studied the wall of cypress trees and the dense growth beneath them. Dusk had settled over the town behind her, and not even a dim ray of light shone in the swamp.
That's why you have the spotlight.
She took one step into the swamp and studied the brush in front of her, looking for any sign of a path. This was foolish. She should abandon this folly and come back in the daylight.
But in the daylight someone might see
It had taken years for the whispering about her to stop. Years for the residents of Johnson's Bayou to feel comfortable in the same room as her. The last thing she wanted to do was spook a group of already superstitious people by fueling their original fears about herabout what she was.
The brush was less dense to the right, and when she directed her spotlight that way she could make out an open area about twenty feet away. She pointed her spotlight toward the clearing and stepped deeper into the swamp. The brush closed in around her, eliminating what was left of the natural light. The sharp branches scratched her bare arms, but she pushed forward until she reached the clearing.
It was small, maybe five feet square, and someone had taken the time to remove all the brush from the area. The ground was solid, dark dirt beneath her feet, not a sign of grass or weeds in sight. Kids, maybe? Although she couldn't imagine kids wanting to play in this area of the swamp, nor their parents allowing it. On the backside of the clearing, a tiny path stretched into the dense brush. Ginny directed her spotlight to the path and pushed through the brush for several minutes until she reached another clearing.
This one was bigger than the last and circular, with charred wood in the center. Ginny frowned. Surely no one was camping out here. Even if one didn't believe the old tales about spooks and haunts, the swamp was filled with plenty of dangers, many of them deadly. Those who'd lived near the swamp their entire lives still preferred to spend the night hours surrounded by four walls.
She studied the wood for a moment and realized it was completely rotted. A piece of it broke off easily in her hand. It had been a long time since someone placed it there and burned it, but that still didn't explain why the brush had not taken the clearing back over. Why the dirt stood barren.
Her spine stiffened suddenly and she stood motionless in the clearing. Her hair stood up on the back of her neck, but she had no idea what had set her off. She listened for the sounds of a night creature on the prowl, but it was almost as if the swamp had gone silent. There wasn't a breath of air, and even the bugs had stopped making noise. She could hear her heart beating in her chest and the sound of her breath as she raggedly drew it in and out.
Then the sound of a child's scream ripped through the night air.