A Bittersweet Haunting

an excerpt



Prologue

June 1989-



"Come on," Abel whispered. "The guys are waiting for us."

"All right. All right. I'm coming." Braden shoved his flashlight into his backpack before following his brother down the stairs and out of the house.

He still wasn't convinced this was the brightest idea Oleg ever had. Yet as uneasy as their adventure made him, Braden wasn't about to back out. He wasn't going to be called a "pussy" or "chicken" for the rest of the summer.

They snuck out before getting their bikes from the garage. Braden slid his arms through the straps of his backpack to settle it on his shoulders. Abel took the lead, heading out into the street, then turning left in the direction of their friends, who waited at the end of their subdivision.

Oleg, Quincey, Warren, and Tad nodded at them as they joined the group, but no one said anything. Since this whole thing was his genius brainstorm, Oleg must have assumed he was in charge. Of course, no one else was going to say anything else about it.

As they rode closer to their destination, Braden hunched his shoulders almost to his ears. It was like someone-or something-was watching them approach, and he could admit to himself at least that he didn't want to see anything out in the darkness that night.

"We should be getting close," Oleg called back to the rest of them. "My brother, Pavel, told me about this spot where we can find the Jersey Devil."

"What if I don't want to meet the Devil," Braden muttered, but he kept going.

They reached a clearing just another mile down the road. Leaving their bikes lying on the grass, the group of six boys wandered around, swinging the beams from their flashlights all over the place.

"What happens if we see it?" Braden asked Tad softly.

Tad shrugged. "Probably piss ourselves and run screaming back home to our moms."

Stopping, Braden stared at Tad who stared right back.

"What? You know as well as I do, none of us are going to hang around to chat that thing up."

There were times when Braden thought Tad was ten going on thirty-five, or at least that's what he'd heard his mother say about his best friend. Tad spent a lot of time over at their house because his father worked second shift at one of the factories while his mother ran around with other men. Again, that was what Braden's mother said when she didn't think they could hear her chat with Aunt Jill.

"I don't care how tough Oleg and Quincey pretend to be, they'll be the first ones running if that thing shows up," Tad said.

"Get over here, you two," Abel called to them, waving them back to where the others were gathered.

Once they were all there, Oleg grunted before he said, "I think my brother's full of shit."

Braden wasn't going to agree or disagree. He'd learned that it was better just to go along with Oleg because the kid could get mean from time to time when he didn't get his way.

Yet there was something out in the woods. Braden had been feeling the weight of a gaze burning into his back as he moved around, and the sensation got stronger as he stood there, listening to the others talk amongst themselves. Braden had noticed that the forest had gone silent, like some kind of predator walked among the trees.

The only light breaking through the leaves was from their flashlights as they shoved each other, laughing loudly to cover their own discomfort. But Braden wanted to leave. He was about to grab Tad and pull him back to their bikes. He didn't care if the others would tease him or not. Every instinct in him was screaming to run because something dangerous was stalking them.

Suddenly the crack of a twig disturbed the relative quiet of the night. Braden jumped, then whirled to shine his light in the direction of the noise. What he saw caught in the beam was an image that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

It was a creature he'd never seen the likes of before. It had the head of a horse and was huge. Leather-like wings stretched from its shoulders, and eyes that seemed to be lit from within glared at them.

When it screamed, Braden swore it sounded like someone was murdering it. He dropped his flashlight, then covered his ears. The creature moved with lightning speed, circling them for a moment before dashing into their midst, then away. Braden found it difficult to figure out in the strobing flashlight beams where the monster was. But suddenly, he glanced up to meet its red eyes and froze.

Braden's wrist stung as the creature slashed at him, causing him to cry out. The other boys were yelling and scrambling all around him, but Braden couldn't seem to get his feet to move. Tad grabbed his hand and dragged him toward the road where they'd left their bikes. They were shoving each other out of the way because no one wanted to be at the back of the group in case the creature chased them.

None of them looked behind them, just pedaled as fast as they could to the corner where they'd met. From there, they split up to head back to their own houses without saying a word to each other.



In the twenty-five years that have passed since that moment, the six friends never really discussed what had happened to them that night. Yet it was the one singular night that held the most influence on their choices for the rest of their lives.



Chapter One

"Un-freaking-believable." Mack blew out a quivering breath. He couldn't believe he actually got his car to work. He had been positive that his beat-up old rust bucket wasn't going to make it over the damn tracks. The horrible visual of a train coming his way as he stalled out had him praying that the sucker would make it just a little bit farther. Mack could see himself frantically trying to get his seat belt undone as a train came barreling toward him, then jumping out of the car just as it made impact.

Please just get me through college, you piece of shit!

Maybe it would be better to walk. It was spring, a cold one, but the mile hike could do him some good and make sure he got to work. Climbing out of the car, he made a run for the alley so that he could get to work on time. The little hotel had been turned into a restaurant about fifty years ago, and Mack had found his job as a waiter there last year.

Shivering, and not from the cold, Mack made his way up the red steps and into the lobby area of the historic restaurant, The Evergreen. Instantly, his body was encased in chills. The Evergreen was rumored to be haunted, and Mack wholeheartedly agreed. The place gave him the creeps, and it was a test of willpower just to get his ass over the fucking threshold every day he worked.

In the year he had worked here, there had been séances, paranormal enthusiasts, and everyday people coming in to see if they could have an "encounter." If they were lucky, they didn't. As for Mack, he only heard about it, but the vibe his body gave off every day warned him that not everything was normal there, and he listened to those signs. If someone even mentioned the smell of cigar smoke, he ran in the other direction-and the woman's scream... ugh no. He was fine staying right in the dining rooms, where everything seemed to be at least a little bit calmer.

"Hey, you." Mack's boss, Megan, walked up. "We have a large party coming in this afternoon for tea. Do you think you can prep the Ivy Room for them? It's going to be a party of twenty-six."

Mack took off his light jacket, hanging it up before he hurried over to wash his hands. "I can handle that. Am I working the party alone, or will there be two of us?"

Megan rested her hip against the counter next to him. "I was going to put you with the party alone and have Nick bussing. Do you think you can handle that?"

Mack turned off the faucet and shook the excess water off his hand before grabbing a towel. "I can handle it." With Nick cleaning the tables, the afternoon would be manageable. The tips would be huge, and he needed those to pay his next college installment fee.

"I'll need you to run upstairs to room 212 and get the extra table linens. For some odd reason, I can't find any. I'll have to check with Nick and see if he had them sent out for cleaning."

Upstairs...where all the encounters and strange happenings went on? The area he avoided at all cost? Mack knew if Megan was asking, then she needed the help. There was no way he was going to tell his boss that he was scared shitless to go up there.

"That's fine. I'll do that first and then get the room set up." Mack hated going upstairs. Hated.

Turning, Mack made his way to the old flight of stairs that creaked with every step he ventured. Goosebumps popped up on his flesh the more he ascended. Breathing heavily, Mack took the last step and cautiously made his way down the hallway. The air hung thick, and he almost choked on it. The closer he got to room 212, the more his flight instinct raised its red flag. The only reason he kept going was that he did not want to embarrass himself by returning empty-handed because he had been spooked.

Standing in front of the door, Mack's hand trembled as he reached for the handle, finally turning it. Blowing out a breath, Mack decided to just get it over with. As fast as he could, he entered the room, searching for the box that held the spare linens.

Out of nowhere, a blast of freezing cold air hit him in the face, knocking him on his ass. Whipping his head around, Mack searched for an open window, only to find that all of them were tightly shut.

I'm getting the fuck out of here.

Climbing to his feet, he grabbed a box, praying that it was the right one and took off out of the room, not even bothering to close the door as he descended the steps two at a time.

Clutching the box to his chest, he leaned against the wall at the base of the stairs and caught his breath.

"Hey, are you okay?" Nick came up to him, relieving him of the box.

Mack wiped his sweat-soaked forehead. What the hell was that? His heart was still pumping, and his mouth couldn't even form the words to lie to Nick and tell him he was okay.