Had Bronwyn been paying attention, she would've seen them moving through the forest, following her, lying in wait to attack. But, she didn't see them. Her mind was preoccupied; just as it always was, and for the life of her, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't get him out of her head.
She despised herself for being weak and allowing him to consume her thoughts. She was grateful he had no way of knowing how many times a day he invaded her head; because if he had known, she was sure he would be quite pleased with himself. She wondered if he ever thought of her, but doubted he did, now that he was with Gabriella. The thought of them together caused her stomach to ache; so she shook her head, hoping to clear the image crowding into her mind.
She shifted in her seat again. Months of traveling on the old bus and you would think she would have grown accustomed to sleeping in the uncomfortable seats, but she hadn't. Listening to the snores and heaving breathing of her eight traveling companions, only made her wish she could join them in their peaceful slumber; but she knew it would only be an open door for him to enter her dreams as well.
Sighing, she wiped her hand across the window, clearing away the fog, and peered out into the darkness. The drama troupe did this same tour last summer; and even though it had been a year, she was certain she would have remembered this narrow two-lane highway, but she didn't. That only meant Walt must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, which also meant a delay in arriving at the hotel and getting off the cramped bus. She usually wasn't easily irritated, but tonight something had her on edge. Maybe it was the stifling heat in the bus, or the lack of peaceful sleep over the past few months, but whatever the cause, she could not shake the premonition of impending doom. Slipping from her seat, she crept to the front of the bus.
"Are we lost?"
Walt startled. "Dang it Bronwyn! Why did you sneak up on me like that?"
"I didn't sneak, you're just nervous because you're lost aren't you?"
He ignored the question and pressed on the gas; pushing the bus to its limit, then nodded his head toward the thermostat.
"I'm afraid we're 'bout to overheat. I think this steep mountain road may be a little too much for our engine."
Bronwyn looked through the windshield; struggling to see into the bitter darkness, hoping he was mistaken.
"You better figure something out. It looks pretty desolate out there."
He sighed in relief when the bus reached the top of the incline, but as it began taking the curvy descent on the other side, a strong vibration accompanied by a loud hissing exploded from underneath the massive vehicle. The headlights dimmed, flickered, and then darkness.
"Damn it." He cursed. "I've lost power!"
The veins in Walt's scrawny arms bulged beneath his skin, as he grasped the wheel, turning it with all the strength he could muster. Bronwyn clutched the seat in front of her; holding her breath, aware of the deep ravines that lined the sides of the mountainous highway. She feared an unavoidable plunge into the deep canyon below.
"For God's sake Walt, just stop where you are!"
"I'm trying damn it!" He cursed again which was a shock to her; in all the years she knew him he seldom used profanity.
Standing from the driver's seat, he stomped on the brakes, pumping them in his desperate attempt to stop the bus. Bronwyn dug her nails deep into the upholstery; as if the force of her grip could somehow help him bring them to a stop.
Lightning struck within inches, provoking more profanity from Walt. The sudden flash of light illuminated the dark highway long enough for Bronwyn to see a man standing in the road ahead. Her grip intensified and she gasped, figuring the bus was sure to plow into him. The flash lasted a fraction of a second before casting them back into darkness. However, a sphere of golden light created an orb around the man, allowing her a better look. His clothing resembled that of an ancient warrior. His saffron eyes penetrated through the windshield of the bus; searing into her soul, invading her body with a sudden rush of heat.
"Bronwyn...." A voice spoke her name. She looked around unnerved by the beckoning call. Everyone was still asleep. Walt was still cursing; besides, his voice was too high pitched to be a match. The voice summoned her again, much louder this time, and seemed to be accompanied by the sound of rushing wind. Covering her ears, she looked at Walt. He didn't seem to hear it. A deafening silence followed her eerie encounter, so she never heard the gravel and debris racing into the wheel well, spraying the sides of the bus, as it skidded toward the deep ravine.
Walt clenched the steering wheel; his arms trembling in his attempt to regain control. Then, without warning, the wheel turned in the opposite direction, nearly snapping his wrist. The bus continued skidding sideways before coming to an abrupt stop; launching Bronwyn into the stairwell. Bracing herself, she struggled to grasp the handrail, all the while praying the door would remain closed.
Letting out a long sigh, Walt quickly shifted the bus into "Park." He sat still for a few seconds, attempting to calm his nerves, before turning to face her.
She nodded, trying to find her voice.
He pulled out his hanky and mopped the sweat from the back of his neck.
"If it hadn't been for that flash of lightning, I'd have driven this bus right off the highway. I had no idea how close to the edge we were."
He didn't mention seeing the man; and that disturbed her. She felt a bit of uneasiness crawl upon her. She knew what she had seen, and was certain that whoever it was had seen her too. Besides, she still felt the intense heat that penetrated her when the eyes of the man somehow looked inside of her.
Glancing out the window she searched for the strange apparition but the road was too dark. Thunderclouds hung ominously in the night sky, obscuring any light the moon had to offer. Another flash of lightning ripped through the darkness of the night. A slight shiver invaded her. The road was empty, the man gone. Only ghostly trees stood vigil, barring entrance to the dense forest that lined both sides of the forgotten highway.
Walt turned to his other eight passengers, now awake, jarred by the sudden stop. The touring bus was home to the traveling drama troupe. Each member claimed a section of seats as their own personal apartment. Myriad complaints and questions began rising out of the darkness from their concerned voices.
"Is everyone okay?" The sound of his voice seemed muffled to Bronwyn; her hearing coming back slowly.
Marcus, the director of the troupe, made his way forward.
"What the hell happened?"
Karley joined him spilling her complaints in the blinding darkness. "Did you fall asleep at the wheel again?"
"No, I didn't fall asleep at the wheel, Karley, nor have I ever." Walt expected the accusations from the troupes most opinionated and over-confident technical engineer. "I just saved your lousy ass. A little respect would be nice."
Marcus jumped in quickly in an attempt to derail another blame-game argument between the two.
"So what happened?"
Walt collapsed in the driver's seat, defeated. "We lost the engine."
Simultaneous groans sounded throughout the bus.
"Everyone just sit tight and stay calm," Marcus sighed, not at all pleased with the situation. "You sure it won't start at all?"
Walt attempted to re-start the engine to prove his point.
"Dead as a doornail."
"Did you try calling for assistance?"
"Haven't had cell reception for the past fifty miles."
"Karley?" Marcus looked hopeful.
"There ain't nothin' I can do. I've been warnin' Wilbur this would happen. He knows this bus is a pile of crap; but he's so dang cheap, he thinks duct tape and a coat hanger can fix everything. Now look at us. It's damn near midnight and we're broke down, stuck out in the middle of nowhere." She looked out of the windshield, "Where are we anyway?"
Walt cleared his throat nervously, "I'm not sure of our exact location. I think the map I was using was an old one."
"We're lost." Bronwyn admitted to Marcus.
"Not entirely," Walt refused defeat. "I saw a sign a ways back that said, 'Moonshine eight miles.' If there is a town ahead, there should be something on the outskirts. I guess we could do some hiking."
Karley crossed her arms in front of her and cocked her eyebrows.
"We? Don't be lookin' at me and sayin' we. I'm keepin' my ass right here on this piece of shit while you, Mr. Wrong Way Walt, go get us some help."
Walt continued to look out his window. Bronwyn could tell by the way he was rubbing the back of his neck; he was somewhat skittish about venturing outside. Keeping his eyes closed, he pinched the bridge of his nose as if embarrassed by his next statement.
"I hear there are a lot of eerie legends and folklore told about the Appalachian's. They say these mountain people can call down curses on you and you'd never know it."
Just as expected, Karley mocked his jittery behavior.
"You tryin' to blame some poor mountain folk asleep in their beds for disabling our bus. The only people you need to blame for this mess is you for takin' a wrong turn and Wilbur Hogg for not puttin' the money in this bus and fixin' it when I told him too."
Walt shoved aside the accusations again.
"All I'm saying, is something kept us from plunging over the side to our death. I was definitely not in control. Believe me when I say it wasn't me that stopped the bus."
The same feeling of impending doom that invaded Bronwyn earlier swept over her again. Walt still had not mentioned seeing the man in the road, and now, his declaration made her believe that maybe she did actually see their guardian angel. But if that was true, then why did she feel such unrest?
Walt continued his morbid warning. "All I am saying, is a person could bring a hex down upon themselves, venturing out alone, accidentally stumbling upon some kind of ancient, sacred ground."
Marcus sighed and Karley laughed. Bronwyn felt for Walt, sensing the anxiety rising inside him due to Marcus's frustration. In spite of her premonition, she came to his rescue.
"I'll go with you Walt."
He blushed. Everyone knew he adored her. She was his favorite among the troupe; so lovely, his definition of true natural beauty. Her dark brunette hair contrasted her ivory skin as it fell past her shoulders, sweeping across her forehead, framing her deep emerald eyes. Her eyes usually occupied a multitude of mischief, however; everyone noticed she seemed to have drawn into herself lately.
"You wouldn't mind coming along?"
She smiled. "Not at all."
Marcus stepped forward needing a bit of reassurance before allowing a female member of the troupe to venture out into the forbidding darkness.
"Are you sure?"
She wasn't sure and had no idea why she volunteered to go; except for the disturbing feeling, that something beyond her control was luring her away from the bus. In any case, she would give Marcus the excuse he needed.
"Actually, I'm grateful for the chance to escape the stale air in here and stretch my legs. Walt's right, there should be something up ahead. I'll be fine."
Realizing it would be a futile effort to argue with the headstrong Bronwyn, Marcus relented. It was no secret that once Bronwyn made up her mind, it was hard to persuade her otherwise.
Grabbing his flashlight from the small utility box, Walt opened the door and lit the path outside.
The thick humid air wrapped around them like a damp blanket as they stepped from the bus and into the dark night. A slight glow of moonlight escaped its lunar entrapment, as a gust of wind blew, scattering the hovering clouds. The low rumble of thunder in the distance gave a subtle warning not to leave the protection of the bus. Despite the hot muggy air, a cold chill made its way up Bronwyn's back. The eeriness of the night caused her to wonder if accompanying Walt had been a wise decision.
The cloaked figure pulled at the hood covering his head, and peered out from behind the trees. There was too many of them and that presented a problem. He never expected a bus load. How was he to know who was the one?
He sniffed into the air, the brewing storm was proof they had re-opened the portal. The scent of rain hanging heavy in the air did not erase the stench of the shadows. They were infiltrating the woods in full force, and he sensed their presence. Foul smelling spies that they were, had no doubt alerted the enemy, and soon the forest would become a battleground.
Revenge occupied his mind for years, and now the opportunity for setting things right presented itself. He had spilled blood before with no remorse. Tonight, the rivers would run with blood if need be.
He glanced across the highway and saw his men moving through the trees. He'd given orders to guard the bus. The enemy disabled it nearly sending it over the ravine; had Barak not intervened, the travelers would have plunged to their death. Since the enemy's plan had been thwarted, he knew they were sure to attack again. They would not rest until the one was dead and since no one knew who it was, they would surely kill them all. Two of the passengers disembarked, and were on foot heading toward Moonshine. He'd stay with them, they were the most vulnerable, neither one having any clue of the danger surrounding them. Besides, he recognized one of them. Dread filled his heart. Even though it had been years, he was sure she was the one they were searching for.
Bronwyn walked alongside Walt down the center of the narrow road; her fear of oncoming traffic dissipating, realizing no one was traveling on this forgotten highway. Walt mentioned he had not passed a single car the entire time he had been driving; this confirmed her suspicion, that he had indeed taken a wrong turn many miles back. There was no way of telling where they were, or how far off course they traveled.
A sudden gust of wind blew from behind, giving her another intense chill, a warning that the impending storm was creeping closer. Walt shook the fading light in his hand. During the course of their walk, the beam gradually changed from a bright white, to a fading yellow glow.
"I swear I replaced these batteries just last week."
He switched the light off and on a few more times, shaking it violently, before it lost all light completely.
Bronwyn sighed. "Now you broke it."
"It's not me." His voice quivered as he defended himself. "I swear these are new batteries. Like I said before, it's a force beyond our control."
Up until now, Walt's extreme superstition would have completely annoyed her; but after her own somewhat supernatural encounter with the man in the road, she thought Walt could be right after all.
They continued their walk in darkness. In the distance, streaks of lightning danced their eerie ritual, while the thick boughs swayed to the mournful ballad of the wind. The rolling thunder applauded their woeful performance. Another flash of lightning exploded in the sky, briefly illuminating the road, allowing Bronwyn to catch a glimpse of a dark hooded figure darting between the trees directly ahead.
She grabbed Walt and gasped, choking on her words.
"Did you see that?"
She hoped he had. She didn't want to think she was beginning to see things, and for some reason she thought if Walt had seen it too, it would somehow bring a feeling of comfort.
"See what?" His voice squeaked a bit.
Her heart fell.
"I saw someone moving in the woods up ahead. Don't tell me you didn't see them?"
He scratched the back of his head nervously.
"Probably just a deer."
"No, it looked like someone wearing a black hooded robe."
Despite the darkness of the night, Bronwyn saw the color drain from Walt's face. She knew he was hiding his fear for her sake.
"It was more than likely just the branches of the trees blowing in the wind," he offered, trying to convince her as well as himself. She stepped in closer grabbing his arm, and shivered, sensing a sinister spirit hanging in the air. They were uninvited guest, trespassing in a forbidden land, while all of nature shrieked out its ominous warning.
The lightning was crackling across the sky more frequently now, its intense flashing made it difficult to see. Still, she was certain she saw the hooded figure following them from the trees, stalking. Her anxiety grew as the wind increased from a gentle gust to a forceful push, howling as it drifted through the trees. A cool burst of air swept past, encircling her, blowing her hair in front of her face, impairing her vision all the more.
She stopped walking and glanced around. A faint whisper floated along with the wind, falling slightly upon her ear, calling her by name. Shivering, she pulled her untamed hair together, holding it down with her hand. It was the second time tonight she heard a strange voice call her name. She looked at Walt to see if he'd heard it too, but apparently he hadn't, since he was still groping along in the darkness; the same expression of uneasiness still on his face.
The breeze scattered more leaves and debris onto the road. Again she paused to listen; certain she heard a woman singing a mournful song. The faint melody called her from deep within the woods.
"What now?" Walt's anxiety was increasing with every passing moment. "Why are you stopping?"
Bronwyn tilted her head to the wind. "Can't you hear that?"
Fear plastered itself across his face. "Hear what?"
"I hear someone singing." Her words chilled him. Again, he paled.
She glanced into the woods sensing something menacing inside; a threatening evil manifesting just beyond the trees. A deep longing beckoned her, a longing she could not comprehend, and she wondered what force was emptying her of her fears and drawing her inside. The summons was not asking her to embrace the malevolent, but rather to vanquish it. The woman's voice gave her courage. She released Walt's arm and moved toward the woods. He reached for her hand, but she slipped past him.
"Where are you going?"
"There's something in there."
He didn't hear her words for the howling wind overcame them, tossing them away.
"Are you crazy? There's nothing in there but a death trap!"
She stepped off the highway into the tall overgrown grass.
He grabbed at her arm, catching it this time.
"I can't let you go in there alone. It's suicide!"
"Come with me then."
Bronwyn's emerald eyes appeared more intense than he had ever seen. He swallowed hard. Any other time, he would revel in the opportunity to hold her hand and take a moonlit walk in the woods, but not under these circumstances. He ran his hand through his overly curly hair.
As if God had answered his prayers, heavy rains began showering down, drenching them, drowning out the woman's call. Bronwyn's courage suddenly gave way to anxiousness, her peace shattered by sudden panic. Just as she decided to do an about-face and make the long run back to the bus, a bolt of lightning hit nearby, revealing an old-fashioned covered bridge on the road ahead. She sprinted for the shelter with Walt at her heels, running against the wind and pouring rain, while dodging the lightning striking painfully close. They arrived at the wooden structure just as hailstones began plummeting down, bouncing off the rooftop, and collecting at the edge of the road.
She collapsed in the center of the narrow highway; her clothes soaked, clinging to her skin. Walt fell in the road beside her.
Wiping the water from her face she glanced around. The wooden roof sheltered them from the falling rain, but unfortunately blocked out any visible light the moon offered; leaving the bridge in almost total darkness. She scooted closer to Walt, as another chill traced its bony finger up her spine. Her body tensed, sensing a presence in the dark recesses. Her heart leaped into her throat; fear engulfing the courage she experienced only minutes before. Someone was on the bridge with them, and the thought of the hooded creature caused her pulse to race. She guessed the cloaked figure was watching her and Walt, their eyes more than likely accustomed to the darkness. Despite the howling wind, she heard a scuffle, and saw the blade of a knife, reflecting a bit of moonlight, making its way through a small hole in the roof. Desperate to escape whoever was wielding the dagger, she grabbed Walt's arm and sprung to her feet, ready to bolt out into the storm.
"No." He protested, never moving from his sitting position. "The lightening is striking too close."
She was ready to leave him to fend for himself. She was perturbed with him anyway. If he hadn't taken a wrong turn or broken the flashlight, she wouldn't be in this predicament. She was half tempted to leave him sitting there, but couldn't bear the thought of him being stabbed to death, or sacrificed to some cult god of the mountains.
"Someone is under here with us." She yelled above the pounding rain. "I'm heading back to the bus. You can come with me, or wait here by yourself."
He began to argue with her and she wondered where he suddenly got his courage. Only minutes ago he was superstitious, afraid to venture out alone, now he was just being lazy and more afraid of the storm than anything the mountains had to offer. She knew she was only wasting her time pleading with him, but if she dashed out into the severe weather, he was sure to follow.
Her body tensed again sensing a presence close behind her; sending another chill up her spine. Despite the scent of rain and wet earth, she smelled the strong aroma of cigarettes. She was ready to bolt, when the headlights from an oncoming truck motivated a change of plans. Instead, she leaped in front of the vehicle as it approached the bridge, causing the truck to come to a skidding stop.
Walt jumped to his feet; yanking her away.
"Are you crazy?"
The headlights dispelled the darkness enough for her to see the figure jump from the side railing into the raging river below. The fabric of the cloak billowed in the wind, as whoever was wearing the masquerade, made their escape.
The door of the vehicle swung open, bringing her attention back to the truck and the man stepping out of the cab. Any fear that manifest in Bronwyn earlier, suddenly dissipated, as she looked into the dark eyes, peering through the long brown hair, hanging in wet pieces over the man's face. Moving away from Walt, she stepped into the glow of the headlights, oddly lured into this stranger's presence. She couldn't help but notice his expression as he caught sight of her. Astonishment spread across his face, as if he were looking at a ghostly apparition. Steadying himself, he grabbed hold of the truck door, and swallowed hard, clenching his jaw.
He closed his eyes for a moment and then opened them again, as if he half expected her to disappear. The same heat sensation she felt earlier, on the bus, gathered in the soles of her feet and permeated upward through her body, tightening her throat. She felt dizzy and her thoughts began scrambling. The feelings enveloping her were euphoric, yet mingled with intense sorrow. Her eyes locked helplessly on the man with no strength to pull away; and somewhere, in the recesses of her mind, she had witnessed this event before. She attempted to recall a suppressed memory of standing in falling water, staring into the eyes of this stranger. Perhaps she had dreamt of it once. Whatever the reason, her heart ached for something she couldn't explain.
Walt offered his hand in an attempt to break the long awkward stare between the man and Bronwyn.
"The name's Walt Kellogg. Our bus broke down a couple of miles from here. We're looking for some help."
The man shook Walt's' extended hand, yet never removed his eyes from Bronwyn.
"Name's Travis. Get in the truck."
Bethany stood at the front of the bus shielding her eyes from the intense lightning; frustrated that Bronwyn had not told her she was going for help. She would have gladly ventured out into the storm with her had she asked. Granted, the past six months had been extremely painful for her, yet this pulling away so to speak, and distancing herself from everyone, was beginning to be somewhat annoying.
The two had become best friends in fifth grade and while everyone clamored around Bronwyn, Bethany was the one she chose. Her choice instantly gave Bethany elevated status in the social circles. She cherished their friendship; just knowing Bronwyn made her mundane existence much more thrilling. Bronwyn's overly active imagination seemed to always land them into a world of adventure. The distractions of such mischief helped Bethany make it through many tough times, including several break ups, rejection by the college of her choice, and her parents painful divorce. Her own imagination and knack for finding adventure didn't quite compare to Bronwyn's, but still she wanted to return the favor and help her friend through her tough times as well. But how could she when Bronwyn continually pushed her away?
The storm was raging now, vigorous winds pushed hard against their vehicle, rocking it back and forth, taunting her while she waited in the darkness along with the rest of the troupe. Looking out of the window was pointless; she could see nothing but the torrential downpour, coming in sheets, veiling her from what was transpiring right outside the bus. Had she known what lurked about, she would have spent less time worrying about Bronwyn and more time on her knees praying for her own deliverance. However, she was not aware of the sinister plans being plotted right outside the bus so she sighed, switched on her flashlight, and made her way to the back. She joined her friends, anxiously awaiting the return of their two comrades; while amusing themselves with mundane tasks to pass the time.
Marcus attempted to comfort Lillian, their distraught leading lady, by massaging her shoulders. Bethany thought it to be a chivalrous effort indeed, but an impossible task of trying to calm the pampered prima donnas' nerves. She walked on passed, daring not to take a seat, and subject herself to Lillian's constant whimpering.
Across the aisle Daniel and Anna were discussing a recent piece of political news. Anna, an elegant and proper woman in her early sixties, argued her perspective with grace. Daniel, who provided the comic relief in every role he played, could only attempt to win the argument with Anna by dismissing the discussion as serious, and making sport of the entire topic. He wasn't really interested, but was only participating to be polite to Anna and pass the time. Bethany thought it best not to try and join in their conversation; besides the topic did not interest her in the least.
Karley and Wilbur both had fallen back asleep. How they could possibly rest in the stifling heat and constant roar of explosive thunder was beyond her. Karley rested with her head leaned back, eyes closed, and her ear buds in. Her iPod drowned out the falling rain.
Wilbur, their portly and tight-fisted bookkeeper, sat slumped in his seat, dozing. A bag of sunflower seeds lay upon his ample stomach. Bethany wanted to give him a swift kick. Everyone knew the bus was in poor shape because of his tight hold on the money. It was his fault Bronwyn was out in the storm.
Trent, their handsome leading man, sat alone in the back of the bus. Now, far away from his audience and swooning fans, he blindly plucked unwanted eyebrow hairs while reciting his lines softly. Everyone had a crush on Trent and although she would never admit it, she was somewhat infatuated herself, and thought his British accent was quite charming. Making her way to the back, she sat down beside him.
"Any sign of them love?"
A deafening thunderclap erupted before she could respond.
"God!" He held his eyebrow in pain. "It sounds like a bloody nuclear explosion."
Lillian peered out of her window.
"The lightning strikes are so close I can sense the electricity permeating through my body."
"That's not a good sign," Daniel warned, though thankful the thunder had ended the long discourse coming from Anna. "They say it's the sensation you feel right before you're struck."
Lillian leaped from her seat as a wave of hysteria came over her.
"Do you think we'll be hit?"
"If by chance we do receive a direct hit," Marcus said, "we're well ground."
"That would be true," Daniel contradicted, "if these tires weren't worn down to bare metal. If we get hit sitting on these babies, I'd say we're toast."
Marcus shot Daniel a disapproving glance while Lillian collapsed into her seat.
"This is ridiculous. I just want to be safe in our hotel."
"Don't we all?" Bethany said, "But at least we have shelter. I'm worried about Bronwyn and Walt. They're out in all of this."
"Yes, I agree. The poor dears." Anna said. "It's a shame we don't have cell reception or we could call and check on their status. I can only pray they have found shelter."
Anna was right. Bethany already checked her phone and there were no bars, no signal, and no missed calls. She sighed again. They were stuck out in the middle of nowhere and where was that? No one knew. All they did know was they were on their way to their biggest venue of the summer and should have arrived at the hotel hours ago. Walt had obviously taken a wrong turn somewhere.
She'd caught Marcus looking at a map scanning the paper with his flashlight. He told her he was searching for a town called Moonshine, because Walt had mentioned seeing a sign. She helped Marcus look, neither one of them found such a place. Seeing that they were in the Appalachians, she was convinced the sign must have been advertising the location of a still; and the way she was feeling, she could use a swig of the potent drink.
A sudden gust of wind pushed up against the bus rocking it violently. Lillian screamed along with the rest of the troupe, troubled by the forcefulness of it. It would take an incredibly strong wind to rock such a heavy vehicle. Daniel's suggestion of the possibility of tornadoes only unnerved Lillian all the more. Marcus mocked Daniels ignorance, stating he'd never heard of tornadoes hitting in the mountains. He attempted to calm the group once more by saying they were just in the eye of a severe thunderstorm, and being at such high elevation caused it to seem more intense than any other storm they had experienced. His argument did sound convincing but Bethany could tell he was just as concerned as everyone else; and when the sides of the bus began popping like someone squeezing an aluminum can, she watched his face grow somber as well.
Outside, a cloaked figure soared through the air, slamming his two victims against the side of the bus. The force of the blow pushed in the metal, denting the vehicle, the sound would surely draw attention so he worked fast.
A quick slicing of his knife and the trespassers slumped to the ground. Their blood mixed with the rain, evidence of his kill washing away and rushing like a river down the side of the highway.
The cloaked man pulled the bodies off the ground, tossing them from view. He would dispose of them later tonight, but right now, he must get rid of the rest of them. Asawas coming and it would be a catastrophe if any of them caught a glimpse of his face. None of them knew this was where he'd been hiding all this time; and it was his duty to keep it that way.
The bus shook hard. The obvious guess was a tree must have blown over denting the sides. Marcus grabbed his flashlight and asked Trent if he'd accompany him outside to take a look, to which Trent laughed and said not a chance. If trees were being uprooted and slamming into the bus, then he had no intention of sticking his head outside the door. Whatever the damage, the surveying could wait until morning or at least until the storm passed. Marcus agreed and was just beginning to sit back down, when another loud thud was heard near the front. The bus door swung open letting in the blowing rain. Marcus aimed his light.
"Get your damn light out of my eyes!" Walt cursed.
Everyone in the bus breathed a collected sigh of relief. Walt and Bronwyn forced their way through the gawking troupe. Their wet clothes hung heavy on their body and water poured off their faces; dripping from their noses and onto the bus floor.
Marcus apologized and lowered his light.
"What's the word? Did you find anything?"
Walt grabbed a towel from his duffel bag.
"There's an inn about four miles from here. We can stay there tonight and deal with the bus in the morning."
"Four miles!" Lillian protested. "Please tell me they are sending a shuttle."
Walt mopped the water from his face and tossed the towel to Bronwyn.
"The man who owns the inn is waiting outside in his pickup."
Lillian wasn't satisfied.
"A pickup? In this weather? I'm expecting it has a covered bed?"
"It's either a quick ride in the back of an uncovered pickup, or a four-mile hike in the storm," Bronwyn said. "Take your pick Princess."
"Neither of those will do."
"There's always staying put." She snapped back.
Walt interrupted their banter.
"I suggest we all grab a small bag for tonight. Just what you need. There won't be room in the pickup for everyone to take their luggage."
Bronwyn returned to her seat. Into her bag, she tossed a book she had been attempting to read. She hoped that reading a good novel would somehow inspire a thought that would force its way through a blockage of revelation that had kept her writing at bay for some time now. The book was not proving to be that inspiring. Still, she placed it in her bag. She didn't intend to read it. The book would be her defense, a barrier she could retreat behind, to sit alone with her thoughts. People were less likely to drum up a conversation with someone who appeared to be engrossed in a book.
The opening of the bus door diverted her attention from packing. Once again, she was taken aback with Travis as he entered.
Walt made the introductions.
"This is Travis; He's giving us a ride to his inn."
Bronwyn observed him scan the interior of the bus. Their eyes locked again, causing the peculiar heat sensation to re-engage her body, re-creating the inexplicable emotion. She removed her eyes from his gaze; the intensity of his stare unnerved her. She looked to see if the others had noticed their unusual encounter. No one seemed to pay any attention. Everyone was immersed in packing his or her belongings. Bronwyn glanced at Bethany, surely she had noticed. Not much escaped her; however, she remained completely aloof.
Bronwyn cautiously returned her eyes back to Travis. He was still watching her; their eyes locked again. She found it difficult to pull away.
"We need to move quickly and get you out of here while there's a lull," his eyes never left hers when he spoke. "More storms are headed this way. Believe me when I say it's only going to get worse."
He descended the steps, giving her one final glance, and disappeared into the night.
The sky remained black as massive storm clouds formed obscuring the moon. The utter darkness cast pure eeriness into the night. The headlights from Travis's truck offered the only light to assist the troupe in finding a way to their ride. Bronwyn held her bag close to her side as she made her way to the pickup. Travis stood at the uncovered bed of the truck, holding a tarp.
Bethany shook her head in disbelief.
"Why is he holding a tarp?" Lillian asked. "Surely it's not the cover to the bed!"
"No, I think it's what he uses to bury his victims in," Bronwyn offered an attempt at evil humor.
Lillian wasn't amused. "Stop it! Do not bring those dark thoughts to my mind. You know how it affects me!"
Bethany gave Bronwyn a sly grin. It always gave her perverted pleasure to torment Lillian anyway she could. Bronwyn returned the smile, despite the fear gnawing inside her that her statement might be right.
Travis and Trent offered the girls their hands helping them into the bed of the truck. Bronwyn waited to board last; graciously allowing Karley, Anna, and an extremely fearful Lillian to enter before her. After they were all safe on board Travis turned to Bronwyn and extended his hand; with his strong grip, he pulled her upward. At the touch of his skin, the heat sensation began again, this time with a bit more intensity and she wondered if he could feel the warmth as well.
Handing the tarp to the group, Travis yelled over the rain, instructing everyone to place it over their heads. Hail was coming; the tarp would offer some protection from the falling balls of ice. Bronwyn grasped her end lifting it high above her head to create a canopy.
Slamming the door to the cab, Travis sped towards the Inn. The sudden movement of the truck combined with the gale force winds yanked the tarp, ripping it from their hands, sweeping it away into the black night. At the very same moment hail began falling, pelting the truck as well as the unprotected passengers. Bronwyn raised her duffle bag, placing it over her head, shielding herself from the plummeting hailstones. Had it not hurt so much, the situation would have been one of the most comical she had ever experienced with the troupe; but for some reason she couldn't seem to find her laughter.
The truck pulled off the road and onto a narrow driveway, rolling to a stop a hundred yards later in front of a three-story Victorian inn. The inn stood in total darkness, save for a few flickering candles in the windows. A bolt of lightning struck just behind the inn adding to its ominous appearance.
Bronwyn read the uneasiness on the faces of her friends. Anna, who usually put on airs and offered positive outlooks, was surveying the inn as if it would be her final resting place.
Bronwyn thought about making a run for it but where would she go? It was pitch black and there was nothing for miles. She envisioned herself running through the drenching rain, into the woods, only to meet her demise by encountering the hooded figure and disappearing off the face of the earth forever. A second bolt of lightning interrupted her thoughts, striking only thirty yards from the truck. The crackling sound of splitting wood, accompanied by a burning aroma was enough incentive for her and the rest of the troupe to bolt for shelter.
She entered through the doorway into the gloomy atmosphere of the inn. The scarce lighting made it difficult for her to make an accurate assessment of the place. She seemed to be standing in an entrance hall of some sort, evidently it doubled as a living room. It felt comfortable enough, furnished with soft leather couches in addition to several overstuffed armchairs. The colors and fabrics remained hidden in the darkness. A mammoth stone fireplace took over an entire wall, and a sizable picture window without covering gobbled up another. The floor was a well-polished hard-wood, covered in places by soft throw rugs that cut the chill off a bare floor. An elevated antique desk stood at the far side of the lobby matching a colossal banister that came to rest at the end of a spiraling wooden staircase.
"Welcome, weary travelers," the cheery southern voice rang out from behind the lofty desk.
Bronwyn stepped further inside the room to view the person who offered the greeting. The light of a small glowing lantern revealed a woman who appeared to be in her early forties. Her loosely braided hair hung to the side of her head. Her welcoming smile covered most of her face, revealing a missing tooth on the left. A noticeable scar traveled from the corner of her left eye halfway down her jawbone. Despite the flaws, Bronwyn could see the beauty hidden deep within her face, and was certain that in times past, this woman had been quite lovely. Nevertheless, an obvious accident had taken its toll on her.
"Sorry 'bout the darkness. Our power got knocked out by the storm. Should have light some time tomorrow. Just step right up and sign my register here and I'll be gettin' y'all into your rooms."
Wilbur forced his way to the front demanding a private room on the first floor. His chubby fingers curled tightly around the pen as he scribbled his name in the book.
The woman glanced at the written name on her register. "Sorry, Mr. Hogg, we only got four rooms here at Sandalwood Inn and every one of 'em's on the second floor. They all have king sized beds in 'em. You're gonna have to double up for the night. Y'all can decide amungst yourselves how...makes me no never mind."
Trent listened in awe to the words that poured from the woman's mouth. "Makes me no never mind? What the hell does that mean?"
Bronwyn stepped forward and signed the book. She took the key from the woman who flashed a perplexing smile and then quickly exchanged glances with Travis. Their knowing glances made Bronwyn feel all the more uncomfortable. The strange bit of heat once again rushed through her body. Maybe it was the premonition of danger; after all, she had heard stories of people who had a sixth sense, enabling them to foretell impending doom. Like people who bolted from a flight at the last minute, only to hear that the plane crashed moments after takeoff. She prided herself on her intuition and discerning abilities, but she had never felt something this strange before. Perhaps, it was because she had never been in extreme danger until now. Her heart raced as the heat wrapped around her neck.
"The names Mavis." She said, interrupting Bronwyn's thoughts of doom. "Travis and I own this here Inn. If you be needin' anything, you give us a holler!"
Bronwyn nodded and noticed the plaque embedded in the wood of the desk.
"Sandalwood Inn. Travis Colton and Mavis Colton proprietors."
The three girls ascended the winding staircase and located room number two. Bronwyn inserted the key and pushed open the door. The room was dark, except for the glow of a flickering candle, burning on a nightstand, sitting beside a rather inviting feather bed. An heirloom dresser and mirror also occupied the room, along with a desk and an overstuffed chair. There was an adjoining bathroom, complete with a quaint old-fashioned tub on legs. Clean towels and washcloths lay folded on the vanity top, along with a basket of sweet smelling ointments and homemade soaps.
Lillian quickly tossed aside her wet clothing and dashed for the bed, throwing her overstressed body across the feather mattress. Bethany followed Lillian's lead. As much as Bronwyn wanted to do the same, she decided on a bath instead. The old-fashioned tub seemed rather inviting and despite the heat and mugginess of the night, she shivered in her wet clothes. After lighting a candle and placing it on the small table near the tub, she filled her bath with warm water, adding the sweet milky potions from the basket. Delightful scents of lavender and jasmine quickly permeated the room. Removing her soaked clothes, she stepped into the inviting tub. Her body melted into the balmy water. She closed her eyes and leaned her head against a soft foam pillow attached to the tub. Outside, the fierce winds and rain continued to wreak havoc, causing the inn to creak and the door to shake. Even though she was uncertain of her surroundings, she was content to finally be in the shelter of the inn. She sank deeper into the tub and found herself dozing off and on as the candle cast hypnotic images on the dark wall.
Her sporadic dreams were nightmarish. She could see the stranger standing behind sheets of falling water; his black eyes revealing much distress. In her vision, she longed to reach for him, to be where he was, yet he was pushing her away. Then, without warning, the ground disappeared from underneath her and she felt herself falling, plummeting into darkness...
The fall jolted her awake so she kicked her leg violently, splashing water over the side of the tub. She shivered, the water having turned cold during the duration of her dream. She climbed from her bath deciding it would be best to continue sleeping in the bed rather than a tub filled with water. She toweled off and dressed quickly. Tiptoeing into the room, she tried not to wake Lillian who was sleeping soundly in the middle of the bed or Bethany who staked her claim on the left side, furthest away from the door. After checking to see that the door was indeed locked, she blew out the remaining candle and climbed into the soft comfort of the bed. The rain had backed off to a gentle patter and the winds diminished from a deafening roar to a steady whistle.
"You know what's weird?" Bethany whispered.
Bronwyn flinched; surprised she was still awake.
"You saw Travis, the man that picked us up?"
"Uh huh," Bronwyn wondered if Bethany had experienced the same peculiar heat sensation that she had when he looked at her, or if she had noticed the long stare between them on the bus.
"Did you see his wife? I mean how do those two go together at all? Is she lucky or what?"
Bronwyn smiled in the darkness. "Beth, I think you've reached an all-time low in shallowness."
Bethany sighed into the blackness of the room. "You were pretty quiet all day. Must have been a good book you were reading."
"When are you going to snap out of this funk? When do I get my partner in crime back? I miss you."
Bronwyn remained silent. Although she agreed with Bethany that she hadn't been herself lately, she had no answer as to when she would snap out of it, as Bethany had so simply put it. She hopelessly tried to move forward and continue with life; however, it wasn't that easy, especially when she felt no energy or motivation to do so.
"I wish I could," she sighed. "Believe me, I wish I could. I don't know what's wrong with me. Everything's just blah. There's no color, no joy, no excitement, no intrigue, no motivation, no cause, nothing worth existing for."
"All this because of Ryan?"
"Don't give him so much credit."
Despite the denial, Bronwyn knew her low spirit stemmed from exactly that.
"Good night, Beth." She refused to enter into any conversation about Ryan. She knew this was the reason Bethany had been waiting up. She was her dearest friend and usually she enjoyed her company tremendously. However, Bethany's persistent questions and concern over her personal affairs, combined with her endless advice, had begun to grow wearying.
A final rumble of thunder sounded in the distance. The last bit of rain tapped gently on the window. Bronwyn's eyes grew heavy as she faded off to sleep.
Just outside the inn, a shadowy, cloaked figure cleaned the blood from his knife and placed it back inside the folds of his robe. Camouflaged by the massive fir trees, he stood his vigil, watching the inn, and waiting.
The morning sun streamed through the picture window, piercing through the linen curtains and filling the room with light. It wasn't the gleaming rays of sunlight however, that stirred Bronwyn back to consciousness; but rather the delicious scents traveling from the kitchen, up the winding staircase, and directly into room number two.
She opened her eyes squinting from the brightness, raised her head from its cushioned cradle, and looked over the bed. The middle was empty, and Bethany still lay in the exact position as the night before. She was glad to see they were still in one piece and that no one had crept into the room while they slept. Lillian was missing but Bronwyn figured she was downstairs having breakfast since she was known to be an early riser; besides, there was no sign of a struggle anywhere. Considering the uneasiness she felt right before bed, Bronwyn was surprised at how soundly she had slept. She yawned and looked over at Bethany.
Bethany stirred groggily. "My body's still asleep but my nose woke up some time ago. Have you ever smelled anything so amazing?"
"Not since I was a little girl."
The two sat up and looked around the room. Bronwyn admitted that the morning light gave it a more inviting appearance. Pale Yellow walls, trimmed with white crown molding and adorned with beautiful oil paintings, hugged the room with warmth. White lace curtains hung over a sizable picture window; the fabric complimenting the snowy comforter covering the enormous four-post bed. Everything about the room felt friendly, cheerful and inviting. It was so different from the feelings of the night before.
Bethany was the first to climb from the feather mattress. She gave a loud yawn and then crossed over to the window.
"Whatcha say we follow our noses?"
"Sounds good." Bronwyn reluctantly climbed from the bed, pulled a pair of cotton shorts and a tank out of her overnight bag, then headed into the bathroom.
Bethany pushed back the curtains as she opened the window. Lovely floral scents immediately rushed into the room along with the morning air. The new day's sun not only gave a different feel to the inside of their room, but unmasked a world of beauty outdoors as well.
"Wow, this is amazing!"
She announced her discovery so that Bronwyn could hear her from the adjoining bathroom. Surrounding the inn, as far as the eyes could see, were the most exquisite gardens. Plants, flowers and trees of every species bloomed in the fertile soil below. An ornate fountain stood in the center of the circle drive bubbling over with fresh water. Numerous flowering plants and crawling vines found their way up the fountain all drinking from the water in its basin. To her far right, a river lazily trickled over droves of natural rock.
"This is amazing," she repeated.
Movement to the right, near the stream, caught her attention, bringing her eyes to Travis. He was busy, clearing away broken branches and debris that fell during the storm. The morning heat had obviously caused him discomfort, which to Bethany's delight, had resulted in him removing his shirt. She watched eagerly as he grabbed a hefty branch with his gloved hand and tossed it effortlessly into a pile of collected rubble. With a jerk of his head, he swept his wet hair away from his forehead and continued his clearing.
"Bronwyn, come here! Quick!"
Still brushing her teeth, Bronwyn emerged from the bathroom.
"Look." Bethany pulled back the curtain. "See what I mean about him and Mavis not going together? My God he is in great shape! Look at those muscles!"
Bronwyn rolled her eyes as she walked away from the window and returned to the bathroom. She feared if she took a small peek he might see and lock eyes with her again. She made sure to avoid any more disturbing encounters with the man. She spit the toothpaste from her mouth, rinsed and then realized her hands were trembling. She splashed the cold water on her neck, hoping to cool off the heat sensation and stop the trembling, before Bethany noticed and begin asking questions. She took a deep breath and walked back into the room.
"Pull yourself away from the window, Beth. He's a married man, and more than likely has an inn full of kids."
"You're probably right." Bethany sighed and removed herself from the window; allowing the curtain to fall back slowly, while she took in every glimpse she could possibly manage.
Larry Earp eagerly surveyed the bus engine. His excitement went unnoticed by Karley and Walt who were hovering over him. Walt, eager for anyone who would listen, relentlessly spouted off his signature story about the time he had fallen ten floors from a building during firefighting school. Larry only half listened as he pulled and prodded at the complicated engine, offering only a grunt every now and then just to keep Walt satisfied. A soft spoken country fellow, Larry was the only mechanic in the small town. He kept busy repairing anything from car engines to lawn mowers. Much to Larry's delight, a challenge worthy of his expertise presented itself. He stood from his squatting position and slammed the door to the engine compartment.
Karley interrupted Walt's story. "Can you fix it?"
Larry spit out the tobacco juice that had been pooling under his bottom lip for some time.
"I can fix it. It'll be a full day's work."
"That's great." Karley starred at the black gooey substance hiding under Larry's bottom lip. "That shouldn't put us too far behind."
"Full day's work if I had the parts. I'm gonna have to order 'em. You're lookin' at seven to eight business days."
"Oh." That was all a stunned Karley could muster. "You're serious?"
Wilbur, who had been resting on the bus steps during Larry's diagnostics, suddenly jumped to his portly feet.
"That will not do! We have an extremely important engagement three days from now, and we cannot afford to miss it!"
"Lookin' like you'll have to go without your bus. Cause it ain't movin'."
"Just rig something up to get us on the road! We'll make the needed repairs when we get to where we're going."
Karley was exasperated.
"Now that's what got us stranded here in the first place, Mister Procrastinate! We've done all the riggin' we can do. Now it's time for some fixin'! Walt and I warned you this was going to happen!"
"You should've listened to 'em." Larry spat once again, this time barely missing Wilbur's swollen feet with the brown juice. "Prevention is a heck of a lot cheaper than replacing. 'Fraid this one's gonna cost you a pretty penny."
Wilbur's brow furrowed deeper at the threat of losing money.
"Are you even sure you know what you're talking about? I bet a country hick like you has never seen an engine this big. I for one would like a second opinion!"
Larry removed the rolled-up ball cap from his back pocket and placed it on his head as he climbed into the cab of his truck.
"Good luck with that, seeing I'm the only mechanic in town." He spat once more before starting his engine.
Karley ran to the truck and peered into the window.
"Just go ahead and order whatever you need to fix it."
Larry put his truck into drive.
"Alright, but first thing we need to do is get your bus to my garage."
"How the hell we gonna do that?" Her inquiry remained unanswered, as Larry's truck disappeared around the corner.
Downstairs in the kitchen Mavis was busily pouring more batter into the waffle iron as she hummed a happy tune. A bowl of brown eggs sat next to a sizzling cast iron skillet, along with a platter of diced potatoes waiting to be cooked. Fresh strawberries and various types of melons lay on a tray, peeled and sliced. Glass pitchers full of orange juice and iced water sat on the massive wooden table near an open kitchen window. The morning air wafted into the window and swirled about the room with the aid of a large ceiling fan. A massive stone fireplace, doubling as an oven for baking fresh bread, completed the other side of the room.
Mavis closed the waffle iron, grabbed a pot of fresh brewed coffee and headed to the table to replenish the empty mugs; it was then Bronwyn noticed Mavis used a walking stick for assistance.
Bethany refilled her glass with orange juice, marveling that it was indeed the best juice she had ever tasted. She asked Mavis an onslaught of questions from what brand of juice she was drinking, to why the eggs were brown instead of white, and was delighted to learn everything was homegrown, including the orange juice in her glass along with the organic eggs in the bowl. Mavis even claimed that the two children who had stormed into the kitchen with their own barrage of questions were homegrown as well.
Carla Jo, the eldest of the two, zeroed in on Trent as she bit into her fluffy waffle.
"Are you all really famous actors from California?"
Mavis eyed her daughter as she stirred the cooking potatoes. The girl was only twelve and already boy crazy.
"Carla Jo, you know the rules about bothering the guest."
"Momma!" Carla Jo was quick to defend her actions. "Actors are used to this. It comes with being famous. They actually love it!"
"You're beautiful!" Molly's small voice rang out as she stared in awe at Lillian. Lillian smiled, pleased with the adoration.
"And so are you dear. Come sit here, next to me."
"Is it alright momma?" Molly asked, wide-eyed. Mavis smiled as she cracked another egg, sending the yolk into the sizzling hot skillet.
"I reckon so dear, but mind your manners."
Molly eagerly climbed up into her chair and took her seat beside the famous guest.
Bronwyn stared out of the open window, sipping her coffee while ignoring the idle chatter at the table. She preferred the sound of birds chirping, the low honk of the geese out on the water and the wooden wind chimes playing their lazy tune as they hung on the porch. The cool morning breeze floated through the window touching her tenderly on the face while bringing in the many scents of the outdoor gardens. She welcomed the aromas; they were much different from the musty stale air of the touring bus.
She wasn't certain, but she thought she sensed a bit of inspiration...a feeling foreign of late. The sudden stimulation made her want to venture outdoors, fall into the soft green grass, inhale all the scents and sounds and lay there for hours and dream. She predicted her dreams in the inn's gardens would be peaceful and untroubled not like the nightmarish haunts that accompanied her nights. She hoped she would get the chance to tour the inn's grounds before the bus was ready for departure. It would be a shame to miss such an opportunity.
"Bronwyn!" Bethany annoyingly nudged her in the ribs, bringing her attention from the outdoors and back into the busy room. Travis was in the kitchen, washing his hands at the sink. Bethany shoved her hip into Bronwyn's with the intention to have her move down the table to make room for Travis. Bronwyn fumed inside and suddenly found the food on her plate interesting.
"Thank you." Travis took the offered seat. Mavis hobbled over to the table handing him a plate. She patted him lovingly on the cheek before limping back to the stove. He poured himself a glass of water and then dished only fruit and eggs onto his plate.
"You know Ryan Reese?" Carla Jo fairly screamed with delight.
The name brought Bronwyn's attention away from her eggs and to the trivial banter. It was as if someone had tossed the pitcher of ice water right into her face.
"Ryan is my absolute favorite actor in the world!" Carla Jo gushed on about her crush. "I've seen his movie so many times! Tell me everything you know about him!"
Bronwyn searched the faces of her comrades, wondering who had betrayed her secrecy.
"Sorry, Bronwyn." Daniel offered his lame excuse. "The kid wanted to know if any of us knew Ryan."
Carla Jo sat wide-eyed. "So you really know him?"
Bronwyn tried to hide a grimace. She wanted to say no; and if she did, she didn't think it would be a total lie because his actions of late made her feel like she really didn't know him.
She met Ryan six years ago when they were cast in the same show. He loved reading all of her stories and his genuine interest in her writing was one of the things that drew her to him. One evening, after attending a movie, the two sat in a coffee shop critiquing the shallowness of the story and the predictability of its characters. It was then and there they decided to write their own screenplay, the beginnings of which were formed on napkins. After all if Keats could write the immortal "Ode to a Nightingale" on a napkin, well then, they could start their masterpiece on one too.
The months that followed were thrilling. Together they created the story, developed the characters, and fabricated amazing twist and plots. Bronwyn thoroughly enjoyed their late-night writing capers. Whenever the two experienced writer's block, they would venture out into the night, and find a run-down donut shop that stayed open until the wee hours of morning. They would feast on sugary donuts and black coffee until an idea broke though. The night they completed the script, Ryan suggested they celebrate by dressing up in their most elegant attire and treat themselves to a nice dinner at an overly expensive restaurant. It was at the end of that dinner that Ryan got on his knees, presented Bronwyn with a beautiful ring, and proposed. They set the date that night and she immediately began making wedding arrangements.
It so happened that on the day she found her perfect wedding gown, Ryan's agent called with the phenomenal news that one of his auditions had paid off. He landed a substantial role in a feature film. Thrilled for his good fortune, they agreed to move the wedding date back to accommodate his shooting schedule. The movie was a remarkable success, skyrocketing him to instant fame. He was immediately signed to do the sequel. This time, the shooting took place in Australia. Again, Bronwyn changed the wedding date.
He was gone for months and his calls became scarce. She was faced daily with pictures of Ryan and his alluring co-star Gabriella Mendez, plastered on the cover of every magazine. Each one full of articles accompanied with scandalous pictures, all insinuating a brewing relationship. None of the articles mentioned a fiancé back home. She refused to read anymore. Besides, Ryan was never quoted in any of them. The reports were merely speculation. She loved him and was certain of his love for her, so she continued on with the wedding plans.
With Ryan's birthday approaching, she decided to fly to Australia to surprise him. The visit was different than she had envisioned. His schedule allowed them no time together and as much as she hated to admit it, she sensed a noticeable distance from him. Her heart ached when he introduced her as his good friend instead of his fiancé. She forced a smile and good humor throughout the remainder of the week and was actually relieved when it was time to board the plane and return home. It was only a few days after her return when she received an email from Ryan. The letter broke off their relationship... along with her heart and optimistic spirit.
She sighed. When would the memory stop being so fresh?
"Sore subject, hon."
Mavis immediately came to Bronwyn's rescue. "That's enough kids; your breakfast is more than done. Y'all got chores to do."
"You heard me. Now scoot!"
Carla Jo gave a pleading look at Travis, who flashed a sympathetic smile. "You heard your mother."
Carla Jo removed herself from the table along with her sibling; with slumped shoulders, she left the room to do her chores.
"I'm sorry," Bronwyn apologized to Mavis. "She didn't know...."
"It's all right honey. That Carla Jo could worry the horns off a Mulley cow."
"What the hell is a Mulley cow?" Once again Mavis left Trent mesmerized by her strange choice of words.
Daniel didn't hear Trent's comments.
His words fell flat as he gazed out of the window. Bronwyn turned to see what could have possibly stunned Daniel into speechlessness. Simultaneous gasps erupted around the table as the troupe saw their beloved tour bus towed by a small green tractor. A man in a straw hat and overalls drove while Karley sat perched on the back.
"Bloody hell!" Trent burst into laughter. "Where's my camera when I need it?"
The tractor continued towing the enormous bus past the inn and down the highway. Anna stood. "Marcus, I think it's time we hook up with Karley and see what's going on."
Marcus pushed away from the table and wiped his mouth with a linen napkin. "I couldn't agree more."
"Looks like Larry's towing you to his garage," Mavis said.
"And where might we find Larry's garage?" Anna asked.
"And where would town be?"
"A mile down the highway. Just follow the road; it'll take you right to it."
Anna tried one more time for a definite location. "Could I please have a business address for the garage?"
"Don't need one. You'll see it when you get there and iffin' by chance you miss it, ask anyone they'll point it out to you."
Unsure, Anna took in a deep breath. There was no other choice than to follow Mavis' simplistic advice. Bronwyn could see that Anna was irritated, befuddled by Mavis' nonchalant nature. As always, though, Anna kept her very professional and agreeable disposition, thanking Mavis for the information as she and Marcus left the kitchen.
Trent and Daniel agreed it would be an experience of a lifetime to venture into this mysterious and yet unseen town of Moonshine. After eating more than they should, they left to scout out the town. Lillian also left the table to shower, and Mavis exited to retrieve fresh laundered towels for her use.
The once populated kitchen cleared instantly, leaving only Bethany, Bronwyn and Travis at the table. Much to Bronwyn's dismay, Bethany, who thrived on chatting, quickly tried to drum up a conversation with him.
"So, lived here all your life?"
"Pretty much," He responded.
Bethany's upper lip curled at the thought of it.
Bethany irritated Bronwyn. Why did she feel the need to talk to Travis? Why couldn't she just leave things alone? Bronwyn purposely avoided looking at him the entire time he had been sitting at the table, not wanting another uneasy gaze from his direction. Her frustration with Bethany turned into a quick reprimand.
"Bethany! Don't be rude."
"I'm not being rude. I'm just curious as to why someone would want to spend their entire life in such a small, secluded place when there is a whole world out there to enjoy. It's an honest question."
"Well, it sounds rude." Bronwyn's voice was scolding.
Bethany tried sounding innocent.
"Did you think I was being rude?"
Travis shrugged his shoulders.
"I just figured that's how you big city folk are, or maybe it's just the theater types. I've heard they're strange like that. On the other hand, it could be that you didn't have proper raisin' and are lackin' in manners. But no, I didn't think you were being rude, a bit ignorant maybe but not rude."
Bronwyn suppressed her laugh; it was rare to see Bethany embarrassed. Travis remained stoic, cutting his eyes over to Bronwyn. Bethany didn't give up.
"Okay. I'll try re-wording my question." She spoke slowly, as if there were a language barrier. "Have you ever considered that there might be a better, more fulfilling life for you someplace else? And how would you know if this is all you want, if you have nothing to compare it to?"
Satisfied with her question, Bethany sat back in her chair, awaiting his reply.
Travis took the last bite of his fruit and finished off his water before answering her.
"I'm not sure you can define a fulfilled life by a location. I think the best life you can have is contentment, no matter what your circumstances. You can live in paradise and not be at peace. You make your happiness."
Standing, he took his and Bronwyn's empty plates to the sink.
"As far as missing something," he said, looking directly into Bronwyn's eyes, "who knows? You might find what you've been searching for right here."
The heat sensation began again in the soles of her feet; rising upward thru the rest of her body, making her dizzy. She knew this was not the reaction of a giddy infatuation, or the result of nervousness. This sensation was something she was certain she had never experienced before and it frightened her. She desired to look away; fearful he would notice her discomfort. He gave her a slight nod and left the room.
"Now there's someone to write about," Bethany gushed. "If that man doesn't inspire torrid thoughts inside of you then your brain dead. You see what I mean about him and Mavis not going together?"
Bronwyn had enough.
"Be quiet, Beth! She might hear you!"
Bethany pouted. "You're beginning to sound like Anna, proper, diplomatic, and boring! I want the old Bronwyn back. I miss her so much. I have no one to have fun with." She sighed melodramatically, "I guess I'll have to train up Lillian."
Bronwyn smiled at the thought. Pampered Princess Lillian; her partner in crime? Bethany's threat went undaunted.
"Tell you what," Bronwyn suggested. "Why don't we venture into this metropolis of a town and see what we can find."
"Will you be fun?"
Bronwyn smiled at her friend.
"I'll be a blast."
Soon, the girls were headed across the Inn's lawn to the main highway, accompanied by Lillian, who eagerly invited herself on their quest. The scents from the garden filled their lungs as the girls followed the cobblestone path that wound its way to the main road. Bronwyn was amazed at the variety of plants. Foliage literally covered every inch of ground.
"Sandalwood Inn." Bethany enlightened them by reading aloud the words on the beautifully hand-painted sign near the property's edge. The girls came to a stop when they reached the narrow highway. It was unnecessary, for there was not a single car traveling this forgotten winding road.