Despite superstitious warnings, an angry and embittered man seeks solace from a strange woman he encounters in the woods.
Forty year-old Sebastian Sterling sat on the makeshift cot in the shabby cottage he shared with his mother. Of course, to call the place a cottage was a disgusting error. It scarcely passed as livable. The windows—all three of them—were riddled with spider cracks. The big one that framed the front of the cottage had duct tape at the base. On windy days, the bottom would snap up and out and slam back down against the window sill, creating a dismal sound that echoed through the two room shack.
Behind the cottage was a heavily wooded area that enveloped a bright blue lake. It was only a ten minute walk from the cottage, but Sebastian hardly had time to walk around.
His company suffered several downsizings in the past decade. The last, which slashed his salary by two-thirds, sent him packing from a modest one bedroom apartment in Meadow Heights to the pathetic cottage in the outskirts of civilization.
Beverly Sterling, Sebastian’s mother and only surviving relative, had suffered a major breakdown nearly thirty years ago. It left her unable to work and unable to live on the small disability checks that she received. As Sebastian’s job downsized, so was his ability to pay for her studio apartment. With great pain and bitterness, he moved both of them to the cottage.
Huxey’s Plot—that was the name of the area. Meadow Heights hadn’t even bothered to annex the area. The only piece of the five thousand acres worth anything was that bright blue lake. But the locals of Huxey’s Plot were superstitious of the location, and because the area was scattered with the same dilapidated cottages as Sebastian inhabited, it remained desolate and mostly unlivable. A simple post office and general store were the only luxuries that reminded Sebastian that he hadn’t completely been forgotten by society.
“Sebby, we need milk.” Beverly’s voice pulled Sebastian out of his daily torment of re-evaluating the situation. It was his daily habit of regrets and dismay. He let them play over and over in his head like a possessed tape recorder.
The rickety door to her bedroom—the only room besides the bathroom with a door—jerked open. She teetered out in a fluffy white robe. She had a pair of jeweled high heels on, and a not-very-well hidden negligee underneath.
He rolled his eyes without fully facing her.
“Did you hear me? We need milk. And I’m out of cigarettes.”
He shrugged his shoulders and stood up. He had slept in his work pants from the day before, and instead of changing, he simply threw on a fresh shirt. His hair was dirty, and his face looked supremely rough. He walked to the bathroom and splashed cold water around. There was time to shave before work. There was even time to shower. Instead, he slathered on another layer of deodorant, tucked in his shirt, and flicked a few ounces of what was left of his cologne around his neck.
“Sebby? Do you hear me? Milk and cigarettes. Can you get them after work? Or can you leave me money?”
He caught his own smirk in the mirror. With little care, he snapped the light off and returned to the little cot.
“It might be nice if we had something different for dinner, don’t you think? Instead of that damn bologna you like so much, why don’t we roast a chicken?” Beverly followed her son to the front room. The sun was blinding through the large window, and she had to fan her eyes with her hands before reaching for Sebastian.
“Do you remember when you were little how I would roast a chicken? I would cut up the onions, the potatoes, and the beans. You would sprinkle lemon juice and butter. It was before your father would come home and…”
Her voice trailed off. He looked up at her and saw her frozen face. That’s what it all came back to, after all. The disappearing father. The disappearing income. The mother with no skills trying to find a job. And the realization that her very nature absconded from such things. Working for money. Working for anything that wasn’t handed to her. THAT had been her trauma—being forced to meet the real world and never understanding why no one would just give her a hand.
And why would she learn when eventually people WOULD just give her a hand. Grocery money. Free babysitting. Hospital bill write-offs. Even her own son, who struggled somewhere between hating her and pitying her, had housed her since he reached adulthood.
“Chicken is a lot of work.” That’s all he could say. He pulled a few dollar bills from his wallet and placed them on the table.
She picked up her conversation as if it never ended. “I’ll get some onions and potatoes. I’ll take care of everything, Sebby! And the milk and the cigarettes.”
He shut the door behind him, but her voice still traveled on after him.
It was a solid hour walk to the office from the shabby cottage in Huxey’s Plot. Sebastian knew he could walk a few minutes to the bus stop, but he preferred the walk. It was the only two hours a day of peace he had—the walk to and from work.
The view of the post office caught his attention—a line of people were standing in front of its gated parking lot. As he walked closer, he saw that the gate was open and an ambulance and police car were parked. Lights on both vehicles threatened to outshine the piercing sunlight.
Normally, he wouldn’t have cared about any community action. Today was different. Jake Foster—the old man that had discounted Sebastian’s rent more than once on the cottage—was standing in the rear of the crowd. His eyes were on Sebastian. His face looked terrified.
He didn’t bother quickening his pace to get to Jake. He didn’t really care other than the old man had cut him a break, and clearly something had happened.
“You aren’t taking walks alone at night, are you?” Jake’s tone was even dire. But his question was so ominously overly dramatic that Sebastian nearly laughed.
“Just to and from work.”
“But you don’t walk alone at night? You don’t walk back to the lake?”
“I haven’t gone back to the lake.”
“Just mind yourself that you don’t. Terry Bonnie’s son was found floating this morning.” He pointed toward the police. “They say he must have been doing night fishing. Got drunk or fell in the water.”
“A bad way to go.” Sebastian started walking away. After all, he had to go to work. He had to keep supplying the small amount of money that was barely keeping himself and Beverly alive.
But the old man grabbed his shirt until Sebastian faced him. “It ain’t the water that killed that boy. It’s what lives in that water. It’s what lives in those woods.”
“Jake, I appreciate the warning.”
“Nah, you say you do. Terry Bonnie’s son said he got the warning. And now he’s dead.” Sebastian jerked himself free and began walking away. “There have been others, Sebastian. Be sure and mind my warning—stay AWAY from the woods and don’t go near that lake!”
Sebastian thought of the old man’s words on and off throughout the day. The area was rustic and encumbered with old folklore drivel that irritated him to the core. He preferred logic and realism to ghost stories and curses. He preferred tangible process rather than faith. Mostly, though, he preferred to be left alone.
The journey home proved to be just as discourteous.
“Hi there, Sebastian.” The dainty voice of Jake’s daughter sent chills up his spine. She was a long-talker.
“Hello, Veda.” As if the two words were a serenade, the young woman danced up beside him.
“Did you hear about Terry Bonnie’s son?”
“Your father told me this morning.”
“The fancy coroner from the city said he drowned.”
“Then I suppose he must have.”
“Papa doesn’t think so. Neither do I. I think it was that witch in the woods.” He paused long enough to face her.
Big, dimpled cheeks and a pair of shorts far too high on the thighs for a woman her age.
If Sebastian himself didn’t live there, he’d have laughed. He’d have laughed at the dress of this woman, at her father’s superstitions, and at the inability of the town to believe a man could simply drown. But he couldn’t laugh. Not with Beverly at his house. And not with thinking that nasty cottage was even a house.
“I’m too urban for witches to frighten me, Veda.”
“It’s Huxey’s witch, Sebastian. And she’s as real as you and me.” The certainty of her words would have charmed him if he weren’t so annoyed.
“I guess you better take care not to bother her, then.” He wished she would leave. Instead, her footsteps increased to keep up with his pace.
“I don’t go near the lake. That’s her special place. Some of the boys say the fishing is good, but it’s dangerous to go there after dark. Or at all probably. And you shouldn’t go there, either.”
“Your father told me as much this morning. I’ll remember.”
“I ain’t trying to scare you, but it would be a shame if that fancy coroner came back for you.” He looked at her perplexed. It was profound worry in the simple girl’s voice.
“Veda, I’m going to mind the warnings. Thank you.” He left her in the middle of the makeshift path home. He was relieved she didn’t follow. But less relieved to see her father’s beat up truck parked in front of the cottage.
As quietly as possible, he opened the front door. Remnants of half-eaten chicken were on the table. A carton of cigarettes had been ripped open. And from beyond the bathroom and inside Beverly’s tightly shut door were sounds he wished he’d never heard before.
But their grunting and moaning only cemented what he knew. The hell he was living was his own.
Peace. All Sebastian desired was peace.
He walked into the woods. He walked with a slow pace. Why rush? His mother would be in no hurry to remedy her saturated bedroom or massacred chicken mess.
Further into the woods, he could hear the sound of water splashing. He wiped the thin line of sweat from his forehead and followed the sound. From where he was standing, the view of the woods was completely different. As they bordered the rundown homes, the trees were scattered and broken, but with a giant thicket of weeds that made it difficult to walk through.
But now the trees were bright and green. The ugly thicket was replaced with lush grass that tickled his calves. Instead of being prickly, it was soft. And he pushed his pants up to his knees so he could feel the sensation fully.
There were no voices. No footsteps. No signs of any humans. And when he reached the forbidden lake, he knew why. It was a vision within a wall of decrepitness.
The water was blue and calm. A narrow creek supplied a gentle flow of water that cascaded down and made that blissful splashing sound. Only chirping birds, the water, and some swaying tree branches echoed in his ears.
Huxey’s witch be damned. He felt too alive suddenly to care about warnings.
He looked at his reflection in the blue water. He was beyond scruffy. And the dirt in his hair was more than obvious. He thought for a few seconds if he could remember the last distinct time he had a shower. Four day ago, perhaps?
He peeled off yesterday’s pants and today’s shirt, flung his shoes and socks on the grass, and stripped off his briefs without any concern. Without even bothering to test the water’s temperature, he dove in.
The water was warm, clear, and seemed to scrub his body clean effortlessly. It was perfect. The entire scene was perfect.
He swam from one end of the bank toward the middle, where it looked very deep. He dove under, amazed at how clean and suddenly alive he felt. When he broke the surface for air, he laughed. He laughed heartily and sincerely. Never in the time he’d been at Huxey’s Plot had he imagined he would find a measure of solitude and peace. Even if it was only in the evening, he would relish this.
The sun was setting. He floated in the water, letting the last remaining rays stroke his body. The cascade of light was disappearing quickly, but the giant moon above offered a lovely contrast. He remarked it as an oddity—as if the sun was actually kissing the moon goodnight.
He never wore a watch, but knew it was close to eight o’clock now. He wondered if Beverly cared that he wasn’t home. Then he stopped wondering. It didn’t matter as long as she had some cash now and then. He reminded himself of the nights he worked a double-shift and she hadn’t noticed.
As long as there were cigarettes and some cash, she’d never notice.
The skin on his fingers had plumped and wrinkled. He reluctantly pulled himself out of the water. The grass still felt soft and wonderful, and for a moment he thought about stretching out on top of it and drying under the moonlight. Then he realized his clothes were gone.
He eyes gazed to the other side of the lake. Had he swam to the wrong side? He spied one lonely sock resting on the grass and knew he wasn’t wrong. He looked around again—hearing and seeing no one.
And suddenly there was a giggle. A small, delighted giggle. He peered toward the trees…and at a particular shape that seemed to resemble human.
“Veda?” He called out. He would be annoyed with her, but he would try to mask it with politeness. It wasn’t unheard of for an unlucky urbanite like himself to be targeted by a witless dolt. But Veda was far from what he wanted.
The giggling stopped, but the form by the tree remained. Sebastian was given no answer.
“Veda? Is that you?” He began to approach the form and quickly remembered that he was completely naked. He turned his body sharply toward the lake, suddenly feeling less annoyed and more…anxious. From behind, he heard footsteps. He knew the form—whatever it was—meant to approach HIM now. And damn it to hell if it was Veda after all.
“Missing something?” The most sensual voice beckoned to him. He turned halfway to see exactly WHO had been stalking him.
It definitely was not Veda.
She didn’t look particularly tall, but maybe a head lower than Sebastian. Her hair shined like gold in the moonlight, and it hung in thick waves below her shoulders. Her dress was knee-length and looked either white or beige. She wore no shoes. No jewelry. She carried no purse or bag. But her warm smile eased any worry he might have had about her.
He returned the smile.
“Do you often steal other people’s clothes when they’re in the water?”
“Only if the view is desirable.” Her words were solid enough that he didn’t want to turn completely around and face her.
“Who are you?”
She closed the gap between them but did not shy away from gazing at his lower region. “My name is Lorena.”
“Lorena.” He tried the name on his lips. Her smile returned. “I’m Sebastian Sterling.”
“Do you want your clothes back, Sebastian Sterling?”
She was so close that he could smell a faint lavender scent. Her face was very beautiful, very feminine. And her eyes flashed cornflower blue.
“You don’t belong here.” He uttered the words before thinking. But in earnest, she was possibly the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. And her voice—it lured him in as if he were a fly in her web. Yet, he felt no fear.
He flushed red. “Sorry, I think I’ve been out here too long to remember manners.”
“Or clothing.” He watched her gaze follow his body again. He was fighting an urge he hadn’t felt in several months. And he was doing it completely naked.
“Clothing would be nice. It seems like you’ve gotten a good enough look.”
She flung her arms in the air. “I’m the only one that ever comes out here at night. And in my defense, this is my safe haven from the world. You intruded. Taking your clothes is hardly a crime considering your infraction.”
He cracked a laugh. “Fair enough. I was looking for my own escape. For all the damn superstitions of the town, I figured this place would be my refuge. I’m sorry that it’s taken.”
Her face was puzzled. “Do you want to go swimming?”
Before he could respond, she pushed him back first into the water. He bobbed up at the surface. “That was a bit unfair.”
“Sometimes being impulsive is the best course of action.” She grinned at him wickedly.
“So it was an impulse to take my clothes?”
“Are you really still stuck on that? Would it make you feel better if I took mine off?”
He didn’t answer. She did. His eyes studied her as she slipped her arms out of the simple dress and let it fall to the ground.
“Oh, sure.” He answered sarcastically. He was glad his lower region was at least under the water.
She slipped into the water and swam in a circle around him. She leaned back and stared at the moon. She showed no care that her breasts were completely exposed above the water. “Why are you so hard?”
He stopped staring her breasts and locked eyes with her instead. “What?”
“You, Sebastian Sterling, are a hard man. You smile like it’s painful. If I’d have been a man that tossed you in the water, you’d have struck me.”
“Then I suppose you’re lucky to not be a man. But if you don’t produce my clothes at some point, I might be forced into action.” He was teasing, of course.
“The action you’re craving is hardly violent, though.” She was NOT teasing.
They didn’t speak for several minutes. His heart was thundering beneath his chest. His lower region, well, spoke volumes.
Finally, he broke the agonizing silence. “Lorena, I should get home.” She reached out and slid a finger along his cheek. Desire broke out through his body like a virus. She put both arms around his neck, rubbing her breasts against his chest. Her legs enveloped around his waist. The tip of his member lightly dabbed at her lower lips.
“Sebastian, just let go.” Her voice was hoarse with need. “Stay here with me.”
He could barely put any words together. And soon, there would nothing to say. He’d pin her on top of that lush grass and take her like a savage animal. “Lorena…” She shushed him with a kiss that deafened the world. His hands fell to her bottom and squeezed, then moved to her breasts.
But as quickly as the dance began, she ended it. She withdrew her arms and pushed herself away from him. He was breathless. He was confused. He was…unsatisfied.
She drug herself out of the water and pulled her dress over her sopping wet body.
“Wait,” he called to her. Pulling himself out of the water, he no longer cared how obvious his need looked. He wanted to talk to her. He wanted to make sure he hadn’t done something wrong. Mostly, he wanted to know that he’d see her again.
She made no motion to him, but walked behind the tree she had been hovering in front of earlier. When she returned, she had his clothes folded in a pile for him.
“Lorena, if I came on too strong…” She laughed at his remark.
“I’m the one who stripped FOR you. After all, I stole your clothes.”
“Then why did you stop?”
“Because you have work tomorrow. And your mother will be worried.”
He took his clothes at of her arms. “How do you know my mother lives with me?”
“HA! There are no secrets in Huxey’s Plot! Besides, you’re not so hard to figure out. City boy forced to move to this rural ghetto… He brings his mother along because, well, I guess because she’s got nowhere else to go.”
“That about sums it up. What about YOUR story?”
“I don’t have one. I’ve lived here all my life. No excitement. No family.”
“Then why stay here?”
She shrugged at him. “I guess for the same reason your mother is with you. The world outside of this place is alien to me. I’m home here.”
He shook his head. “You are nothing like my mother. She is incapable of fending for herself.”
“So she must rely on her son?”
She put her hand on his arm and stroked him gently. “Is that why you’re here? In Huxey’s Plot? Because you couldn’t support the two of you in the city? Had it just been YOU…”
“Had it just been me, I would be fine. I’d manage. Hell, I’m fine now.”
“You’re not. You’re an angry man.”
“I’d prefer to be back in Meadow Heights, yes. But that isn’t an option.”
“Because of your mother.”
“My company downsized…” But he heard the old excuses and knew that was exactly what they were.
Her continued stroking of his arm was setting off more fire than the nasty truth about Beverly.
“Lorena, if you don’t stop touching me, I’m going to lose it.”
He pushed away from her and began seeking out the trail he’d taken from home.
“Sebastian, it doesn’t have to be this way.” He smirked at her and immediately hated himself for doing it. “I’m serious. You could stay here with me.”
He looked at her incredulously. “I JUST met you tonight!”
“And how many more days will you walk to work and then walk home to your mother? How many more days will you hand over most of your paycheck to her? How many more days will you bear her daily activities while you’re working just to keep BOTH of you alive?”
“Who are you to know all of this?” His voice was nearly trembling out of anger and shock. No one had ever hit him with so much truth—especially not a stranger. And it was the same truth he played over and over in his head all day. The same truth that he was sure everyone already knew but never bothered to point out. And here was this woman who so brazenly threw it in his face.
“Is it so hard to believe that maybe we were meant to meet tonight? For no other reason than for you to see that there is another way.”
“So I should just quit my job? Tell my mother to have a good life? Then what? Hang out in the blue lagoon with you?”
She reached up to touch his face. “I can give you everything you need and everything you want. I’m giving you the opportunity to change your fortune, Sebastian. All you have to do is come to me.”
Sebastian sat on his cot. His mother had gone to bed before he’d come home. There were chicken remnants wrapped up in the fridge from her. It was mostly bones, which agitated him. There was a note next to the chicken that read “Out of detergent and milk.”
He pulled the last $5 from his wallet and flung it on the table.
How could he go from peace and serenity back to this hell so quickly?
Yet, Lorena was clearly insane. He’d only just met her and she was offering herself and whatever home she had to him. But, God, the memory of her body taunted him. And she had shown no judgment at his situation, but understanding. And she had even offered a solution.
He tried to sleep. He knew daylight was edging nearer and nearer, and again he’d have to listen to his mother’s morning annoyances. Then he’d have to walk back to work.
And after work?
The morning sun was blazing through the windows, but Sebastian hurried to leave before Beverly awoke. He succeeded, for once, and felt nearly giddy that the morning had gone far smoother without her nagging voice.
The work day bordered on eternity, as it had been doing for months, but when the clock chimed five o’clock, he gladly took his leave and walked back to Huxey’s Plot.
No, he didn’t walk. He nearly ran the entire way. And he didn’t stop at the dreadful cottage. And he didn’t let the weeded thicket of the woods slow him down either. He didn’t stop until he reached the water. And when he reached it, sublime bliss hit him like a high. He pulled his clothes off again and dove into the water. When he broke the surface again, he was hoping to see her.
She wasn’t at the tree. She certainly wasn’t in the water, either. But he remembered it had been nightfall before she emerged, so he would wait. He would wait so he could speak with her again. And while he waited, he would replay the previous night’s events in his head again.
Her creamy and seductive voice. The way she stripped right in front of him. Her arms around him. Her body pressed against him. Her sweet words. If Lorena was a drug, he was hooked.
He stretched out on top of the grass and let the gentle wind dry his body. The enormous moon was reflecting off the stillness of the water. If he remained feeling so drunk on life, he’d be permanently unaware if he was upside down, and permanently uncertain if the water was above or below him.
He waited for a considerably long time—until he was sure the early dawn hours were creeping in. Then he reluctantly dressed and walked home.
Where had she been?
He thought of Lorena for the solid hour of quiet before he heard Beverly clamoring about in her bedroom. He ached to skip work and go back to the woods and swim in the lake. And, if he was completely honest, the lake wasn’t the only reason.
Where had she been?
“Sebby, I’m out of cigarettes. Do you have any?”
He pulled himself off the cot and stumbled to the bathroom. He splashed water around his face, but it wasn’t the same. It didn’t smell fresh and clean like the lake water. It smelled like tainted water. And drowning.
“Sebby, do you hear me?” Beverly crooned an old song while shoving stale bread into the toaster. “Mr. Foster paid me a visit yesterday. He talked about that poor Terry Bonnie’s son that drowned.” She toddled to the bathroom door, tapping on it. “I hope you aren’t swimming in that horrible lake at night, Sebby. I hope you aren’t getting yourself into trouble.” He rubbed his temples. The sound of her voice was bringing on nausea. “Mother needs you, Sebby. If anything happened to you, I don’t know what I’d do or where I’d go.”
He stood completely frozen, afraid to make a noise lest she try to open the door and continue her pointless conversation face to face. He was relieved when her footsteps returned to the kitchen and her mindless chatter began again at a distance.
“Terry Bonnie’s son did drown. Mr. Foster says it was Huxey’s witch. Do you know about Huxey’s witch, Sebby? Do you know the story?”
He didn’t answer. He didn’t need to.
“She lures men to their death by promising them a life of riches. Then she drowns them in the lake.”
He caught the look of shock in his own face in the mirror, and he laughed maniacally. A move he should have avoided when the footsteps returned to the bathroom door.
“Are you alright, Sebby? Son?”
“Fine.” He spat out.
“I don’t want you walking back to those woods. Not with what happened to Terry Bonnie’s son. I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you. I’d be lost in this world. Do you hear me, Sebby?”
He opened the bathroom door and grabbed the last clean shirt that was hanging off the edge of the counter.
“Veda Foster is a nice girl. Mr. Foster says she has eyes for you.” He ignored her and bent down to put his shoes on. “Veda knew the Bonnie son. Horrible death. Don’t you think so, Sebby? To drown like that?”
He shut the door behind him and began his walk to work again. He wondered if there was any merit to what his mother had said about Huxey’s witch. He wondered if Lorena had ever encountered Terry Bonnie’s son.
Where is Lorena? Why wasn’t she at the lake last night?
The work day flew by—a small gesture from some god he hadn’t mocked throughout the years, no doubt. He nearly ran the entire way to Huxey’s Plot, not daring a stop at the cottage to endure more of Beverly’s mindless conversation.
NO—he wanted to see that lake again. He wanted to feel the grass on his feet.
He wanted to see Lorena. And if he had to search the woods for her all night, he would.
The blue lake was majestic—each time he saw it, it looked so completely untouched and magnificent. Each time he swam in it, the water cleansed his body of the entire world’s weight. Of his job. Of his home life. Of Beverly. He climbed out of the water renewed and revived. It was a peace he had never experienced.
But there was an aching void that was beginning to fill that peaceful spot. It was a void that he never felt before but was conscious of always. It was loneliness. It was what he felt Lorena wanted to fill that first night.
Drying off in the grass, he grabbed his pants and zipped them up quickly. He would find her today. He HAD to find her today. There were so many questions. His heart had become hungry for dreams again.
And hungry for companionship.
“Lorena?!” His bare feet were tickled as the grass became less soft and more course further into the woods. But he didn’t care. In the span of two days, his entire world was untangled. In one night, he felt alive again. In one night, a perfect stranger offered him the world and herself… And he had laughed at that gesture. He belittled it as he did everything. And now, with an urgency he had never felt, he was compelled to find her again.
He was compelled to keep walking the woods.
“Lorena?! LORENA?!” He knew he sounded like a madman. And he half expected some irritating neighbor to find him and lecture him about the woods and Huxey’s witch.
For a moment, he wondered if that was what Lorena was—a beautiful and seductive witch who had sunk her claws into him like a siren. And she HAD! Sebastian would not be combing the woods all night for Veda Foster. Or his mother, for that matter. But for Lorena… He would search every night if he had to. He knew that in his gut. And like the logical bastard he was, he tried to tell himself to go home. There was work in the morning. If he didn’t get any sleep, Beverly would be especially annoying. But something other than logic was at work. He couldn’t name it. And he was more than a little afraid of it. But he had to find Lorena. He had to see her again. Desire that surged through his veins was now turning into worry.
The sun was scorching his face. He put his hands up to shield his eyes and rolled over clumsily in the grass. He had searched most of the night for her before returning to the lake sometime before dawn. By the position of the sun, it was surely after nine o’clock. He was more than late for work.
But he didn’t care.
Looking up toward the woods, he saw her. She stood frozen for a moment staring right back at him. The dress she wore was a pale pink that was knee level, as the other had been. She wore a tan scarf around her hair. Her feet were bare.
“Lorena,” he whispered. As if merely speaking her name had broken a spell, she fled. He was on his feet in an instant in pursuit. “Lorena, stop!” But she had the advantage—he knew that. She knew the woods and the land far better than he.
In moments, she was out of sight. And he laughed at how ridiculous it all was.
But she was alive. She was safe. And he would live off that knowledge until nightfall.
Feeling hopeful, he walked home…
Beverly’s bedroom door was shut tightly. Jake Foster’s truck was parked in the front again. Sebastian heard the familiar moaning as soon as he opened the door. Only sitting on the cot—his cot—was Veda Foster.
He nodded politely and pulled off his shoes at the doorway. “Your mother called papa. She said you didn’t come home last night. They thought to go and search for you.”
He glared at the closed bedroom door. “They sound exhausted from the overnight searching.”
He couldn’t decide if the woman didn’t hear the very obvious sounds coming from his mother’s bedroom, or if she chose to ignore them since Jake WAS her father.
“There were screams in the woods last night. We were afraid.”
Aww, yes. His screams for Lorena.
“Well, I’m safe. You can go home. You can take your father with you.”
The woman grabbed his arm as he was headed for the bathroom. “Please,” she pleaded, “stay out of the woods!”
He jerked his arm out of her clutch. “I’ll go where I like.”
“That witch—she’ll drown you!”
He stared at himself in the mirror. His hair had grown shaggy. He hadn’t shaved in over a week and what had been stubble was quickly taking the shape of an unkempt beard. He looked wild. Worse, he looked like he belonged in Huxey’s Plot.
Sebastian poked his head out of the doorway when he heard his mother’s voice. “You didn’t come home last night.”
“Yes, Veda and I already went over that.”
“I was worried.” He rolled his eyes at her and tried not to notice the barely-there nightgown that clung to her small frame.
“I told him we were going to organize a search party. But then we heard all those screams.”
Jake Foster stumbled out of the bedroom, still struggling to buckle his pants. Sebastian stifled a laugh looking at the three of them—a hungry woman and her hungry father and Beverly, oblivious to everything but her own needs.
“You doing something you shouldn’t be, son?”
Sebastian regarded the room coldly. “I’m late for work.”
He left the cottage. But instead of walking toward the main road, he walked back into the woods. He couldn’t walk through the rundown town. He couldn’t waste nine hours of his day knowing that he’d take the same route home and encounter the same people, the same scenery, the same lifelessness.
He knew he’d never take that road again.
The journey back to the lake was heavy. But what was he leaving behind? A life with no promise. A life with no surprises. A life that carried no heavier value than mundane chatter and cigarettes.
As he approached the lake, he thought he heard a voice calling out to him—telling him to stop. Instead of turning around, he remained focused on reaching the lake. What was behind had to stay behind. And what was coming could be nothing but more empty promises. Or death—if there was any truth to Huxey’s witch.
The heaviness lifted as soon as he sat down near the lake. The air that had been so humid and damp seemed lighter and fresher. Sebastian pulled his shirt off and tossed his shoes to the side. He curled up in the lush grass and went to sleep.
The late afternoon sun woke him. His mouth was dry and his skin felt hot. He was hungry and achy and desperately thirsty.
The idea of walking back to the cottage was out of the question, so he scooped some water in his hands and splashed it on his face. Years of unhappiness and struggle hadn’t prepared him for this.
More out of habit than sense, he rolled himself into the lake. The cool water soothed his skin, but his level of weariness took him by surprise. He forgot for a heartbeat that he was under water. And he opened his mouth to take a breath.
Water surged inside him, and he succumbed to the hideous reflex of trying to breathe through his nose. He felt the water pressing on and he looked up and saw himself falling deeper and deeper away from that sunlight.
He was drowning. He was drowning in the majestic blue lake that had seduced him and brought Lorena to him. He was drowning like that damn Terry Bonnie’s son. And tomorrow, there would be a crowd of people at the post office as the coroner would examine his body. Jake and Veda Foster would tell Beverly that they had warned him about the witch. They had warned him about walking alone in the woods. He hadn’t listened.
And now he was drowning.
The battle of his life was becoming strained. Instead of the blue lake, a black mist began clouding his eyes. In mere seconds, it would be done.
“GAH!!!” He was vomiting. He was vomiting and screaming. When he opened his eyes, he swore he had already expelled buckets of water from his lungs.
He felt a hand beating on his back and realized he was sitting upright, but resting against someone. He smelled lavender and saw a very feminine hand with long fingers anchored to his shoulder.
Cautiously, he reached up and stroked that hand. He was alive—albeit, he was still gasping for air.
Before he could object, that lovely hand moved from his shoulder. But she hadn’t left him like before. She didn’t flee. Instead, she kneeled in front of him and looked worried and nervous for him.
“I thought I was dead,” he panted.
She said nothing. With that same hand, she pushed his hair out of his face and stroked his cheek.
“Why didn’t you answer me when I called you? Why weren’t you here?”
She continued to stroke his cheek and stare into his eyes. She was so attentive and looked so very beautiful—more beautiful than he’d remembered. Her hair was wet and her dress clung against her skin. She had saved him. He knew she had.
And he matched that look of longing and fear in her eyes with his own. Suddenly time had no meaning. Suddenly his heartbeat was quaking against his chest. Suddenly the only sound he could hear was his own breathing.
“Lorena…” He was murmuring her name. Murmuring more to himself than to her. Without thought and without fear, he touched his lips to hers.
It was a kiss of confirmation. A kiss that proved he was still alive. And very quickly, it wasn’t enough. A new craving—a life affirming craving—took over. He grabbed Lorena by the shoulders and kissed her harder, increasing the pressure, softening her reserve and igniting more heat than that blasted sun.
Grabbing the straps of her dress that clung unevenly to her shoulders, he pushed them both down her arms. Still kissing her, his fingers traced the flimsy material that was still damp and molded against her skin. His urgency was growing—her own fingers were struggling to unbuckle his pants.
It was too heated. Too impulsive. Too irrational. It was the opposite of everything Sebastian had ever believed in. In his head, he was abandoning his lackluster life. He was abandoning responsibilities and bills. The moan of the woman he was clutching as he jerked her dress down to her hips brought him out of that guilty cluster. So warm, so lovely, so beautiful… SHE was real.
His lips slid down her throat. He kissed her bare shoulders, savoring every inch, and suckling at the droplets of water on her skin. He pressed his head between her breasts, still kissing hungrily and desperately. Each nipple quaking under his thumb; her moaning soaring into his pants as he suckled her.
There was more—so much more—to this wretched life.
Kicking his pants off into the grass, he pulled her below him. “I want you, Lorena. I need you.”
She only answered by putting her arms around his neck and pulling him closer against her. His erection burned against her thighs, and he knew full well there would be no time for gentle or teasing foreplay.
Not THIS time.
His back was against that soft grass. He was smiling remembering what had only just happened. He had buried his head in her chest, thrusting like a madman. Her fingernails cut into his back as she tried to ease into his rhythm.
His rhythm! It was a rhythm of madness and desperation! And freedom!
But when she finally cried out after being so silent, he finished them both. Finished them both until they were gasping and shaking. Finished them both until they had forgotten reality and fear.
He turned on his side to watch her. She was still naked, but her eyes were closed. Her breathing was deep and steady. He nearly laughed at himself for being so sentimental that he would want to WATCH his lover resting.
Her eyes fluttered open. She looked down at her own nakedness and then to his.
“Huxey’s witch,” Sebastian whispered.
“What?” Her eyes looked big.
“Isn’t that what you are?”
She smiled lightly. “If you say so.”
Her tone was glib. So he added, half facetiously, “I suppose Huxey’s hero would be more appropriate.”
She merely shrugged. “No such thing. There are no more heroes.”
“Saving me was pretty heroic, Lorena.”
“Lots of men drown here. They get lost in the serenity as it’s the only serenity they know.”
That gave him a chill. “Did you know a lot of these men who drowned?”
She sat up and wrung out her dress. “Is that what you really want to ask me, Sebastian?”
He sat up and reached for his pants. “I didn’t mean it that way.”
“Did you mean it when you made love?”
He smiled—a REAL smile. “I think that’s the only thing I’ve meant in years.”
He watched her pull her dress back on and immediately wished she hadn’t. “I can’t go back home now.”
“No, I suppose you can’t.” She held out her hand to him. The way she said those words…so matter of fact…
“I don’t know where to go from here, Lorena.”
“I do.” He put his hand in hers and let her lead them both into the woods beyond the lake. The sun was warm and from behind, he still heard the water. But the warmth that was calling to him now was far more powerful.
Blindly, foolishly, but determinately, he did not look back.
Huxey’s Plot remained the unmentionable blight that sat against the bustling Meadow Heights. The residents of Huxey’s Plot knew this as well as anyone. Outsiders didn’t dare come inside the border—lest they fell upon desperate times.
Even in desperate times, there was a price that was paid. Cheap rent, cheap buildings, and a relentless reminder that one was not QUITE in present-day civilization.
Then there were the superstitions and folklore…
“Did you hear about Beverly Sterling’s son?” A voice within the shabby post office whispered.
“The city boy? Yes, I heard.” Another voice answered.
Outside, two police cars parked within the gated entrance of the post office. A crowd of locals gathered while one young policeman asked questions.
“It sounds like another accidental drowning,” the young deputy stated.
Veda Foster gripped the deputy’s arm. “Oh, no! Just like Terry Bonnie’s son!”
“What was the man’s name again?”
“Sebastian Sterling!” Veda shouted. “Oh, his poor mama! My father is with her now. She is SO distraught.”
Another voice from the crowd chimed in. “Where’s the body?”
“There isn’t one, but judging from the length of time the man’s been missing, and his last known whereabouts around the lake area, it’s only a matter of time before the body surfaces. Just like the others.” The deputy put away his pad of paper and stepped away from the crowd. “We’ll be back as soon as it does.”
When the two squad cars departed, the crowd of locals began to fizzle out. Veda Foster looked on as a postal worker began closing and locking the gate. “No ambulance this time,” she said.
The postal worker responded, even though Veda was mostly talking to herself. “That’s a first, indeed. Sterling’s been missing long enough that it’s weird he ain’t floating yet.”
“Maybe he escaped.” Her tone was oddly hopeful.
“Sure, sweetheart. Maybe he did.”
COPYRIGHT 2014 E.M. BRYANT
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