Excerpt for Cornelius (The Cornelius Saga Book 1) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Contents



Title Page

Copyright

Also By This Author

Acknowledgments

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

More by Tanya R. Taylor

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CORNELIUS




Tanya R. Taylor




~ Number one Best seller and book 1 in the stand-alone CORNELIUS SAGA Series ~
































Copyright© 2015 Tanya R. Taylor

All Rights Reserved.

No portion of this work may be reproduced,

copied or transmitted in any form without the

expressed, written consent of the Author.



OTHER FICTION TITLES BY THIS AUTHOR





Cornelius’ Revenge (Book 2 of the stand-alone Cornelius saga)

CARA (Book 3 of the Cornelius saga)

We See No Evil (Book 4 of the Cornelius saga)

The Contract: Murder In The Bahamas (Book 5 of the Cornelius saga)

The Lost Children of Atlantis (Book 6 of the Cornelius saga)

Death of an Angel (Book 7 of the Cornelius saga)

The Groundskeeper (Book 8 of the Cornelius saga - COMING SOON!)

Haunted Cruise: The Shakedown

The Haunting of Merci Hospital - (Some Patients Never Leave…)

INFESTATION: A Small Town Nightmare (The Complete Series) - #1 bestseller

Real Illusions: The Awakening

Real Illusions II: REBIRTH

Real Illusions III: BONE OF MY BONE

Real Illusions IV: War Zone (The Final Episode)

Hidden Sins Revealed: Some Secrets Can Be Deadly (A Shocking Serial Killer Thriller)

10 Minutes before Sleeping (A Story of Abandonment, Domestic Terror & Bitter Revenge)









Next in this popular series!


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Meet Little Rosie Cullen in…




Book Six in The Cornelius Saga Series





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Acknowledgements


I dedicate this book to my former high school English & Literature teacher—Mrs. Shona M. Knowles. Mrs. Knowles recognized in me what I didn't quite see in myself at the time. She saw raw, creative talent and encouraged me to utilize my writing skills. Now, because of her encouragement and selfless contribution, I am able to put the word 'Author' next to my name and thus, make my loved ones proud. I am also grateful for the fact that my work and name will continue to live on long after I have passed on.


So, because of this, I dedicate 'Cornelius' to this lovely lady who is well-deserving of so much more. If you ever ask her, she'll tell you that the name—Cornelius—has sentimental meaning to her.


A special thank you to my husband; my children; my parents and friends. Daddy, you always said to "Think Big" and instilled in me the confidence I needed to achieve great things. I truly appreciate that.


I would also like to thank everyone else who supported me and continues to support me in all of my endeavors.






Prologue


It was a day and age much like today where every town, generation and household held firmly its secrets—torrid improprieties they would protect to the end of the world. Yet some secrets back then were far too shocking and disturbing to contain—ones entangled with emotions of such intensity that would shock the very life out of 'innocent', reserved folk.

The year was 1861. The town of Mizpah was on the verge of the abolition of slavery. White people with a conscience and black folk alike prayed and fought long and hard for the day when all human beings were considered equal in the eyes of the law.

Cornelius Ferguson, only the wealthiest planter in all of Mizpah, didn't support the views of the abolitionist movement in that territory nor in any other for that matter. Negro labor was highly favorable for his pockets and he couldn't imagine conducting his plantation affairs by any other means.


June 12th of 1861 was the day his life would forever change. It was the day a colored girl by the name of Karlen Key walked through his door. She was beautiful, literate, well-spoken — a rare breed and long-awaited trade off from another planter across the river. Cornelius had been anticipating her arrival. Germina, a rotund, elderly house slave with a few long strands protruding from her chin, met Karlen at the door and showed her where to put her tattered bag. Cornelius stood thirty feet away in the great room facing the entrance way, highly pleased and mesmerized by the new addition to his household. Karlen's eyes met his for a brief moment before she quickly lowered her head, made a slight bow and greeted her master. The twenty-one-year-old had no idea that her arrival at the Ferguson plantation would alter the course of her life and those around her in a most uncanny way.


1

_________________



Summer of 1965


"Wade! Mira!" Sara Cullen called her kids from outside the kitchen door. "Time to come inside and get yourselves cleaned up for dinner!"

Fourteen-year-old, Wade and thirteen-year-old, Mira were in the road playing 'bat and ball' in front of their yard with Monique Constantakis and her cousin Philip. Mira had just swung the bat for her turn to run the bases.

"Let's go!" Wade shouted to his sister as she considered one last run before heading inside. "If you don't come now, I'm leaving you and you'll be in big trouble with Dad." On that, he took off up to the driveway of their home and Mira, with a tinge of disappointment, handed the bedraggled, semi-splintered bat to Monique who was standing behind her.

"See you later," Monique said, visibly disappointed that her new friend had to leave.

"Yeah," Mira said before heading up the driveway behind her brother who had disappeared into the house.


The table, as usual, had been beautifully set for dinner. Sara Cullen was a true perfectionist and wanted everything to be just right when her husband of fifteen years, Michael, stepped into the dining room for his meal. She worshipped the dirt the man walked on and kept herself in the finest physical shape she could possibly manage. She was five feet, ten inches tall, and remarkably thin. Her hair was long, black and curly, and her features narrow. Michael Cullen was not the most attractive man in the world, but he carried big, broad shoulders and a six-pack most men would die for. Furthermore, he collected a handsome paycheck at the end of each week, lived in a nice neighborhood, and sported a two-year-old red Jaguar. Nevertheless, Sara—Head Nurse at Freedom Hospital—could not be accused of being with him solely for his money or his executive status at the State-run Gaming Board. They had met fresh out of high school when all they had ahead of them were nothing more than dreams and aspirations.


Mira sat at the table first though Wade had been the first to wash up.

"Wade! Where are you?!" Sara cried, as she hurried around placing the remaining items on the table. The boy showed up moments later.

"Where were you all that time?" Sara asked. "You know I like both of you to be seated before I call your dad out."

"I had to… brush my hair." Wade lowered his head slightly.

"That's a lie!" Mira blurted with a wide smile. "He had to use the toilet!"

"Liar!" Wade rebutted.

"You had to use the toilet! You had to use the toilet!" Mira sang.

"Now stop it - both of you!" Sara barked. "This is no time for games... and wipe that smile off your face Mira; I'm not playing!"

"Yes, Mother," Mira softly replied.

The children composed themselves and waited patiently for their father who emerged a few minutes later from the master bedroom.

"Kids…" Michael hailed straight-faced as he sat down.

Both children responded monotonically, "Hi, Dad."

Sara joined them moments later.

As was customary for the family, they all bowed their heads at the sound of Michael's utterance, "Let us pray" before diving into their meals.

From her chair, Mira watched as her mother talked and talked to her father while he engaged very little in the conversation. It was like that all the time and Mira was beginning to wonder why her mother even tried. What Sara saw in Michael that was so appealing and attractive totally eluded Mira. Michael was a brutally rigid man who, in his daughter's opinion, always seemed to wish he was somewhere else other than at home.

"May I be excused?" Mira asked fifteen minutes later, wanting to escape the drab, depressive atmosphere of the room.

"But you hardly touched your casserole," Sara said, noticing for the first time that her daughter had barely eaten.

"I'm not hungry."

"Are you all right, honey?" Sara asked, as Michael continued his meal supposedly unaffected.

"Yes, Mom. I just feel a bit tired and would like to lie down," Mira replied.

"You may leave," Michael said, not making eye contact.

"Well then…" Sara continued, "I'll cover your plate for you in case you get hungry before bedtime."

"Thanks Mom." Mira backed out from the table and retreated to her bedroom.


Approximately a half hour later, there was a light tap at the bedroom door. The doorknob turned slowly, then Sara walked in. "Are you all right?" She asked Mira who was curled up in bed with a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

"Sure." Mira sat up as her mother proceeded to the side of the bed.

She felt her daughter's forehead with the back of her hand. "No fever. That's good. Are you sure you're okay?" The look she gave was a combination of suspicion and concern.

"Yes. I'm really fine, Mom. I just wasn't hungry; that's all—I guess from all that running around earlier."

"I see." Sara got up. "Well, like I said… if you get hungry later, your food is right there covered in the refrigerator. Wouldn’t want you going to bed empty only to wake up all gassy in the morning."

Mira smiled. Her mother reached down and kissed her on the forehead. "I love you, sweet pea."

"I love you too, Mom."



2

_________________



"You wanna go by the canal today?" Wade asked Mira at the kitchen counter. An early riser, he had been up for well over an hour, but she had just gotten out of bed.

"Dad said we can't go back there—you know that," Mira answered, cracking an egg over a bowl.

"He's not here. Mom's not here. They don't have to know," Wade replied. "We can get our fishing rods, some bait, and maybe this time, we'll actually catch something."

"I don't know… the last time we got caught out there we almost got a good whipping. Dad's hand was itching. Luckily, he let us off the hook with a warning. Off the hook… got it?"

"Look! They're both at work. We'll only be gone for a few hours and will be back long before they get here. They'll never know, so we're not risking anything." Wade was adamant.

"I don't know, Wade," Mira said, pouring a little cream into the bowl with her egg.

"Why are you so scared?" Wade asked. "We've been to the canal dozens of times and only got caught that one time when dad pulled up out of nowhere. You think he's gonna drive all the way home from work today on a sneaky suspicion that we're at the canal again and bust us for not listening? Come on, Mira!"

"Okay, okay. We can go after I've had my breakfast. I suppose you've eaten already?" Mira asked.

"Yeah. I'm cool. I'll go pack the gear."


The canal was less than a block away. It usually took the kids a mere four minute walk to get there. Mira, dressed in a yellow and white striped blouse and red shorts walked quickly behind her brother, inwardly hoping and praying that their father would not pull up and surprise them while they were on the way to the 'forbidden place'.

"We need to walk faster," Mira said, now over-taking her brother. Wade silently caught up with her and in no time, they were at their favorite spot.

The canal was the only one in their neighborhood. It extended miles out to the sea. Several gated houses with boat decks surrounded it, except for a fifty-foot open area that was partially clear due to low, sparse bushes and a padded, gravel area kept in check by occasional vehicles driving through.

Mira sat down at the edge of the canal, her feet dangling against its rocky structure. Wade got the fishing rods ready before sitting next to her. He handed Mira a rod with bait attached and threw his out into the not-so-shallow water. For a while, they just sat there looking out into the water at tiny schools of fish swimming around.

"What's on your mind?" Wade asked, still looking straight ahead.

"What do you mean?" Mira glanced at him.

"You're so quiet. What're you thinking about?"

"Nothing."

"You're the one lying now," Wade said.

"How can you say that I'm lying? Are you inside my brain, Wade Cullen?" Mira returned feistily.

"It's Mom and Dad, isn't it?"

Mira looked at him. "How do you know?"

"I know what's been going on. I can see it was getting to you. That's why you left the table yesterday, right?"

For a few moments, there was silence, then Mira finally answered: "I don't understand why Mom tries so hard to please Dad. It's not like he shows her he appreciates anything she does anyway."

"We've never known Dad to be a talkative person, Mira. He doesn't say much to us neither," Wade replied.

Again… there were a few moments of silence.

"I think his actions go beyond not being much of a talker, Wade. Dad can be so cold at times. I feel so bad for Mom when I see her trying so hard to please him all the time and he doesn't seem to be giving anything back to her. It's like she's in a relationship all by herself."

"Mom's used to Dad. They're just different people. She doesn't seem to mind when she's talking to him and it's obvious that he's not even listening. If she's not bothered by it, why should you let it bother you?"

"Because she's our mother, Wade. That's why. She deserves better than that," Mira answered.

"Better than Dad?"

"I think so."

Wade was shocked that his sister's feelings about the matter were that intense. "What are you trying to say, Mira—that Dad's not good enough for Mom? Don't you love him?"

"Sure I do. I love them both, but I can tell that Mom's not happy. She pretends that she is because she lives in this ‘perfect world’ that she's created in her head."

Wade's eyes were on the water again. "I think I feel something…" he said moments later. "Yes! I got a bite!" He reeled in the rod as quickly as he could while Mira's eyes beamed at the prospect of him making a good catch. By then, they were both standing and watching an average-sized snapper wiggle its streamlined body on the hook.

"Yay! We got one!" Mira exclaimed.

Wade unhooked the fish and dumped it into their mother's mini cooler.

"That's a good one," Mira said, watching the fish flop around in the cooler.

"Yeah. Let's see if we can catch anymore."

They both sat back down and re-tossed their fishing rods after Wade baited his again.

A half hour passed and there was nothing. Wade could now sense Mira's restlessness. "You wanna wait a little while longer to see if we'll get another bite?" He asked.

"Na. Let's not push our luck," Mira said. "We got a fish. Let's go fry it."

After turning onto their street, Mira's eyes hit the large property straight ahead at the end of the corner. "You wanna go see if any dillies are on the trees? We can eat them with our fish," she said excitedly.

"The Ferguson property?" Wade asked.

"Yeah."

Since they would have to go past their house in order to get there, Wade said, "Okay. Let me take the cooler inside first."

Mira waited in the western side of the yard that was adjacent to the road. She was so relieved that the canal trip went well and was eager to season and fry the fish they had caught.

"Let's go," Wade appeared a minute later with an empty, plastic bag balled up in his hand. "Wanna race there?"

"Sure. Now!" Mira took off on her brother unexpectedly and knowing he had been duped, Wade ran with all his might to try and catch up to her. Mira had almost made it first to the edge of the Ferguson property before Wade's long legs finally caught up to her and overtook her. He was going so fast that he could barely cut his speed sufficiently before nearly slamming into the huge coconut tree directly in front of him. Mira laughed as she panted to catch her breath.

"You cheater!" Wade said after slumping under the tree.

"Don't blame me if I almost beat you here," Mira replied. "You always boast about being able to run faster than I can."

"Are you serious?!" Wade was flabbergasted. "I can run faster than you! Didn't I prove it again just now—even though you cheated, you little pipsqueak?!"

Mira advanced onto the large acreage and looked up at the dillies hanging temptingly from the large, outstretched tree branches of one of many trees that clustered the property. The Ferguson estate was comprised of approximately sixty acres of land which took up most of the road east to west, extending northwardly to the edge of another neighborhood. Wade and Mira had not walked even a good two acres of the land since they were old enough to 'explore'.

"This one's packed. You wanna climb?" Mira asked her brother. Wade was the official tree-climber of the pair since Mira was terrified of heights.

Wade got up off the ground holding his back like a man far beyond his years. "Okay. You know the drill," he said, handing her the bag.

As Wade climbed the tree, Mira readied the bag so that he could drop the dillies into it. In seconds, he was at arm's length from the nearest tree branch. It was laden with mostly semi-ripe dillies. "I'm gonna start dropping now!" He cried.

Mira opened the bag as widely as possible and positioned herself directly under her brother as he dropped the fruit one by one. As usual, the bag had missed a few of them and Mira was bending down picking up the ones that had fallen without bursting on impact.

"You can't run and you can't catch!" Wade laughed in the tree as he deliberately dropped some of the dillies while she was still stooping down to pick up the others.

"You're stupid for dropping them, Wade. You're really immature!" She snarled.

Deciding they had enough of them, Wade came down from the tree and snatched one of the dillies out of the bag. As he ate, he looked around at the large property and an idea struck him. "How about we explore this land? We've never gotten further than just a few feet in everytime we come here."

"This is private property, Wade. We can't just go exploring," Mira replied, thinking how slow her brother really was. After all, the large, lop-sided NO TRESPASSING sign sprayed in red was clearly visible on the fence.

"You're gonna let an old NO TRESPASSING sign stop you from walking through here? Have you ever seen the owners out here? Have you ever seen anyone out here?"

Mira was quiet.

"Right! That's because no one ever comes here. The place is abandoned. What's wrong with a couple of kids just walking through a vacant property with a bunch of tall trees and bushes on it? What can we possibly do to hurt the land?" Wade said sarcastically. "Come on, Sis. It'll be fun. We can pretend that we're real explorers or something."

Mira was hesitant whenever Wade presented ideas that could possibly get them into trouble. Then again… those types of ideas were the only ones he ever seemed to come up with. "What about the fish?"

"What about it?" Wade was puzzled.

"We have to fry it before Dad and Mom gets back home."

Wade looked at Mira in disbelief. "Why are you so darn scary, girl? How long do you think they've been gone? It's only been a few hours. Last I knew, they got off work in the evening and then there's traffic. It's barely noon yet."

"How do you know what time it is?" Mira asked. "You don't have a watch."

"I can estimate the time, Mira. Can't you, smarty pants?"

Mira shoved the bag of fruit at him. "Here then! You carry this." And she slowly headed out into the wooded area.


As they walked along a narrow trail, the children were fascinated by the size of the property. Trees of every kind imaginable seemed to inhabit it—pine, mangoes, bananas, avocadoes, plum, ginep. Wade and Mira stopped and picked what they wanted, adding them to the bag, and the apprehension Mira had initially felt about their so-called exploration had soon disappeared.

"This is great," she said sucking on a plum.

"Awesome!" Wade agreed. "I feel like we're in the jungle or something. How long do you think it'll take us to walk the whole perimeter?"

Mira looked at him incredulously. "Are you out of your mind?" Do you think I'm gonna walk this entire property? I hear the Fergusons' land is more than a few miles long."

"I didn't mean we should walk the whole thing today. I was asking how long you think it would take us if we decided to," Wade explained.

"I don't know… maybe an hour or two." Then her eyes were suddenly affixed to a large house that they never knew was there. "Hey, look there!" Mira pointed straight ahead.

"Wow! That's huge!" Wade exclaimed, almost in slow motion. With heightened curiosity, he started running toward it.

"Wait up!" Mira shouted, careful to do so in a lowered voice as she had no idea who or what might be inside. "Don't go in there without me!"

However, old and dilapidated with broken windows showcased along the whole front view, the house was breathtaking.

Wade climbed the colonial-style porch, stopping just about a foot away from the front door. The only thing is… there was no door—just a ten foot opening where there, most likely, used to be double doors.

Wade looked inside. Grimy white tiles covered the entire front area as far as he could see.

Mira climbed the porch moments later. "Do you see anything?" She asked softly, feeling a bit of apprehension gradually returning.

"No," Wade whispered. "Is anyone in here?" He called out hoping not to receive an answer.

They stood quietly, both decidedly ready to take off in an instant if they heard even a crack. They waited for a few seconds… nothing. Then Wade said, in not so much of a whisper anymore, "Let's go in."

Mira grasped his arm. He was just eleven months older than she was, but in a case like that where they were entering the unknown, he could have very well been ten years older and fifty pounds heavier as she knew 'come hell or high water', he would protect her.

Before stepping inside, Wade looked at her, "You mind letting up a bit? You're squeezing my arm."

"Oh sorry," Mira replied nervously.

They walked inside together—eyes darting in all directions of the spacious interior. The white paint on the wall was chipped in several places and the dusty floor had been speckled with creature droppings and smudges of dirt and mud. There was no furniture in sight—just a large, empty space. Wade and Mira walked slowly ahead and entered a room that looked like an extension of the living room, only separated by an arched wall.

"Hello…" Wade called out again.

"Is anyone here?" Mira said behind him, voice breaking at the end.

They proceeded through the large front area then entered what looked like the kitchen. There was one row of cabinets still attached to the upper northern section of the wall with a few missing doors. Some doors were slanted due to rusty, broken hinges. There were three other sections of the wall where only the imprint of cabinets remained presenting a theory to the observer that they might have been cleanly extracted at some point by thieves.

"This place is a mess," Mira uttered, still holding her brother's arm.

"Yeah. You notice that just about every door around here is missing?"

"Yeah."

"Let's go upstairs," Wade released Mira's grip. "Follow me."

"No way! You know I'm afraid of heights!" Mira whispered loudly.

"Just hold on to the rail. You'll be fine," Wade replied before heading up the long winding staircase.

Feeling that she would rather be with him than downstairs alone in the old, creepy house that resembled something from a horror flick, she took a deep breath in and decided to follow him. The ceiling of the house was extremely tall and as Mira carefully followed Wade up the stairs, she couldn't help but wonder how the owners ever managed to change a light bulb up there whenever necessary. As they climbed the staircase, the wood beneath their feet creaked and Mira had no idea how she would ever get back down.

They made it to the second landing and refusing at that point to look down over the rail, Mira trailed closely behind Wade who had entered one of the bedrooms.

"Wow! This room is huge!" Wade remarked, hurrying over to a large window on the western side of the room. "Hee, hee!" He laughed looking down at the yard. "The second floor of this house must be at least a hundred feet from the ground!"

Mira quietly advanced toward the entrance of what looked like the walk-in closet. As she looked in, something immediately caught her eye. The floating image of a black woman was at the far end of the room. The apparition appeared relatively young with frazzled, black hair that hung tiredly just above her shoulders. Her face, rough and haggard, exuded a sadness that Mira could feel deep within her bones, and the thin, white dress the woman wore was drenched in what appeared to be blood around the mid-section where long trails of it had slid down to the end. Momentarily frozen by the sight of this woman, Mira's mouth hung open, yet no voice escaped. The woman's veiny eyes seemed to be begging, pleading… for something. Then her hand reached up toward Mira, re-enforcing what the little girl already felt was a cry for help. At that point, a blood-curdling scream escaped Mira's lungs and she darted outside of the room—Wade running behind her.

With a fear of heights that paled in comparison to what she saw in that room, before Mira knew it, she was at the bottom of the staircase and out of the house.

"What's wrong?" Wade called out to her in the yard. "Wait for me, Mira!"

She had run a good distance away from the house before even thinking of stopping.

"Tell me what's wrong!" Wade insisted after catching up to her. "I never saw you run that fast in my life."

"I know I shouldn't have listened to you, Wade. You're a jerk! We never should have come here," Mira blasted, walking hurriedly.

"What did I do?" Wade was confused.

"I don't wanna talk about it right now. I just wanna go home."


While darting out of the house, Wade had dropped the bag of fruits they had collected. The children walked home together without saying another word. Wade knew that he had to get to the bottom of what happened in that house; Mira was not going to fold up on him as she sometimes did. After all, he felt responsible for her and now guilty that she had been so traumatized by something that in spite of her fear of heights, she had run down a tall flight of stairs without giving it a second thought.


After arriving home, Mira went straight to her room and slammed the door. Wade went to the door and knocked lightly. "Mira… what happened back there?" He tried to turn the doorknob, but discovered it was locked. "Open up. I wanna talk to you."

"Go away!" Mira yelled.

With head hung low and feeling worse by the second, Wade asked: "What about the fish? Aren't we gonna fry it before Mom and Dad get back?"

"I don't care. Do what you want with it!" Mira replied.

"Why do you have to be like this? Why can't you just tell me what happened, Mira? You say I'm immature, but you're the immature one!"

Wade waited for a response, but didn't get one, so he went into the kitchen to prepare the fish. After scaling and seasoning their catch, he walked around to the side of the house, made an outdoor fire like he and Mira had done so many times and placed a tin frying pan on top of the heap. As the oil heated inside the pan, Wade sat on one of the two large rocks close by, elbow under chin, thinking of how good their day had been and how it ended up. He felt terrible for Mira and wished she didn't get in those quiet moods sometimes, thus closing herself off to the world. She didn't realize that whenever she did that, he felt completely lost.

After the oil came to a slight boil, he put the fish in the pan and watched as swarms of flies suddenly appeared out of nowhere around it. Shooing them away, Wade refused to go inside and cook on the stove: He and Mira had established something special together out there frying their catch on the make-shift stove and no army of flies was going to change that.

After turning the fish over with a spatula, Wade looked up and saw Mira approaching. She went and sat down on the other large rock near the fire. Wade, elated that his sister had decided to join him, showed no reaction.

"The fish looks good," Mira said, looking at her brother.

Unable to hold back any longer, Wade asked: "What happened in that house, Mira? Why did you leave like that?"

Mira looked down for a moment. "I'm not sure. I thought… I saw something."

"Saw what?" Wade probed, curiosity in over-drive.

"I saw a woman, okay?" Mira decided to just get it out in spite of how crazy it might sound. "She was wearing a long, white dress—looked old fashioned to me—and it was covered in blood."

Wade gawked. "Are you serious?"

"'Course, I'm serious!" Mira snapped. "You think I would've took off like that for nothing?"

"Where was she?"

"In the closet."

"What was she doing?"

"Just standing there," Mira replied. "She seemed so sad. Well, I'm not going back there anymore. I don't care about dillies or anything else. I'm never going back on that property."

"I wonder why she's there." Wade was engrossed in thought.

"So you believe me?" Mira asked, feeling hopeful.

"Sure, I do. I know you'd never make something like that up. Besides, from the way you took off down those stairs, you had to see something." He laughed.

Mira smiled, then laughed out loud. Wade jumped on that opportunity to tease her as they sat and waited for their fish to cook.



3

_________________



The next day…

"Mister Cullen, could I get your signature, please?" Hollie Jefferson, the new executive secretary asked Michael on his way to the cafeteria. Hollie was twenty-five years old, had bleached-red, shoulder-length, curly hair and was stunning in appearance. Her bright, brown eyes had an intensity to them that most men found difficult to ignore.

"Sure, Hollie. What's this for?" Michael asked.

"Just a memo listing the minutes of the meeting this morning that the Board agreed we should circulate to the staff."

"I don't usually sign the memos. Are you sure you need me to sign this one?"

"Yes, sir. I have to get Mister Bridges' and Andy's as well," Hollie replied.

"Okay. No problem. You have to do what you have to do, right?" Michael smiled, fixing his stare a little longer than usual. Hollie smiled back as he pulled up a pen attached to his shirt pocket and signed the document.

"Thank you, sir," she said.

"You're welcome, Hollie." Michael started to leave, then glanced at his watch and said: "Ah… Hollie. I'm on my way to the caf to grab a cup of coffee. Would you like to join me?"

Hollie was surprised. As a young, newcomer to the Gaming Board, she never expected an older executive to show even the slightest bit of interest in her. She almost thought she would be invisible to the high-powered players since there were so many more established, well-educated, attractive women there. But then again, Hollie figured that her thoughts might be running way ahead of her: Maybe Michael's invitation to sit and have coffee was nothing more than a courtesy gesture for a newcomer. After all, he did wear his wedding ring every day.

"I would love to… Mister Cullen, but I have to get these memos sorted out," she replied.

"Come on…" Michael returned. "Those memos aren't going to run away. You have a fifteen minute coffee break at mid-morning. Use it."

She bit her lip for a second. "Okay, let's go then."

They took an elevator to the fourth floor and as they headed for a table, Michael went up ahead and pulled out a chair for Hollie.

"Thank you," she said, sitting down.

"I'll go and grab the coffee. Sugar and cream?" He asked.

"Yes. Two sugars please," Hollie replied appreciatively.


Michael returned minutes later with two cups of coffee in hand and carefully handed one to her. "So how are you liking it here?" He asked after sitting down and taking his first sip.

"I'm loving it so far," Hollie replied. "It's nice working with Mister Bridges."

"Dwight's cool. He's been at The Board for about thirty years or so. Did you know that?"

"No, sir. He didn't mention it." Hollie stirred her coffee.

"I met him here. He kind of showed me the ropes when I first arrived," Michael said.

"I see. So, how long have you been working here?"

"Only twenty-two years," Michael answered.

"Wow! I guess I've got a long way to go. My three months seem like nothing compared to the time you two put in."

"The years fly by quickly," Michael replied. "It feels like I've only just pulled up on the job yesterday for the first time. That's how fast time flies."

For a few moments, Michael and Hollie sat quietly sipping the coffee that had soon turned warm.

"So, are you married?" Michael asked, breaking the silence.

Just then, Hollie's feminine radar immediately went up. She was now convinced that her initial thoughts concerning Michael's invitation were, indeed, correct. Most, if not all men—in her opinion—who asked if she was married, were interested in being more than friends.

She cleared her throat. "Um… no." She held her head down, stirring the coffee again.

"What're you waiting for?" Michael asked with a cunning expression he could not hide.

"For the right time, I guess… and also, the right guy. Haven't come across Prince Charming as yet."

"An attractive girl like you should have men making fools out of themselves just to be with you. What're you doing to drive them away?"

"Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Men today aren't that serious about commitment. They don't know what they want, who they want or how they want it. All they know is they want," she replied rather boldly, noticing his gold wedding band again.

"Well, I agree with you to a certain extent. Many of us are just mixed up on the whole and then some of us know exactly what we want in life, but settle for what we have already without pursuing what we'd prefer. You know what I mean?" He commented.

"I think I do." Their eyes met and in that stare, there was no denial. Hollie knew why she was sitting at that table with Michael Cullen—a man with a powerfully confident demeanor and a physique that could make a woman's mind wander off in the wrong direction.

"Well, I think we'd better go now," she was looking at her watch. "It's 10:30. Wouldn't want to get in trouble with Mister Bridges."

They both got up together.

"Ah… don't worry about Dwight. He doesn't sweat the light stuff," Michael said.

"I know, but I'm still new on the job and I want to continue to give a good impression."

"I understand," Michael replied, and after entering the elevator together, he looked at her and asked: "So how about lunch sometime?"

"I… guess so," Hollie responded, figuring there was no harm having an innocent lunch with a fellow co-worker regardless of his intentions.

"Okay. Great!"

At the parting of the doors, they went in separate directions; Michael walking on with a smile and Hollie with uncertainty.


* * * *


"Why does this cooler smell like… fish?" Sara asked after opening the lid in the kitchen. She had just gotten home from work several minutes earlier and wanted to get dinner started before Michael arrived. It had been the same routine for years: She would knock off at 4:00 and hurry home so that dinner would be cooked by the time he arrived which was usually between 5:45 and 6:00pm. Sara was grateful to have always been on a fixed schedule at work for most of her marriage when many nurses she knew worked shifts. With Michael in mind, she took the job at Freedom Hospital ten years earlier making it clear that she could not work shifts and whenever they tried to force her, she would threaten to quit. Apart from taking to her, Gwen Dames, Sara's superior, considered her one of their most gifted nurses at the hospital and didn't want to run the risk of losing her.

"Fish?" Mira returned, glancing at Wade who was sitting next to her at the counter.

"Have you two been fishing lately?" Sara asked.

"Fishing? Didn't Dad tell us we couldn’t go back to the canal?" Mira answered plainly.

Sara stood on the opposite side of the counter looking at her children suspiciously.

"Mom, are you sure you're smelling right?" Wade asked. "You had meat in that cooler that you took over to your friend's house just last week."

"Not fish… but I guess I might not have killed the scent properly while washing it. You sure you kids haven't been to that canal lately though? You know if your dad found out you did, you'd get a good butt whipping this time. It's really dangerous out there," Sara said with a hand on her side.

"We know, Mom," Mira replied. "We won't take a chance getting on Dad's wrong side."

While Sara took the cooler over to the sink to wash, Mira nudged Wade to follow her outside.

"Just going in the yard, Mom," Mira said on their way out.

"Okay, kids. Just come back soon to wash up for dinner."

"Okay, Mom," Wade replied.

"You idiot! You didn't wash out the cooler?" Mira charged as they walked around the side of the house.

"I gave it a little rinse. I didn't know she'd smell fish whenever she went to use it," Wade returned.

Mira shook her head hopelessly. She was beginning to really wonder if her brother had a functioning brain upstairs or if it happened to be positioned in the wrong place—short-circuiting whenever he sat down. "You know you should use bleach to kill the scent, Wade. I don't know what's wrong with you! You could've gotten us into trouble!"

"Well, you could have cleaned it, Einstein. I cleaned, seasoned and fried the fish without your help yesterday and you have the nerve to complain about me not washing the cooler too? You're just a selfish moron who like to whine all the time and not help out like you should. I'm going back inside. Stay out here by yourself!"

Wade stormed off and left Mira standing several feet away from where they had fried the fish. She was suddenly feeling that, in a way, Wade might be right. She really wasn't much help the other day. He had done everything—even happened to catch the fish."

"Wade…" Mira called out to him just before he turned the bend towards the kitchen door, "…I'm sorry."


At dinner that evening, it was the usual routine between Mira and Wade's parents. Michael, detached as usual, focused on eating his meal—managing to get in a few 'uh… huhs'—while Sara constantly talked. At one point, Mira rolled her eyes and shook her head in disgust.

"We're all done. The food was great, Mom. Can we go now?" Mira asked anxiously.

"You two can leave…" Michael responded evenly.

"You coming?" Mira looked at Wade.

He got up and they both retreated to Mira's room and closed the door behind them.


For a few moments, Sara tapped lightly on the table.

"Do you mind not doing that?" Michael asked sharply.

"Oh, I'm sorry. Didn't realize it was bothering you." She placed her elbow on the table and hand against her cheek. "Are we in trouble, Mike?"

The question startled her husband, but he continued to eat. "Trouble? What kind of trouble?"

"Marital trouble… relationship trouble," Sara replied.

"Why do you ask that?"

"I don't know," she sighed. "I guess I felt it for a long time, but just didn’t bother to say anything. You seem so disconnected from all of us and for quite a while now. You weren't always like this Michael. You're not happy being with me anymore?"

Michael paused for a moment and looked at her. "For me, marriage isn't about being happy."

"It's not?" Sara was surprised by his answer.

"It's not." He wiped his mouth with a napkin. "It's about honoring the commitment I made to you by providing a good home for you and my children, a good education for them, and everything else you all would possibly need. As a man, I'd like to think I've done that."

"You have done that, honey… and still doing it. You're a wonderful husband and father and I would never want to be with anyone else."

"So, it's not about being happy," Michael continued. "It's about being responsible—about each of us doing our part to keep this family going in the right direction."

"Do you think I've been doing my part?" Sara asked, still madly in love with the man after so many years.

"I can't complain," Michael answered apathetically.

"I just think that we're not where we used to be as a couple, Mike. We used to sit and talk for hours and really plug in to each other. Now it's different. You barely speak to me and I keep trying so hard to reconnect with you, but it seems like nothing I'm doing is working."

"You talk enough for both of us," Michael cracked a smile.

"I'm not joking, Michael. Did you ever think that maybe the reason I talk so much is because I'm trying desperately to get you to engage in conversation with me?"

"You were always a talker, Sara. I met you like that. Besides, how do you expect me to engage if you're always running your mouth?!"

The sarcastic nature of his reply in the face of the out-pouring of her heart to him stung Sara like a bee. She got up, picked up their plates and went into the kitchen. Standing at the sink, she struggled to fight back the tears. A few, however, managed to escape down her chin as she still felt the coldness in Michael's words and the feeling that deep inside, he knew he was no longer in love with her. She listened as he backed out his chair, got up and walked toward their bedroom. Seconds later, she heard the door close and at that moment, she could no longer restrain the tears. She stood alone with an overwhelming sadness and a sense that she was slowly losing control of her life by no longer feeling or sensing Michael's love.



That night, after crawling into bed, Mira switched off the stubby, pink lamp on her nightstand. She and Wade had been watching television together for hours before she got sleepy and chased him out of her room. Their parents had retired to bed already and the house was quiet and still.

Lying in darkness as she started to drift off to sleep, Mira heard a loud whisper nearby: "Have… you… seen… him?"

Startled, she quickly reached over and switched on the lamp.

"Have… you… seen… him?" repeated the ghastly entity that was standing at the side of her bed.

Mira screamed at the top of her lungs and ran out of the room.

"Mom! Dad!" She barged into her parents' bedroom switching on the light. "Someone's in my room!"

"What?!" Michael got up quickly, retrieving the bat he had always kept next to his bed. "You two stay here."

Sara held Mira firmly as Michael left the room.

He carefully advanced towards Mira's bedroom. At the entrance, he felt for the light switch and flipped it on. Walking inside with his wooden weapon held ready to strike, Michael proceeded over to the closet area. Using the bat to sift through the clothing, he saw - no one. Bending down at the foot of the bed and looking under, he saw - nothing. He checked the window; it was locked. Immediately thinking of Wade, he hurried across the hallway to the boy's room, did a thorough check, and again, no one was anywhere in sight.

"What's wrong, Dad?" Wade asked sleepily.

"Nothing. Go back to sleep," Michael replied, switching off the light and closing the door behind him.

He went to check the remainder of the house, including the doors which he discovered were all still locked from the inside. By the time he headed back to his bedroom, Mira and Sara were waiting in the doorway.

"No one's out there," Michael said.

"But I saw a woman!" Mira insisted. "She was standing right next to my bed!"

"A woman?" Sara's expression was one of shock.

"Yes—a black woman wearing a long, white dress. It was all covered in blood. I saw her yesterday… at the Ferguson house."

"Where?" Michael asked.

"The Ferguson house. Wade and I went over there to pick dillies and we walked a little further up the trail and saw the house."

"You mean Cornelius's house?" Michael probed.

"Cornelius? Who's Cornelius?" Mira was puzzled.

"Come," Michael took her hand with a slight sense of urgency. They sat down together on the bed while Sara remained near the doorway.

"I don't want you or your brother going back to that house," Michael's expression left no doubt about the gravity of the matter.

"Okay," Mira answered sheepishly.

"Why not, Dad?" Wade walked inside the room rubbing his eyes.

"Because I said so!"

"Don't you think you should explain to them why?" Sara asked, moving in closer as Wade sat down on the bed.

Michael was silent for a few moments, then releasing a heavy sigh he said: "Cornelius Ferguson was the owner of that house. He passed away many, many years ago—long before your mother and I were even born." He glanced at Sara, then shifted back between the children. "It's been rumored that since his death, over the years several families lived inside that house and every one of them experienced something out of the ordinary that caused them to abruptly pack up and leave. They say that none of the families that moved in since Cornelius died remained there for more than just a couple of months. The house has now been vacant for many years because of all the stories; no one has since been brave enough to buy the place."

"Have you ever been there, Dad?" Wade asked curiously.

"One time ago, when your mom and I first moved into the neighborhood, after hearing the stories, I decided to take a little stroll through the property. I guess I'd say I walked a good distance in before I spotted the house due to the land being so large and overgrown with all those tall trees and bushes, but I never went inside."

"Why not?" Mira asked.

"I don't know." Michael shrugged. "I just didn't have a good feeling about it."

Wade and Mira were completely engrossed in the tale their father was sharing.

"So, that's why I don’t want you two going anywhere near that house anymore," Michael continued.

"We can't pick anymore dillies and stuff?" Wade asked, disappointed. "The ones we get are right near the edge of the property."

Michael thought for a moment. "Okay… but don't go any further."

"Yes Dad," Wade replied.

"So, you're okay now, honey?" Sara asked Mira.

"I guess. But can I sleep in here with you tonight?" Mira was hopeful.

"You can sleep in my room," Wade said. "Let's go."

Mira got up, kissed her father and mother, then followed Wade to his room.



4

_________________



"How are we this morning, Mister Sherlong?" Sara Cullen asked cheerfully, as she entered the patient's private room.

"We are doing just fine, Freedom Queen," the sixty-five-year-old heart attack survivor affectionately responded. It was a nick-name he had pasted upon Sara the first time she walked in to check on him. Johnny Sherlong was a short man with a large, round belly. He stood at five feet, three inches tall, had balding white hair, an out-of-control moustache and prickly beard. He always wore a white, sleeveless shirt and couldn't seem to feel cold air no matter how cold the temperature got.

"I see you haven't eaten much of your breakfast," Sara said, eyeing the items on the gray tray next to his bed.

"I don't like hospital food. The taste'll kill ya before your heart does," Sherlong replied.

Sara started laughing, simultaneously checking his file she had brought with her. "You must eat, Mister Sherlong. Think of it as fuel to keep up your strength. You do want to get better soon… don't you?"

"Yeah. You're right. How about you come a little closer so I can gather my strength?" He devilishly proposed.

"Oh, Mister Sherlong… Mrs. Sherlong needs to keep a tight leash on you." Sara tucked his pillow. "I bet no heart attack is going to keep you in line after you get out of here."

"How do you know so good, queen? This old stud ain't slowin' down for nobody. When I kick the bucket, I'm gonna go out punchin'… if you know what I mean," he winked.

Sara shook her head and picked up the tray. "I'm coming back to check on you later, okay?"

"Why can't you be my regular nurse?" Sherlong asked, rather peeved.

"Because Jennifer and the others are doing just fine taking care of your every need throughout the day. That's why."

"Not every need," the old man returned, slyly.

"You're right… just the ones that apply to why you're here," Sara said before leaving.


"Sherlong still cutting up with you?" Beverley started walking alongside Sara in the corridor.

"He wouldn't give it a rest," Sara replied.

"His wife's got a real player on her hands there. No wonder the guy had a heart attack; he's trying to keep up with all you young things."

Sara was a few months shy of forty and Beverley was twelve years older than she was. Beverley was tall, lanky, and always wore a shoulder-length, brown wig at work. The reason she gave Sara was that it was easier to throw on than trying to tame her own hair.

"Will you need a lift after work today?" Sara asked.

"Car's not fixed yet, so yeah. Thanks, girl. Good thing I'm working your shift this week. Yours is the only one around here that doesn't change. You're so lucky."

"See you at four," Sara smiled before they parted ways.


"Hey Gwen…" Sara stopped outside the open door of the administrator's office. Gwen Dames appeared to be buried in paperwork before she looked up at her friend.

"Hey There! Come in. What's going on?" She was always delighted to see her favorite nurse.

Sara advanced a few feet inside the room. "I was wondering if I can take about two hours lunch today. Have somewhere I need to go. I can get in here an hour earlier in the morning to make up the time."

"Oh, sure. No problem, Sara," Gwen waved a hand. "How's everything going, by the way?"

"Great. Everything's great," Sara answered.

"How are the kids… and Michael?"

"They're all fine. The kids, of course, are glad to be home doing—God knows what—during their summer break, and Michael… he's fine," Sara said, unsure of what else to say.

"Okay. Well, that's nice," Gwen started fixing the papers on her desk. "Cora Brooks can handle things until you get back."

"Thanks, Gwen. I really appreciate it," Sara smiled.

Gwen Dames knew Sara well enough to know that she was probably lying about how things really were at home, particularly between her and Michael. She could never forget the day she found Sara in the restroom sobbing her eyes out and only admitting—after breaking down even further—that Michael had mistreated her in some way. From that day on, Gwen never liked Michael, but respected the couple's privacy and never brought up the matter to Sara again.


* * * *


At 1:15pm, Sara pulled into the parking lot of the Gaming Board. In her white nurse's uniform, her purse tossed across a shoulder and keys dangling in her hand, she walked inside the building.

"Hi. I'm wondering if my husband, Michael Cullen is here," she said to the young, slender brunette who was primly seated at the reception desk. Sara knew that Michael rarely ever left the premises for lunch.

"Hello, Mrs. Cullen. Just give me a moment to find out for you." She picked up the telephone and moments later, inquired of the person on the other line of Michael's whereabouts.

"He's in the cafeteria having lunch," the lady said to Sara while hanging up the receiver. "It's on the…"

"Fourth floor. I know. Thanks," Sara smiled.

She took the elevator and did a final fixing of her hair before stepping out onto the fourth floor.

The cafeteria was a large open area that practically took up the entire floor. People were either in line waiting for food or sitting at tables having lunch. In the far left corner of the room, she spotted Michael. He was sitting with a young lady.

Sara walked up to them as Michael was speaking with his companion. "Hi," she said, looking at both of them.

Michael looked up, visibly shocked to see Sara standing there. "Oh, hi," he said. "Ah… Sara, this is Hollie. Hollie, this is my wife, Sara."

"Nice to meet you," Hollie said to Sara in a pleasant tone."

"Hi."

"Well, come join us," Michael said to his wife, who for a brief moment was feeling a bit awkward.

"What brings you here?" He asked after Sara sat down; Hollie listening intently for her reply.

"I just thought I'd pop by so that we can have lunch together," Sara said softly. "I wanted to surprise you."

"Well, what a pleasant surprise." Michael tried his best to sound like he meant it.

"I'll go to another table and leave you two to it," Hollie started to get up with her tray.

"No…you don't have to go. I met you here," Sara said.

"You really don't have to," Michael reiterated.

"Are you sure?" Hollie asked, looking at both of them.

"Sure. We're sure," Michael responded, Sara observing.

Hollie sat down again.

"Would you like for me to get you something to eat, honey?" Michael asked his wife.

Honey? Sara was surprised. He never called her that. "What do they have?" She asked.

"They've got great pasta, baked chicken, cabbage slaw - the works," Hollie interjected. "Why don't you and I go up there and you can see for yourself."

"Oh, okay," Sara was grateful for Hollie's kind gesture and the ladies got up and headed to the short line several feet away.

As they engaged in conversation at the lunch counter, Michael sat at the table alone, quietly fuming. How dare she just pop up on me like that? He thought. How stupid! I could've been off the premises attending a meeting or conference, and she would've wasted time and fuel coming all the way over here instead of calling me in advance. Nevertheless, in spite of how he really felt, Michael knew that he had to keep his feelings in check. He wasn't going to risk coming off as a jerk, especially in front of Hollie.

"So, how long have you been working here at the Board?" Sara asked Hollie as she placed a bowl of salad on her tray.

"Just a little over three months now," Hollie replied.

"Three months?" Sara was surprised.

"Yes."

"Oh, I just thought you might have been working here much longer than that… not sure why."

Suddenly, Hollie was quiet, sensing that perhaps Mrs. Cullen was wondering how her husband could be chummy enough to be having lunch with a newcomer. From that point on, the conversation had pretty much died and after Sara had made her selection at the counter, they rejoined Michael at the table.

"You're gonna eat all that?" He asked, inspecting his wife's tray.

Feeling somewhat embarrassed by Michael's question, Sara replied: "I've got salad, a little chicken and a pie. I don't think it's a whole lot to be eating right now."

"Absolutely not, Sara! I eat way more than that at every meal," Hollie said, defending Sara.

Just then, Michael realized that his plan of 'not coming off as a jerk in front of Hollie' seemed to have fallen out of the window.

"I was just saying… because I know you're always concerned about your weight and all," he said. Oh man! I did it again! He could have kicked himself.

Unsure of what else to say, Hollie started sipping her drink and Sara minced on her salad. She sat there feeling like the 'third wheel' as Michael couldn't seem to hide the real him even in public since he had practiced constantly being condescending at home so well. She was almost sorry that she ever showed up there like that and inwardly decided to never do it again.


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