Reese Emmerson's annual summer vacation to the solitude of Smith Mountain Lake started off normally, but then voices in the night tear her from her peaceful slumber. Not that this is unusual. She's been hearing the thoughts of others for as long as she could remember.
Now, the thoughts of two wolves are intruding on her consciousness. Wolves? Yeah, she really must be losing it. Then again, there may be some thing more dangerous going on. Without the help of a beautiful stranger, Reese will fall prey a sinister obsession.
More than anything else, Reese Emmerson craved quiet. Not that she needed to escape from the hustle and bustle of Fredericksburg—as if the university town she called home could be referred to as hustling and bustling. She longed most for respite from the whispering.
One would think, for a person of Reese’s abilities, the daytime hours would be toughest, but this wasn’t the case. Daytime whispers were usually innocuous. Pick up a gallon of milk. Don’t forget dinner tonight with the dean. Chem paper due. French Lit paper due. Art History paper due. As an assistant professor of English Lit at Mary Washington University, she lived near campus, and there were always lots of whispers about papers due. These mundane things she could block out. Not like the voices she heard at night.
Does she know I’m screwing her roommate?
That’s it. Today was the last time I cut myself. For real, this time.
C’mon, take drink, you little bitch. Then you won’t be too good for me.
Help me. God, somebody help me.
I need something to come down. I need to sleep.
Reese understood a longing for deep, dreamless sleep. She rarely enjoyed a full night’s rest. Some random whisper would wake her; then her own worries would kick in. and she’d be up for the rest of the night. The hour of the wolf—that was what her father, Gene, called it. That time after midnight but before dawn when all one’s worries came home to roost. Fear preying on itself, using vulnerability and fatigue to inflate its importance. Reese knew the phenomenon all too well.
But at the cottage, the whispers couldn’t reach her. Situated near Smith Mountain Lake, but far enough into the woods that she had no neighbors for miles in each direction, the cabin gave her a much needed sanctuary. Even on the drive down, the whispers weren’t too bad except when going through Richmond, particularly Jackson Ward. Junkies and whores and gangbangers, oh my! Too much sorrow to block out there. But past that onslaught of desperation, Reese could turn up the radio and think for a little while that she was just like everyone else. It was one of her favorite games: pretending to be normal. But she wasn’t.
The whispers had always been there, as long as she could remember. At age two, she’d been diagnosed with autism. At eight, the diagnosis was adjusted to early onset schizophrenia. That was her label until she turned ten and met Dr. Kate Fielding. Reese loved Dr. Kate.
The older woman was just one in a long line of medical and mental health professionals Reese’s parents had turned to for help. Why did their daughter wake up screaming? Why did she refuse contact with some cherished family friends only to turn around the next day and embrace a total stranger? Why did she say so many inappropriate things? Reese knew Dr. Kate could help her, so she told the psychiatrist the secret no one else could understand. She told Dr. Kate about the whispers.
“Your daughter is not schizophrenic or autistic,” Dr. Fielding announced after their third session. “She’s gifted, and we have to help her see her unique talent as a gift.”
The woman went on to explain that the voices Reese heard were far too organized and coherent to be the product of an afflicted mind.
“Why do you say that?” Reese’s mother, Stella, asked.
“Because I know my own thoughts when I hear them recited back to me, and I assure you I have a very organized mind.”
“These ‘whispers’ she talks about, they’re other people’s thoughts, and she can hear them.”
Reese’s parent thanked the good doctor and left the office in a hurry. Funny to think the psychiatrist herself was off her rocker. Perhaps unable to resist the possibility that Dr. Fielding might be right—no matter how far-fetched the idea sounded—her mother tested the theory on the drive home. Much to her parents’ surprise, their daughter could tell them what they were thinking.
“What am I imagining now?” her mother asked.
“The grapefruit with Equal you ate for breakfast...and the four candy bars you sneaked afterward from your dresser drawer.”
Stella shot Gene a look of chagrin. It was the first time Reese felt a bit like a circus freak, though it would not be the last. But, hey, circus freak was worlds better than mental patient. It was also the first time she understood the power she held.
Due to little Reese’s revelation, her mother’s oppressive ban of sugar from the house was lifted. Reese also learned the phrase, “You damned hypocrite, Stella!” but her dad wasn’t mean enough to say it aloud.
Stella and Gene took Reese to see Dr. Fielding three times a week. Kate’s silvery hair, pinned into a neat bun during office hours, came to represent peace for the girl. The doctor taught Reese relaxation and refocusing techniques to block out the whispers, but no amount of mental training helped her during sleep. Her mind too open and unrestrained during REM phases, it picked up all projections within a certain proximity, the most alarming of which tore her from her nightly slumber. She’d never found a way to control the condition. With Dr. Kate’s death two years ago, Reese’s hope had died with her beloved therapist.
The Jeep’s headlights cut through the dense fog that rose off the warm moist soil to greet the evening air, swept in on cooling breezes from the lake. The wood-paneled, one-room cottage peeked out from behind enormous pines. Turning off the car’s ignition, Reese grabbed her duffel bag and purse. A deep breath of the forest’s fecund scent calmed her at once. Quiet at last, if only for a few days.
* * * * *
Humidity settled along the dips in the lakeside terrain. Despite the heat of the August evening, mist cloaked the roots of oak trees and black huckleberry bushes surrounding the A-frame cabin.
Reese stared out the bay window facing the wilderness. When the trees were devoid of leaves in the winter, she could make out glimpses of the lake, several hundred yards down the mountain. But now an ocean of late-summer greenery extended in various shades of green, rippling like a patchwork quilt, as far as the eye could see.
She lifted a porcelain teacup to her lips, a tisane of blueberries, lemon verbena and Valerian root that soothed her senses. With the warm, fragrant liquid, she drank in the peace around her. Sweet, expansive, solid and perfect peace.
Her nightcap finished, she yawned, stretched and pulled herself up. Making her way to the cabin’s loft area, her bare feet sunk into the thick woolen stair runner as she ascended the narrow steps. Out of habit more than a need to cool off, she clicked on the ceiling fan switch at the top of the staircase. A soft, incandescent glow bathed the sleeping area, and the fan’s hum provided white noise against which she would set her first good night’s sleep in weeks.
Her faded blue jeans slid easily over her narrow hips, and she cast them into a wicker laundry basket with her cotton T-shirt and undergarments. Naturally slim, she had no need of the massive brassieres that air-dried on her mother’s shower curtain rod on laundry day. Reese had taken after her father, all angles and delineated bone structure. Camisoles with minimal support served her just fine. She donned a fresh one and a pair of form-fitting boy shorts, then slid between downy cotton sheets. She’d changed the bedclothes earlier and now relaxed with the feel of fresh linens against her skin. They smelled of freesia fabric softener.
Yawning again, Reese plaited her shoulder-length hair into a French braid and secured it with an elastic hairband. Again on auto-pilot, she reached up and clicked off the overhead light switch. As soon as her head hit the pillow, the pull of sleep overtook her.
* * * * *
Can’t catch me. The voice rasped, desperation breaking through its bravado.
Run faster. Gotta catch up. Gotta run faster. This voice was deeper, more authoritative.
Reese swam to the surface of her consciousness. No, this wasn’t right—no whispers. It couldn’t be. She was in her sanctuary, her fortress of solitude, so to speak.
Run, run, run as fast as you can. The raspy voice intruded on her semi-asleep state again.
When the deeper voice replied, Filthy murderer, Reese sat up. She pulled the sheets around her body and listened. Only the thundering of her heartbeat and panting rhythm of her breath rang in her ears. Could’ve been a dream, though to the best of her knowledge she’d never dreamed any of the whispers. The internal monologues that woke her invariably continued after she’d awakened. Straining to pick up the voices again, she was met with only silence. Must’ve been a dream.
She settled again into the comfort of her bed, the sheets still warm from her sleeping body’s impression. When she had almost returned to her deep slumber, a single word popped into her head, repeated over and over: Vengeance. Vengeance. Vengeance...
Bolting upright, she cast her mind out into the darkness around her, but—just as before—no more whispers greeted her.