It wasn’t exactly the reunion Herb had been hoping for. He sat across the familiar kitchen from Cass-Alex, watching her methodically craft plates of lunch for the tourists.
No one else would have noticed the tremor in her hands, but he’d been at this far too long not to. He knew exactly what she was thinking and knew that offering help or distracting her from the task in any way would only cause whatever calm she was maintaining to break down.

Letting her focus on the task at hand, he looked around the kitchen, realizing that what he’d thought was added brightness was merely cleanliness with some touches of warmth here and there. Patterned curtains hung at the windows to either side of the back door and the swinging doors into the restaurant had a fresh coat of paint, along with the main dining area of the restaurant. The colours changed the tone of the place and he realized it was probably something he should have done a long time ago. He ducked his head, feeling weighed down by the consideration of all she had taken on after the tragic events of the previous fall. He should have been here to help her.

“You were in no shape to help, and I’m just grateful you didn’t die. Besides, I had lots of help. I think Gladys and the rest of the Craft League have been dying to get their hands on this place. It gave us all something to do over the winter, I think everyone was grateful for the distraction.”

“Well I’m glad for that, but I didn’t realize I’d been talking out loud. I must be more on edge than I thought.”

“You didn’t. Let me deliver these and then we can talk about it somewhere the folks out there won’t hear us. Apparently they’re tubeyoubing ghost hunters, whatever that means, and I don’t want them to think there is anything interesting going on around here. I’ll be right back.” She loaded a tray up with the plates and slipped through the swinging doors, leaving Herb to puzzle over her remark. He could hear her sharing banter with the people in the restaurant and slid off the counter he sat on, dropping to the floor as gently as he could. Stepping to the left, he was able to peek through the window the cook might slide meals through and check out the trio at his leisure.

Two of them were well matched, in terms of fashion sense and brash personalities. They kept up the majority of the conversation, almost disregarding the third, who only spoke when asked a direct question. Herb listened to the light chatter Alex served along with their lunch, recognizing the tension in her shoulders, how tight the smile she’d pasted on. He didn’t think the couple was aware of her distress, but he’d be surprised if the third member of their group wasn’t. There was something about them which didn’t fit with this couple. Beyond the dark, baggy clothing and tempered demeanor. Before Herb could speculate further, the doors fluttered open and he turned to follow Alex as she headed toward the back of the kitchen.

Instead of heading out the door onto the small patio out back, she took a right into the storage room. He followed her, stopping in the doorway to marvel at the changes. What used to be a dimly lit room filled with shelving and a large freezer was now a cozy office with a large light brown desk and wheelie chair, and some wine coloured bookshelves which matched the curtains surrounding a window he’d not known existed. Sitting on a blue throw rug facing the desk was an overstuffed chair next to a small table holding a lamp and half empty mug of tea.

She glanced around and saw him taking in the room, gave a small smile and pulled the desk chair out, sitting in it after she’d grabbed a large green binder from the bookshelf.

“There was a bunch of furniture in storage at the museum, in an office which hadn’t been used for some time and when I expressed a notion of creating a space of my own, Lydia volunteered to bring some over. I hired Bert to build an extension onto the back of the restaurant so I could shift the storage and freezers out there. He offered to help me fix up the apartment too, but I didn’t want to get ahead of myself. I didn’t know if you’d be coming back or if I’d be staying so I left it. I find I spend most of my time in here anyhow. I tried to pay him, but he told me to make sure I never forget to toss in some extra slaw whenever Doris comes by for takeout. Everyone has been really welcoming, you know? It’s almost unnerving how easy it’s been to feel like I belong here.” Herb nodded in agreement with what she was saying.

“I totally understand. It was the same with me. Of course there was curiosity, but it’s kind of uncanny here how everyone is so helpful and accepting of new people. That doesn’t feel very typical.”

“Maybe we’re just jaded, having grown up in cities. Maybe it’s just a small town thing.”

“Maybe. But we both know this place isn’t exactly normal.” He walked to the window, noticing that though the patio out back had been enlarged, it didn’t seem to encroach on the nearby forest any more than before. It was amazing how this place had felt like sanctuary for so long and now all he could see were shadows lurking in every corner. He shuddered and turned back to the warmth of the room, and to Alex. She was watching him warily, as though suspecting he had a bomb tucked somewhere in his pockets. He supposed he did to a certain extent.

“So we’ve got trouble? Does it have anything to do with the women who went missing after they stayed at Jeff’s place a few months ago?”

“What? Some women went missing?”

“Yeah, that couple out there showed me a video the women filmed at a motel. It’s difficult to say what was going on due to the shaky camerawork and the screaming. Those two are convinced it was a haunting but that doesn’t make sense since Jeff’s place isn’t haunted. It isn’t, right? Anyhow, the women who disappeared came through here, having heard the stories about the resort. It’s funny, I can remember two of them so clearly, but the third one.. At any rate, I really thought I’d convinced them it was a bad idea, and gave them directions to the motel. I even gave Jeff and Georgie a heads up that some ghoul seeking tourists were heading their way so they could further deter them from exploring the area. I figured they’d been long gone, but apparently the motel is the last sighting of them as a cellphone belonging to one of them was found and that video uploaded onto the internet was the last thing recorded on it. Or so I was told by the ghost grabbers out there.”

Herb let out a deep breath as it suddenly occurred to him that he’d been holding it the whole time Alex had been talking. He sat down heavily in the comfy chair, at least, as heavily as one could when aforementioned chair had the qualities of an upholstered hug. No wonder she spent most of her time in here, he thought, as he pulled himself back to upright, perching on the edge of the seat cushion.

“As far as I know Jeff’s place isn’t haunted, not in a way that would interest the internet anyhow. It is interesting that ghost hunters would show up here now, the entity mentioned an increase in what it called revenants. And the fact that people are disappearing again must be what the entity was talking about, the tortured souls feeding the Other. But who is doing the torturing?”

“Feeding what? What are you talking about? You saw it? Did it get a new body yet? Or is it still using…” Alex swallowed, finding it difficult to say Tommy’s name suddenly. Herb grimaced, lifting a hand to rub the back of his neck.

“No, it’s still, you know. I don’t think it’ll show up again looking like that. We had a chat.”

“Sounds like it. So what’s going on?”

“How long do you think it’ll take you to pack?”

“Pack? Where are we going?”

“Away? Honestly, I’m not sure.” Herb took a breath, ran a hand through his hair and let himself sink back into the chair. “Ok, this isn’t going at all like I’d planned. Well, to be fair, I didn’t really have much of a plan. I thought I’d work it out on the way here and now that I’m here and, this chair is really comfortable and…” Alex cut him off.

“Take a breath, Herb. Those folks are going to be finished and gone off to Jeff’s motel soon. I can’t imagine they’ll have much luck finding any ghosts which means they’ll be out of the area by tomorrow, if not sooner. They haven’t even mentioned the resort, so I don’t think they know about it. They’re looking for ghosts, not monsters. On my way to check on them, I’ll put the kettle on. Once they leave we can have a cup of tea and see if we can’t sort this out.” Herb nodded and watched her leave the room.

The desire to stay curled up in the cozy office and ignore the warnings of an immortal being who kept a hellhound which sometimes resembled a terrier as a companion and occupied a forest behind a homestead which came with a duty Herb had inherited merely by staying alive was a temptation Herb was finding it difficult to ignore.
Instead he stood and followed Cass-Alex into the kitchen. She was already in the restaurant, he could hear her talking with the trio out there. He stepped to the window, but the ticking of water heating in the copper kettle was drowning out their voices. He removed it from the stove, the better to eavesdrop when his attention was drawn to the sauce simmering in a medium sized pot. Unable to resist, he grabbed the spoon next to the stove and dipped it, blowing on the sauce before tasting. Head tilted to the side, he let the mingled flavours come to life before scrunching his nose and shaking his head.

“Well that’s not right.” Herb moved to the left of the stove and opened the upper cupboard which contained the spices and began rummaging around. Alex walked back into the kitchen.

“They’ve just left. Um, what are you doing?”

“Looking for the paprika, the sauce needs more, I can barely taste it.”

“It does not. I used a smoky paprika instead, I find it’s a much subtler flavour with a nice spicy after bite.”

“What? Everyone knows you have to use a sweet paprika. The sauce isn’t tangy enough otherwise. Ah, there it is.” He twisted the lid from the small jar and levered it over the sauce. There was a sudden stinging pain in his hand as the jar flew onto the counter, spinning a flurry of red powder in a circle. He looked up to see Alex holding the wooden spoon.

“You hit me!”

“Well, you were about to mess with my sauce.”

“I was fixing it.”

“Herb, don’t be silly. Everyone knows the secret to good sauce is…”

They both turned at the sound of screams coming from outside. Alex almost dropped the spoon, but seeing the way that Herb was cradling his hand, she thought it might be useful in a fight. They both ran for the door.

~~~~~

The trio had left the restaurant and were heading toward the van when Sam stopped suddenly, staring into the woods with a puzzled expression.

“Listen, do you smell something?” There was no chance to say anything more because Angelié screamed, the sound sharp and ringing in the calm. Shooter dropped low, ready to leg sweep whatever was attacking them, like he’d seen in a capoeira video one time. Sam followed Angelié’s stare and spotted a small dog in the underbrush. Shooter whirled, trying to work out where the danger was coming from.

“What is it, baby? Is it a ghost? A chupacabra?”

“There’s some kind of wild animal over there! Kill it!”

Shooter finally spotted the dog. “Huh, looks more like chihuahua than chupacabra.”

Sam’s eyes closed briefly, for approximately as long as it might take someone to count to ten, and then said, “I think it’s a terrier.” Behind them, the door slammed open. Herb cursed. As he stopped to make sure the wall was intact, Alex pushed past him with what looked like a bloody wooden spoon in her hand. Sam raised an eyebrow and she she glanced at the spoon.

“Oh, yeah, it’s just sauce. Are you alright? We heard screaming.”

She skidded to a stop at the bottom of the steps, realizing that while Shooter and Angelié were holding steady in their panic pattern, Sam was quite calm.

“It’s really okay. I’m pretty sure it was just a dog.” Sam didn’t miss the look that Alex and Herb exchanged, and would have bet Shooter’s yearly supply of muscle grease that there was more going on than ‘just a dog’. “Is it yours? I think it might have been scared off.” Alex shook her head.

“I’m sure it’s fine. The smell of barbecue is pretty irresistible. We get all kinds of critters coming around hoping for scraps from time to time. I’m sorry it startled you.”

Angelié was clinging to Shooter as though she was made of melted wax, draping herself across him in a way that suggested removal might be difficult without proper tools.  He didn’t seem to notice the extra weight, but he likely could have lifted two of her without much trouble.

“Well I don’t think it’s very polite for animals to sneak up on people like that. I’m just lucky to have a big strong man here to protect me.” Alex bit her tongue to keep from rolling her eyes. Sam’s head dropped a bit, and Alex would swear they were having a similar reaction. Shooter beamed, basking in the neon admiration of his girlfriend. Herb was peering into the woods in a way that almost seemed nonchalant. Almost. Alex was really hoping the trio would leave so they could talk. Something was definitely up.

“What about you?” Sam turned to Herb. “You said something about having trouble?” Herb was obviously caught off guard, throwing his gaze in Alex’s direction.

“Oh, yeah, uh, I um had some trouble with the..”

“Car!” burst from Alex.
“Delivery!” Herb tossed out simultaneously.

“Yes, that’s right, Herb had some trouble with his car so he was unable to pick up a delivery I was expecting from the post office. But that’s okay, I told him he can use my truck to get it later.”

“That’s right. Car trouble is a real pain.”

The three visitors stared at them for a moment. Angelié was the first to speak, which surprised no one.

“Well that’s why we drive new cars. Less trouble. Speaking of driving, I’m ready to go baby. Let’s get to the hotel before it gets dark so we can figure out which room is haunted.”

“Well it’s more of a…” Alex started to say.

“More of a motel, I know, you said already.” Angelié cut her off. Alex met her gaze and held it a moment, then pursed her lips and nodded.

“Right. I did. Sorry. Give my regards to Jeff and Georgie.”
Shooter beamed his 1000 watt smile at them and assured them he would. He turned to Sam.

“Coming Sam?” Sam nodded.

“I am, but there’s one thing. Just before we saw the dog, I could smell..something. I’m not sure what it was. It was familiar but strange, if that makes sense.”

“It’s the forest Sam, it’s filled with things that smell. And I’m sure if you’ve smelled one forest, the rest are pretty similar. Don’t overthink it.”And with that, Angelié turned to the van, the conversation obviously over. Alex gave a wave as they drove off and turned to realize that Herb had already gone back inside.

“If you’re putting sweet paprika into my sauce, I’m gonna give you such a whack!” She brandished the spoon menacingly, and ran up the stairs, careful not to slam the door against the wall.

A moment or two later, a small orange ball rolled out of the bushes.

Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

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