The Hundred-Year Storm
Lavender. From the moment Delaney Marshall had stepped inside to mask off the trim, her intention to paint the room yellow had been derailed. She didn't remember buying the purple paint--let alone pick it out in the first place. She hadn't even noticed it was the wrong color until half of the first can was gone. When Del thought about it - really pushed - the whole trip to the hardware store and back was a blank.
That made three times in the last six months.
It set her on edge, a feeling that the sprawling 8-bedroom Victorian house did nothing to allay. Del so wanted this to work, her crazy idea to turn the old family albatross into a bed and breakfast. But what was supposed to be warm and charming felt stagnant and tense. Like the whole house was holding its breath.
Just once, Del wanted something to go her way. She'd thought the house was it. Now she wasn't so sure.
She picked up the paintbrush and can and moved to the back wall, where the closet and bathroom doors came together to make a tight corner. "At least the color doesn't suck." She frowned at the narrow space and opened the closet door, swinging it back and forth experimentally.
Del whirled. Her cousin Katie stood in the bedroom's doorway. Technically, they were second cousins - granddaughters to Helen and Hannah, the two sisters who had originally called this place home. But all the women descended from the Ashfield side of the family tended to be close. Katie and Del were the same age, and closer to each other than to their respective sisters. Katie was short and petite to Del's tall and lanky, but they both had the same Ashfield coloring - dark hair, pale skin, and dark brown eyes. Except Katie had white paint in her short hair and a white streak on one cheek, badges earned from her job painting trim.
Katie looked around the room. "I thought you were going to paint it yellow."
Del shrugged. "I guess the room just wanted to be lavender." Her eyes drifted to the traitor color on the nearest wall.
"You know, it is officially your house now," Katie said, laughing. "I'm just the hired help - paint it whatever color you want."
"Don't say that!" Del flashed a grin, happy to change the subject. "You're not hired - you're doing this for free, remember?"
"Ha! And I thought residency qualified as indentured servitude." Katie tilted her head and squinted her eyes. "What's that hanging in the back of the closet?"
Del peered inside. The closet was square-shaped, about four feet on each side. Large, even in this large house. In the back corner, a short rope ending at a knot hung from the ceiling. "It's a trapdoor." Del tried to picture where it would come out one level up. "I don't think this goes to the regular part of the attic. Here, bring that ladder over."
After careful maneuvering to get the ladder into the closet, Del perched at the top, one hand on the trapdoor. "Here's to praying for no spiders."
"Or mice," Katie added fervently.
"Well, open it up already!"
Del blinked around her. She was sitting on the bedroom floor in front of a small wooden crate. Katie had her hands on her knees, peering over Del's shoulder. A very old scrapbook with all-black pages was wedged at an angle inside the box. The cracked leather cover was blank, no inscription or marking. That was it - nothing else.
What the hell had happened? She had been at the top of the ladder, about to open the trapdoor. Del glanced at the closet. The ladder was still there, parked underneath a dark square hole in the shadows of the ceiling.
"Are you going to open it or what?" Katie folded her knees under her and scooted closer to Del's side.
Too disoriented to argue, Del lifted the book from the crate and rested it on her knees. She carefully opened it.
A yellowed scrap of paper had been glued onto the first page. Del could just make out the faded script - Peter and Katya Rusalkov, m. 1891. She frowned over at Katie. "You know who this is?"
"No - you?"
"Nope." Del flipped the page.
A couple stared back at them, the man seated in a chair, dressed in a dark suit with a white shirt and tie. A woman stood next to him, her hand on the back of the chair. She wore a white, ruffled dress with big shoulders and a broad white hat with a delicate lace veil.
"Do you think this is a wedding picture?" Del asked.
Katie gasped and pointed. "Look at her, Del. She looks just like you!"
Del tried to see the likeness through the veil, but she kept getting distracted by the man. He had the Ashfield coloring - that was clear even in the black-and-white photo - dark hair, fair skin. But his eyes must have been the palest blue, because they looked almost colorless in the image. He stared straight out at her with an intensity that made her shiver. The whole picture had that weird focus of very old photos. The man looked hyper-real, like he could rise up from the chair and step out of the image at any moment.
"Rusalkov," Katie muttered. "I don't remember that one from the family tree."
"When was Eva Ashfield born?" Del asked, flipping back a page to look at the year.
"You have to ask? Isn't that the story we heard from Grandma Helen and Great-Aunt Hannah every Christmas?" Katie straightened her back, her arms resting on an imaginary armchair. Her voice came out high and thin, a pretty good approximation of Helen's grandmotherly waver. "'My mother was born during one of the biggest storms to ever come to Crystal River, Colorado. The whole town nearly perished in that storm of 1892, but that was when my mother took her very first breath . . .'"
Del shoved playfully at Katie's shoulder. "All right, all right!" Then the year sank in. "Hey! 1892!" She flipped back to the cover page. "This was started in 1891." She traded an excited look with Katie. "Do you think-?"
"Eva Ashfield." Katie leaned forward. "That was her married name, wasn't it? Could she have been born Eva Rusalkov?"
Del turned the fragile pages as fast as she dared. She found handwritten notes and dried pressed flowers. Two torn train tickets. A picture labeled Denver, though it bore no resemblance to the Denver Del knew. And then the house - the very house she and Katie sat in, with Peter and Katya standing stoic in front of it. Next, a picture of River Street, Crystal River's main drag, also unrecognizable.
"This must be before the fire," Katie murmured.
Del nodded, struck again by how real it looked - too real.
"Look!" Katie pointed. "Just on the edge, can you see it?"
Del squinted at the photo. Her stomach dropped. "The Crystal River Inn." A sign that had haunted her dreams from the day she signed all the paperwork from her great-aunt's estate. The idea to turn the old Victorian into a bed and breakfast hadn't occurred to her so much as it had been forced on her by her subconscious. It had bordered on an obsession, down to the very first blank spot of lost time - when she had somehow ordered the sign made, complete with blue, green, and purple accents.
"But how did you know - the sign-" Katie sputtered. "I mean, how did you do that?" She waved her hand wildly toward the front of the house.
Del managed a faint grin. "I'm not psychic." God, I hope not. "When I got the paperwork from the lawyer, I found some pictures of the house. One was of River Street from before the fire. You could just make out the weathervane and the eaves of this house behind it. Someone had drawn an arrow on it, I think Aunt Helen, pointing out the house. But it had a dead-on shot of the inn. That was what gave me the idea to make this a bed and breakfast." Del shrugged in the face of Katie's continued skepticism. "Remind me later. I'll dig it out and show you."
Katie rolled her eyes. "Fine. I'll believe you. Now turn the page. I want to see 1892."
It took a few more pages before they got to the blizzard. The first picture was of a man they didn't recognize, holding a shovel and straddling the peak of one of the Victorian's second-story eaves. He could've stepped right off it onto the snowdrift. It looked like he had been shoveling it off the roof, keeping the many chimneys clear.
"Wow," Katie breathed, "that is a lot of snow."
Del nodded. The next picture showed Katya, paler than ever and hollow-cheeked, holding a little bundle of a baby. She pointed. "Eva?"
Del ran through the story she had heard a hundred times from Helen and Hannah. Her heart skipped a beat. "There's no Peter."
The sparkle in Katie's eyes deflated at once. "He was dead by then, wasn't he?"
Del stared at the picture, at the place where Peter should have been standing - behind his wife and their new baby. "No one knows how long they survived out at the mining camp," she said softly, hearing the echo of the story in her mind. "It took three weeks before they could dig out to reach the miners. He might have still been fighting to stay alive when this picture was taken."
"Jeez, Del, what a morbid thought!" Katie shuddered and clambered to her feet. "Now I've got the creeps. C'mon, it's dinner time anyway - you're treating me to ribs."
"Again?" Del looked up at her cousin. "You must really like that Shep - this'll be the third time this week! And that's not counting yesterday was Thanksgiving."
Katie's grin took on a wicked glint. "It's not me Shep has eyes for. You're the new local girl. You should see him pine over you from behind the bar."
Del swiped at Katie's leg, all she could reach from the floor. "That's just what I need, another man. Go on, then. Wash the paint off your face and I'll meet you downstairs."
Katie dodged out of the way, smirking. "Don't take too long, Shep's waiting!"
Del turned back to the scrapbook as soon as Katie left the room. She flipped a few more pages. These were not happy photos. One was a newspaper clipping showing stacks of bodies. The snow had piled so high that people in one-story structures had suffocated in their homes, killed by fires that couldn't vent.
Another page turn, and Katya stared back at Del out of a single photograph, an oval portrait. Del could see the resemblance better, though Katya looked extremely ill, with gaunt cheeks and dark circles under her eyes. No one ever smiled in photographs back then, but Del could detect just a hint of bitter triumph in the woman's lips.
A slip of paper was wedged between the photo and the page. Del eased it out of its hiding place. A yellowed, tightly folded piece of parchment or vellum. She carefully prized it open.
The top half of the single page contained block letters printed with a heavy hand. She only recognized a few shapes - the rest looked like Greek or Russian. It was signed. She could make out a K and an A, but not much else.
Underneath, someone else had apparently translated it in a much lighter, flowery script. It said:
I am Rusalka, though I did nothing to deserve this fate. Peter did nothing to deserve it. I curse my blood. All my blood, until I can find my Peter once again. I curse this place, that promised hope only to take him from me. Let it burn.
Del stared at the words for a long time, fighting off the chill that crept into her heart. She had heard of the Rusalki, she realized, from the family book of Russian fairytales that Hannah had liked to read aloud. Jilted lovers who drowned themselves in their shame, only to return as shades or sirens. Doomed to misery and to cause the misery of others. Del shuddered and quickly replaced the paper behind Katya's very miserable face. She turned the page.
The last picture looked as if it had been taken from the second floor of the house, looking out toward River Street. The main street was completely unrecognizable - almost all the buildings had burned to the ground. The snow still piled high but much of it was stained black from smoke - it was amazing to think that half the town could've burned down in the middle of a blizzard. Amazing to think that of a town of over five hundred people, only about twenty had survived, Eva and her mother among them.
In the charred remains of one building, Del could just make out the edge of a blackened sign, one she knew well.
It said Crystal River Inn.
"Do you think you got the colors right?" Katie said as she joined Del on the sidewalk in front of the old Victorian. A scrubbed, red cheek replaced the streak of paint on her face.
Del looked at the sign she had somehow reproduced and dragged out here in the back of her car, all the way from California. She stifled a shiver. "The only thing I changed, that I know of, is that." She pointed. Two hooks protruded from the bottom of the sign. Inside, somewhere in a kitchen box, were two strips of wood that could hang on those hooks. One said Vacancy, the other, No Vacancy. The one hanging from the sign now said Coming Soon.
A door opened down the street and Del looked up. Mrs. Phillips stood on her porch next door, staring out at the two of them.
Del waved. "Hi, Mrs. Phillips."
The old woman nodded. "Good evening, Ms. Marshall. No leftovers tonight?" Mrs. Phillips seemed to disapprove of Del's and Katie's eating habits, among many other things. There was no help for it, though. The refrigerator worked, barely, but the stove was non-functional. Del had no desire to experiment with a raw food diet.
"Thanksgiving was a little light for us, this year. New stove comes next week."
"It'll be late," Mrs. Phillips said shortly.
"Oh?" Del tried to keep her voice even. The old woman radiated almost constant irritation at the new activity next door, and it was starting to wear thin.
"Storm's coming. Bad one. Hundred-year storm, they're saying." She nodded once and went back inside her own house.
"Creepy old woman," Katie muttered.
"I can't alienate the neighbors before I even open," Del said softly as she unlocked her car. She slid behind the wheel. "But she is creepy," she agreed as Katie pulled the passenger door closed. "Worse yet, she's the mother of one Deputy Ron Phillips. So if I piss her off, she could pretty much get the cops out here any time she wants." Yet another sign that her luck, which had finally seemed to turn, was slipping away. Again.
Katie gave a wry grin. "Welcome to small-town politics."
The Crystal River Roadhouse occupied prime territory on the edge of town, the last stop between Crystal River and the small ski resort that sat nestled between Schofield Pass and Crested Butte.
Matt "Shep" Shepherd, the owner, looked exactly like what Del expected to find only behind the roadhouse bar in her dreams - half hot, sexy bartender and half bouncer capable of throwing out an entire biker gang. Lean and muscle-y, but with a broad chest that would make a pro wrestler jealous, and long brown hair pulled back in a neat, low ponytail. He didn't look nearly old enough to own a bar outright. Not that Delaney could talk, owning a bed and breakfast at the tender age of twenty-five.
Shep wasn't Delaney's type, though. At least, she didn't used to think so. It turned out that sensitive guys apparently weren't her type either, after she found her fiancé Jeff in bed with another man. Del firmly closed the door on those thoughts as she slid into the booth across from Katie.
Shep immediately approached from the bar, two fresh beers in hand. "Another productive day at the house?" he asked, setting the beers on the table and grinning at Del.
A flush warmed Del's cheeks and she studiously avoided looking at Katie. She tilted her hand back and forth in answer to Shep's question. So so. "Got a lot of painting done. Unfortunately, there's still a lot more to do."
Shep grinned sympathetically. "It never ends. Let me know if you need some help. I open late on Sundays."
Del willed the blush back, banking on the bar's dim lighting to help hide it. Denied her face, all that blood decided to gather between her chest and knees, spreading tingling warmth where it didn't need to go. "I might have to take you up on that. I lose my helper after tomorrow."
Shep flashed a brilliant white grin, dazzling Del for a moment.
By the time she had recovered, he had turned to Katie and the moment was gone. "You get tired of the ribs yet?"
"No way!" Katie rubbed her hands together. "Bring 'em on."
Shep cocked an eye at Del. "And you? I've got a turkey pot pie that's pretty good, if I say so myself. Made from yesterday's Thanksgiving turkey."
"That sounds great."
"Alrighty, then. I'll have those out in a few." Shep trundled behind the bar.
Katie leaned back in the booth and smirked at Del. "See? Pining."
"Whatever." Del took a sip of beer and stretched out her stiff shoulders. They both sat quietly, letting the soft sounds of country music wash over them from the jukebox.
Had Helen and Hannah ever hung out at this place? They had grown up here. Except this had been a church back then, Del reminded herself. Shep's father had converted it to the bar. Something about a fight with God, Shep had said.
"How do you think she knew?" Katie asked.
Del blinked. "Aunt Helen?"
"Yeah. Between her grandkids and her sister's grandkids, that's what, ten of us in all? How did she know you were the right one for that place? I mean, we were both in high school when she passed away."
Del shrugged. She had wondered about that a lot herself, recently. She had just lost her job - again. Just kicked Jeff out of the house, just cancelled the wedding dress, and the hotel. . . She shuddered. She had also just opened a bottle of wine to drown her sorrows alone on what was shaping up to be the worst birthday week of her life when the lawyer called. He had asked for the meeting apologetically, as if he knew her capacity for more bad news was at an all-time low.
Her cousins and sister had certainly treated it as bad news. No jealousy there. The conditions in her great-aunt's will had specified that once Delaney reached 25, she was to live full time in the house for at least five years if she took it, an unreasonable burden, Melissa, the oldest cousin, had said. They all looked at her with sympathy, as if she had just been saddled with the family's black sheep, a whole herd of them. But Helen had provided a pretty generous pile of cash to go with it, as long as it was spent on the house in one way or another.
The weird thing was that Del wasn't anything special to get the house. She wasn't her aunt's favorite niece. She wasn't the oldest or the youngest of her generation.
Just the most lost.
"I would've sold it to pay for my student loans," Katie said bluntly. "And Melissa and Janine would've done the same, to put away college money for their kids. The others are too young to remember Grandma or Aunt Hannah, let alone the house. I think you're the only one who would take that place on. I just don't know how she could've predicted that."
Shep set their plates in front of them. "Here you are, ladies. One rack of ribs, one pot pie. Last ribs til at least next week, though."
"I cleaned you out?" Katie laughed. "It's okay. I'm heading back to L.A. day after tomorrow anyway. Gotta get back to work and school."
Shep frowned. "No, that's not what I meant. Haven't you been paying attention to the weather?"
Mrs. Phillips had said something about that. "A storm or something?" Del offered.
"Or something." Shep absently wiped his hands on his apron. "The National Weather Service is saying four to six feet of snow. At least." He gave Katie a wry glance. "You flying out or driving?"
"Out of Gunnison?"
"Yeah," Katie said slowly. "Why? You think I won't be able to get out on time?"
"If you're supposed to leave Sunday, you'll be lucky to get out of here by Wednesday."
"What!" Katie sat bolt upright in the booth. "Wednesday? My chief resident will kill me if I'm back that late."
"You'd better head over to Gunnison first thing tomorrow, then. Storm's supposed to hit the pass tomorrow night." Shep nodded at Del. "You'll want to stock up, too. Maybe hit that Walmart down there. Last truck's coming over the pass tomorrow afternoon and you don't want to be fighting with the rest of the locals for the last dozen eggs, you know? I'll probably be closed after tomorrow." He grimaced. "If we get six feet, Schofield Pass won't open up again until Tuesday at least. The county just doesn't have enough plows to keep up with that much snow."
"Yeah, and that pass is scary." Katie shuddered. "Sheer rock on one side, sheer cliff on the other."
"If we leave first thing in the morning, we'll be okay." Del patted Katie's hand across the table. "I'm sure you'll get back just fine."
"But what about you?" Katie actually looked scared.
"Don't be silly. This is Colorado in November, what do you expect? It's certainly not going to get warmer from here on out!" Del tried not to think about what it would be like to be stuck in that house alone with a blizzard raging outside. She forced a grin. "I've never seen that much snow fall at once. It'll be exciting!"
Shep snorted. "It'll be exciting for about twelve hours and then you'll be over it, I promise."
Del dumped another log on the fire in the living room and settled next to Katie on the mattress they had dragged downstairs from one of the bedrooms. The storm had hit just after dinner, first with a gentle snowfall and then with winds that whistled around the old house, making it creak and moan. The power had made a valiant effort to outwit the storm for about two hours before it finally gave up.
"I'm sorry about your flight," Del said. She pulled her comforter tighter around her shoulders.
Katie sighed. "For the tenth time, will you forget it? What can I do? I couldn't exactly sit on the wing, and every seat was full and then some."
"Everyone else was paying attention and we weren't. I didn't even think about the weather."
Katie sniffed and shrugged deeper into her blankets. "Don't worry about it. I'll deal. I mean, this storm's definitely got people freaked out. I couldn't even get a lousy motel room in Gunnison."
Del glanced at the big bay window at the front of the house. Pitch black streaked with horizontal white. She couldn't even see the overgrown yard in front. "Maybe it won't be so bad."
The wind shrieked past the house, rattling the front door.
Katie woke abruptly. She lay still in her sleeping bag, listening. She had been dreaming about all the other residents that she had traded shifts with in order to skip town for Thanksgiving so she could help Del get the house going. They had assembled torches and pitchforks and were preparing to hunt her down. But that wasn't what had woken her. Something was different about the air, something that set her heart racing.
The old house was silent. When the storm had hit full force just after dinner, the Victorian had creaked and groaned with every wind gust, shivered with every wave of snow that washed over it. That was gone now, leaving a muffled silence that was somehow electric. Katie's legs felt twitchy and restless.
The fire popped. Katie lifted her head, focused on the red-gold flames burning in the fireplace at her feet. The last two logs hadn't burned down that much. She reached for her cell phone and flicked it on. No bars - a pretty regular occurrence in Crystal River - and 12:15AM glowed back at her.
She glanced over at Del. The mattress was empty, the blankets crumpled to the side.
Katie sat up. "Del?"
The house breathed silently around her. No other sounds.
"Del?" Katie scrambled to her feet. She took the few steps needed to catch sight of the powder room behind the stairs. The door was open, the room dark. She turned back toward the front of the house.
Del stood before her, blocking her path.
Katie stumbled back. "Jeez, Del, you scared the crap out of me!" She eyed her cousin's clothes. "Why are you wearing a coat? And boots? Where are you going?"
Del's head drooped forward. Her hands hung limply at her sides. "Is time." She said it with a heavy accent. Ees time.
"Are you okay?" Katie peered up into Del's face.
Her eyes were frosted, a layer of ice over the usual warm brown. And her breath fogged the air. Her lips were blue.
Katie grabbed Del's gloved hand. She could feel the cold through the fabric. "You're freezing! Have you been outside?"
Del yanked her hand away. "You are Rusalkova. Sem'ya. I cannot stay. Is time." She turned toward the front door.
"You're talking crazy. We've got to get you warmed up." Katie grabbed at her cousin's arm, managing only to get hold of the ski coat.
Del turned back. For an instant, something flickered across her face: dark circles under her eyes, hollows in her cheeks. The frost over her eyes cracked. Underneath lay hunger. Anger. Longing.
The coat slipped from Katie's nerveless fingers.
Del stripped the glove off of one hand. "You stay here." She cupped Katie's cheek.
A white lance of icy pain pierced Katie's head.
And then darkness.
"Del, wake up!"
"Mom," Del moaned, "give me ten more minutes." She tried to snuggle deeper into the blankets. The sensation was wrong, as if her covers had crumbled into dust in her arms. And her cheek stung.
"I'm not your mother and you need to get up!"
The fear in the woman's voice, a note Del had never heard from her mother, penetrated. She lifted her head.
She was in a snowdrift, and already half-covered by more snow that seemed to be flinging itself at the ground. Wind gusted around her, but could hardly budge the heavy curtain of snow. She pawed at her nose and mouth, clearing the stinging, sticky stuff from her face. She could just make out a street and lumpy white mounds that had probably been cars a couple hours ago.
Del pushed herself to her feet. Her fingers and toes shot pins and needles through her nervous system. How long had she been here? How did she get out here in the first place?
Another blank spot.
A young woman flickered into form in front of her. Del staggered back. The woman wore a short sleeve button-down blouse and culottes that were rolled up almost to her knees. Her bare feet left no imprint in the snow. Her hair was curled up on the sides in a classic 1940's roll. The longer hair behind floated around her head, as impervious to the wind as the woman seemed to be to the snow. And everything glowed faintly - in the lines of her body, the folds of her clothing. And in her eyes.
The woman leaned closer. "Do you recognize me? We haven't much time."
Del gulped. Did hypothermia cause hallucinations? "Y-you look like a picture of my great-aunt Helen. Her wedding picture or something." The one Helen always kept on her mantle, where she and her husband had posed on a dock. Helen's feet had been in the water. Uncle Albert sat behind her, leaning on one arm. The picture had always struck Del because the photographer had to have been out on the lake to take the shot.
Relief flooded the woman's eyes. "You remembered. That's good." She gestured with her hand. "Get up. We don't have much time."
Del struggled to her feet. "You're dead. You've been dead for ten years."
The specter claiming to be Helen reached out to her. "I know. This is a shock." The woman shuddered. "I waited. I knew where the rift would start, so I could be the first one through. Just-" She stepped away, licked her lips. "Just don't touch me, all right? I don't know how much control I really have."
"What's happening?" Del asked, drawn in despite herself. One part of her mind refused to absorb what was in front of her. The other part believed. Whole-heartedly. How could she deny what her eyes were telling her?
"Do you know where you are?"
Del shook her head, sending a new cascade of snow off her hood. She squinted through the heavy snowflakes. "River Street?"
Helen nodded. "That fire was no accident." As she spoke, the buildings took on the same whispy glow that traced her outline. Modern facades faded away, replaced by wood fronts, painted signs. Plank walks sprouted over cement sidewalks. "Come, we must hurry."
"Where are we going?" Del stumbled after, eyes wide at the street's transformation.
"He's coming for you. I had hoped you would be here with Jeff." Helen bit her lip. "I was foolish to think you could find love, with so much of Katya's curse in you."
"Who's coming for me?"
"If he touches you directly, if he takes the piece of Katya you carry, it will kill you, Del. I'm so sorry."
Del's steps slowed. "What! Kill me? Who?"
"We have to get you out of Crystal River. Katya will be angry with me, but I can't let her kill you for this." Helen reached for Del's hand, caught herself, and snatched her arm back. Hunger burned briefly in Helen's eyes.
Del put a step's distance between them. All those blank spots. "Is it you? You've been, what, possessing me?" The snow swirled, making her dizzy.
"No! It's Katya. Katya has you, a curse. All the Ashfields - all women, until one who could be the bridge to return Katya to her Peter. It would be fine, if you were with one you love, one who loves you. But you're alone."
Figures sprang to life along the street. Dozens and dozens, glowing statues of men, women, children. Ghosts. Silver and flickering, they winked into form, row after row until the snow swallowed the rest. They all faced the buildings, looked up at the brick facades, confusion on their faces and in their eyes.
Del bit down on a shriek. The ghosts ignored her, intent on where their homes used to be. So many of them. All of them staring up at the buildings.
"We're running out of time!" Helen wailed. "Please, Del, run! Get out of town. It's the only way to be safe."
Shock coursed through Del, making her feel even more light-headed. She gaped at the silvery forms around her, unable to drag the lead weight of her feet.
Helen thrust herself in front of Del. Her eyes glowed, the shine as brittle as glass. "Those people in 1891. They didn't die of a storm, Del. They died from Katya's grief. And now Peter is coming back, and they will all come back with him. They've come here, looking for their lost loved ones, too. And when they don't find them . . ." Helen looked around her and shuddered. "Any original part of town, no matter what's there now. Anyone living there will be in danger."
Del peered through the snow at the street. All around her, full skirts and flat hats and long dusters, the owners staring up at the buildings. The confusion on their faces slowly burned into anger.
"Run, Del." Helen faded into the night.
Del ran. She stumbled, caught herself before she fell. Snow clogged her eyes and her mouth. Cold sent daggers of ice down her chest, into her lungs. She gathered her coat tighter. The number of specters around her dwindled as she passed beyond the original town center.
The Roadhouse's steeple came into view, barely visible through the gusting snow. The town's last boundary marker. Del gathered up what strength she could find, sending it to her watery legs.
A shriek pierced the air behind her, sending an electric blade of fear down her back. Other screams of rage answered.
She was running out of time.
Most of the Roadhouse was visible now, its single sulfur parking light turning the snow around it pink. But the glow in front of the building was not just from the streetlight. Del felt her steps slow. She couldn't help it.
A crowd of flickering ghosts gathered outside the building, blocking the entrance and spilling over onto the street. People must have sought refuge in the church when the snow got bad. Must have died there. And now their anger pulsed in a strange, icy heat.
Shep. Del stumbled, turned away from the road. Shep was inside there. She moved before she realized what she intended to do.
"Hey!" she screamed. "Hey, get away from there!" She ran toward the ghosts, waving her arms as if they were a flock of birds she could scare off.
As one, the ghosts turned toward her. Recognition flashed in their eyes and they stepped away, made a path for her.
Del rushed forward, relieved. Just as she reached the front steps of the bar, a silver form flickered to life in front of her, blocking her way. Del recognized him at once.
He reached his hand out to her. An answering longing stirred in her chest, surprising her with its intensity.
The Roadhouse door burst open. Shep staggered out into the snow. "Del! Don't!"
She stumbled forward, not sure if she meant to head toward Peter or Shep.
Peter reached her first. She had been right about his eyes, the palest blue she had ever seen, made even paler by the ghostly light glowing from within. He was tall, too, not something obvious from the picture. She had to crane her neck to look up at him. He stood so close to her she could feel the cold radiating off of him, even colder than the wind.
"What do you want from me?" she whispered.
Sadness seeped into Peter's face. He touched her cheek.
Pain ripped through Del, ripped her in two. She couldn't breathe, couldn't speak. Her knees buckled.
Shep caught her. Del looked up at him in wonder, confused again about who was whom. Peter, Shep, they blurred together in front of her, Shep's face close to hers, Peter's looming behind him.
Peter's hand hovered over Shep's back. Regret rippled across Peter's face. He clamped his hand down on Shep's shoulder. With a flicker, he was gone.
Shep paled. His arms jerked, almost dropping her. His eyes frosted over, crackling into the pale blue of Peter's eyes. "You have my Katya," he said in Russian-tinged English.
He tenderly wiped snowflakes from Del's face. The touch burned, tearing at her again. It felt like a piece of her soul was being ripped out of her. Del screamed.
Anguish, loneliness, heartbreak rolled over her. She screamed again, screamed until her throat could no longer make noise. Longing, need, hunger tore through her.
Hands clutched her close. She grabbed back, hung on for dear life. A mouth pressed firmly on her lips, burned her with a kiss. She answered it at once, driven by need, hunger. The wind howled, grasped at her clothing, her hair.
And then it was gone, leaving her empty. Breathless.
Del opened her eyes. Shep hovered over her, eyes back to his own warm brown. He sat back on his heels, helped her sit up. After a moment's hesitation he hugged her close. Tremors vibrated between them. She clung to him, glad for something solid.
"Look." Shep's voice shook.
Del followed his gaze to the Roadhouse. Katya and Peter stood in front of it, hand in hand. Katya eyed Shep and then raised her chin to Del, as if approving a choice. Then they faded away, their silver sheen swallowed by white snow. All the ghosts in front of the Roadhouse faded with them.
Del closed her eyes, searched inside herself for anything different. She felt like a piece was missing, but more like the space left after a tumor was removed, rather than something vital had been taken. A shadow, one she had always somehow sensed, had been lifted from her heart.
Shep cleared his throat. "Uh, what the hell just happened?"