Chapter 1: Prologue
Whoever Fights Monsters
He looked away from the window, to me; I remembered a time when he was little and we could read so much in each other's' eyes. But he was no longer a little boy, and there comes a time when boys and their mothers become separate beings.
At that moment, though, we connected again and I understood that he was terrified.
"Aiden . . . ?"
It came out a whisper. His response came back the same.
"Mom, something really bad is up there. Really bad."
I sat down next to him and pulled him close. I could feel . . . well, something. I'd felt it ever since we entered the cable car, and I had to admit it was stronger than anything I could remember feeling in a long time. Too much of it was chaotic, though, for me to make any sense of it, but I knew the most likely explanation.
"It won't be the first bad ghost we've dealt with," I assured him, my arm around his shoulders. I spoke low, so hopefully none of the others would overhear me. "Between the two of us, we'll cross over whoever it is, and enjoy the rest of our vacation. Especially when Dad joins us."
"No!" Aiden pushed me away. Eyes darted to us, questioning and uncertain. "No, Mom, Dad can't come here. It's not a ghost."
"What? What do you mean, it's not a ghost? Baby, I don't understand."
Aiden shook his head, and not to the pet name. His fear rolled off him, so strong and so insistent I could feel it, even though the empathic bond between us was weaker than it had ever been, and even though it had never flowed both ways before. My little boy had never been afraid of his gift, never, or of anything his gift showed him. If teenage angst made him sometimes wish for the kind of normal life we could never really have, it still didn't frighten him. Whatever this was went way beyond fright.
"It's not a ghost, Mom. It's a monster."
Chapter 2: Chapter One
At the ski lodge in the mountains, Melinda meets up with an old friend and learns of the most recent horrors in the mountain's past.
A note on Aiden's name: I've given him the last name of Gordon, though I can't find any clue what his last name actually is; his name is just listed as "Aiden Lucas" on the wiki. However, in the show, when Aiden is given his name, it sounds to me as though Melinda intends Lucas as a middle name.
For those who've seen the show, you know Aiden's paternity is a bit complicated. Jim, in his original body, is Aiden's biological father. However, Jim died and then stepped in to the body of the recently deceased Sam Lucas. Lucas is/was Sam's last name, and to the outside world, Jim is Sam Lucas. When Sam Lucas marries Melinda, it wouldn't be unreasonable for the baby Melinda carries to have her husband's last name, regardless of his biological paternity; it's generally how things are done for happily married couples and some states in the U.S. would have laws making the woman's husband legally the child's father, and legally requiring that the child carry his last name (trust me, I used to be a birth certificate clerk).
However, there are also states in the U.S. that allow a child to be given any last name, regardless of the surname's origin. So, since I'm pretty convinced Melinda meant Lucas to be Aiden's middle name, not his last name, and the name Gordon seemed fairly important to her (she never changed it after she was married, and she never changed it even after she found out that Tom Gordon wasn't her real father and was in fact an evil asshole), it seems within reason that, if legally allowed to do so, she might give Aiden her own surname. I suppose she might have also given him the last name of Clancy, if allowed, but I felt that Gordon would be better. And I'm pretty sure Jim would agree with whatever Melinda wanted to do with the name, as he seemed pretty happy with her other choices.
A note on Josh, Hannah, and Beth's mother's name: It's true, according to the wiki.
Cell service didn't exist in the cable car, or immediately out on the mountain, but the moment we walked into the lodge and I saw those dots on my iPhone climb to five, I dialed Eli. One of my oldest and dearest friends, I knew I could count on Eli to help from Grandview. I also knew I had to keep the urgency of the situation under wraps, because if Eli heard anything in my voice that would suggest serious danger to Aiden or me, not only would he be on his way, but he'd have Jim, Delia, and Ned trailing after him.
I couldn't have any of them here, not until I knew what was going on, and maybe not even then. The energy in the lodge made me dizzy. So much pain, so much death, and all of it soaked in terror. Never in my darkest nightmares could I have imagined feeling such horror, and I would not have my friends walk into it. I only wished I could send Aiden home to safety.
As usual, when the phone connected, Eli didn't bother with normal greetings. "Aren't you supposed to be hurtling down a mountain at eye-blinding speeds right about now?"
"We just walked in the lodge, and it's after sunset," I said, trying to sound light. People swirled around me, but I shrugged through them, eyes on Aiden as he rolled the luggage in front of me. I held back a shudder as a particular cold spot brought with it bowel-trembling fear. “No skiing until dawn, at the earliest."
"So, no life-threatening activities until you can see where you're falling. Got it."
Despite the seething darkness around me, I managed a smile and an eye-roll. Leave it to Eli to pull some humor from me.
"Listen, I've been combing the brochures and the Internet, but I can't find any information about the Sunrise Lodge from more than three years ago. There's vague mentions of a previous lodge, but nothing in more detail."
"Huh. Ghost stuff?"
To my credit, I paused only a fraction of a second, too short a time for even Eli—accustomed to listening hard to things he couldn’t see—to tell.
"Sorry, just plain curiosity. Wondering why there wouldn't be even a small mention of what happened to the previous lodge."
It wasn't Eli who answered, but the voice was familiar.
"I can help you with that."
I turned. The man standing just behind me was older than I remembered, a little grayer and less blond, but nothing would ever erase that boyish grin from my memory. Especially considering how many years I'd spent being absolutely furious with him. He must have seen that in my expression, because his grin faltered for just a moment.
"Eli, will you look into it? I have to call you back." I hung up. Eli was used to that. "Well, well. Professor Rick Payne."
Rick widened his grin, no doubt trying to win me over. "Melinda Gordon. Still enchanting, I see."
“You’re still insufferable, I see." No way was I going to let him off for what he did with a smile and a compliment. Too many rude words floated through my mind, but fourteen years of motherhood had wiped them from my vocabulary.
"Who's Eli? Someone else to do your ghosty-goo research? Should I be jealous?"
"You don't have any right to be jealous, and you know it." I paused. "You jerk."
Both his eyebrows rose into his already receding hairline.
"Mom?" As Aiden approached, Rick’s eyebrows attempted to escape his face. Aiden looked at Rick, and tilted his head. Any other kid would ask who Rick was, but Aiden just gave Rick a once over and turned back to me. "Are you coming? Everyone else is in line to be checked in."
"So there is a little Clancy running around."
"His last name is Gordon," I said, and turned away without answering any of the questions in Rick’s eyes. "I'm coming, Aiden. Just give me a second."Rick didn't deserve any answers, he knew it, and he knew I knew it.
He sighed, and finally stopped grinning. "Melinda, listen, I know. I know I was an ass. I'm sorry. But if you're here for ghost purposes, well, so am I."
I wasn't, or at least that hadn't been the plan. Plans don't mean much when ghosts get involved, though, and apparently this included monsters. Aiden and I were supposed to spend two days together on the mountain exploring and having fun before Jim arrived, rested from his last shift, to spend a week with us at this gorgeous luxury ski lodge. Of course, Rick didn't need to know any of this.
"Fine, you can tell me all you know." I raised a hand to cut him off. "Tomorrow. It's late, and I need to make sure Aiden finishes a last bit of homework before vacation officially begins tomorrow. We'll meet you in the lodge restaurant tomorrow at eight."
"In the morning?" For a grown man, his voice approached whining levels.
"In the morning."
"Are you buying my breakfast?"
I couldn't help the little mouth-twitch, because that was just so Rick. "Be there on time, or I’ll have to see what Eli came up with instead."
"Wait, you don’t mean Eli James, the guy who started hearing ghosts right before I left? Is that the Eli? Come on, he can’t be nearly as good at this as I am. He doesn't even believe in the supernatural!"
“Eight. Tomorrow. Good night.”
I left him standing there, and didn’t feel bad about it at all.
To his credit, Rick was waiting at eight on the dot when Aiden and I arrived. Probably because he knew I'd feed him, even if I hadn't said so; I always did. It was a small price to pay to have an expert on hand, and even if I was still angry at him, he was still an expert in all things paranormal, supernatural, and folkloric.
The part of me that had missed his presence the past decade wanted very much to know what he'd been up to, where had he been, where did he go after Peru, and any number of other things. He'd promised to come back, but never had, and after a single phone call, hadn't so much as sent a text. For all that anyone in Grandview knew, Professor Rick Payne had simply walked off the face of the Earth. To outside viewers, it might have seemed like he simply disappeared from my thoughts when he disappeared from my life, but I thought about him so much. He had been a very good friend to me, despite all his faults, and that was why I was still angry.
I suppose with my Internet skills, I could have tracked him down. Maybe he hadn't even made it all that difficult, but I didn't know. It seemed to me that if he wanted to be found he would have just come home. He didn't. So the message was pretty clear. I didn't hunt him, and didn't see him again until he popped up unexpectedly on what was supposed to be a vacation.
As he offered up a tired grin, I had to admit it was good seeing his face again. Not that I would ever let him know.
"I took the liberty of ordering for myself. I didn't know what you or mini-Jim would want."
I just rolled my eyes. As we sat, Aiden said nothing, just watched Rick. My old friend peered back at my son for a moment before turning to me.
"Does he always stare like that?"
I smiled. "You told me once I was the most extraordinary person you'd ever met. You hadn't met Aiden."
At a loss, Rick glanced at Aiden again, before deciding to come back to that problem later. It was funny, seeing that thought process and decision so clearly on his face. At heart, Rick was and would always be a skeptic. Prove one thing to him, and he would find something else to pick apart. I never really minded; sometimes I needed a skeptic to keep me grounded, and unlike people who wrote me off as crazy, Rick always managed to do so while also keeping an open mind. It was through him I learned that skepticism does not have to equal a closed mind.
"Tell me about this place," I said, giving him a way out of current contemplation over the mystery my son represented. "What happened here?"
The answer had to wait for Rick's tower of French toast, as the waitress chose that moment to bring it, and ask what Aiden and I wanted. Once she had taken our orders to the kitchen, and Rick had drowned his tower in more syrup, he was ready to begin. I noticed how Aiden leaned forward when Rick started talking.
"Okay, so, this place is owned by Montgomery Family Adventures, Inc." Rick paused t look around the dining room, and pointed out a woman about my age sitting at a corner booth, on the phone, ignoring her breakfast. "That is Adelaide Montgomery, owner of the company and this gorgeous ski lodge. This is the epitome of what her company does. She builds vacation destinations for the whole family."
"What does this have to do with anything?"
Rick swallowed the bite he'd been chewing while he took time out from his story. "Everything, but I'm getting there. Montgomery bought this land about four years ago from a guy named Bob Washington. You might have heard of him."
"Wait, the movie director?"
"The very same. See, he didn't want this land anymore. Too many bad memories."
"Get to the point."
Rick stopped eating to look me in the eyes. "Nine years ago, his twin daughters disappeared up on this mountain, and a year later his son disappeared somewhere in the chaos of seven of his best friends being murdered horrifically. They eventually found all the bodies except that of Joshua Washington. The worst part is that a few of the local police and rangers disappeared while searching for Josh and his friends." Rick shrugged, as though a story as terrible as this deserved nothing more than that. "At first, there was hope of survivors. There were eight kids up here, and it turned out the bodies were scattered all around the mountain, in the mines beneath the mountain, and there was at least two that were recovered from the ashes."
"Yeah. The icing on top of this festive cake is that the small family lodge Bob Washington had built on this land burned to the ground with two of the teenagers inside. Gas leak from the fireplace, a broken lightbulb, and the first time someone flicked a switch, boom. A common theory is that Josh died in the fire, too, but that his body was completely destroyed."
Rick went back to eating. Nothing could destroy his appetite. Aiden watched him, calculation in his eyes. I watched my son, wondering what was going on in his head. I could still feel fear, but after a night's sleep, it wasn't the overwhelming terror of last night. Not only that, but the story that so chilled me seemed to have calmed Aiden. I couldn't read him clearly, but what I did get felt like someone gaining confidence as they began to understand what it was they were up against. Knowledge is power, they say, and I have always found it to be true in both my lines of work. Apparently, Aiden felt the same way.
"Did they ever find his sisters?" Aiden asked.
"That's a curious question. The answer is kind of." At Aiden's mistrustful look, Rick laughed. "They never found Hannah. All they ever found of Beth was her decomposing head."
My boy is exceptional, and in many ways very different from his peers. In others, he is exactly a teenager. At the mention of decomposing heads, his eyes lit up and he murmured whoa under his breath. Aiden respected the dead, Jim and I both made certain of that as we raised him, but nothing could stop a teenager's morbid interest in the gross and macabre. Rick must have known that, and he reacted by telling Aiden more details about the gruesome ways in which the kids had been murdered.
I, meanwhile, thought about what Rick had said. So, there was a great deal of reason to believe there would be multiple spirits on this mountain seeking release. At least eight, potentially ten if one included the missing Josh and his never-found sister, Hannah. I found it extremely unlikely either of them could be alive after so long.
"Melinda, you know what's really strange?"
I blinked out of my reverie, and looked at Rick. Sitting here, with him halfway through a pile of food, it felt like old times. Like he'd never abandoned me. For a moment, I let it feel that way.
"There's not telling with you."
"I guess it's just a coincidence, but Bob Washington's wife? Her name is Melinda."