The suitcase flew out of nowhere. Tristan Johnson ducked as it sailed across the hallway, missing his head by inches. When he didn’t hear it crash into the wall behind him, he turned. The suitcase vanished without making a sound.
“I told you to leave.” A young, blonde woman with pale skin gripped the open doorway. She glared at him, her anger permeating the air. Her voice echoed throughout the building.
Tristan straightened, his heart beating a mile a minute. His hands tightened on the heavy box in his arms. “I’m sorry. I must have the wrong…”
Her light brown eyes flashed before she, like the suitcase, disappeared into nothing.
A cold chill slid down Tristan’s spine. He sucked in a breath as his whole body shook. The box wobbled, but he kept it from toppling to the hardwood floor.
“Damn it. Not again,” he muttered under his breath.
He jumped when someone yelled at the other end of the hall. The box wobbled again. A young man with a head full of dark hair raced towards him, determination on his face.
“I’m going to kill you, man!”
He crouched, picking up speed, and charged. Tristan braced for the impact, but the man ran straight though him. He whirled around to see nothing but the window at the end of the hallway. He set the box on the floor before he dropped it for good. Gritting his teeth, he slowly breathed in and out.
Every. Damn. Time.
Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. Stay calm. Focus on the here and now. His father’s advice rang in his ears. “Picture a high wall built with bricks. Surround yourself with it. It’s your shield, your sanity. Wrap yourself in it.”
“Shut them out. They’re not real,” he whispered.
Voices from the past overlapped each other in a cacophony of noise, each one vying for his attention. It surrounded him, squeezed in, and left his ears ringing.
Tristan imagined his inner wall strengthening around him. He mentally placed red bricks on top of each other, building the structure layer by layer. As each piece settled into place, the buzzing in his brain died to a low roar. A few sounds from the past whispered in his ears, but the majority drained away.
He opened his eyes. No one was standing in the doorway of the apartment. No one ran down the hall. No echoes, no shadows. Tristan was alone.
Blessed, blessed silence.
“Is the box too heavy for you, Johnson?”
Tristan stood and nodded to the man walking towards him. At least he was real and solid. Zack Beckett sauntered down the hall, his arms full of two medium-sized boxes.
Tension eased off Tristan’s shoulders. The corner of his mouth quirked in a half-smile. “Shut up, Beckett.” He lifted his box off the floor, thankful that nothing breakable was in it, and entered the open apartment, now clear of angry women from the past.
“I’m only saying if you need help, you should let me know.” Zack followed him and set the boxes on the bar separating the living room and the kitchen. He ran a hand through his damp, sweaty hair.
Tristan rolled his eyes. “Is that why you’re carrying the smaller boxes, Shorty?”
“Conserving my strength, Jolly Green Giant.” Zack rolled his shoulders.
“Tristan slacking again?” Drew Keane walked into the apartment after them. He deposited his boxes in the back corner of the living room with a loud grunt. The grunt turned into a groan that increased in pitch as he stretched and popped his back.
“Man, I carried most of this up here without you.” Tristan punched Drew in the arm.
“You were sitting in front of the door with your eyes closed,” Zack pointed out.
Tristan shifted his weight from foot to foot. “I was getting used to the place.” He tapped his temple.
All the joking left Zack’s white face. “You okay, man?”
Tristan waved him off. “I will be.”
Drew wiggled his blondish-brown eyebrows. “See anything interesting?”
“A pissed off woman who threw her luggage at me, and a guy who wanted to kick my ass. Nothing special.”
Drew dropped down on the fluffy beige couch. His shoes landed on the coffee table with a thud. “You always get the boring visions. No hidden treasures? No major make out sessions? No…” He paused for emphasis and lowered his voice, drawing out the word. “Muuurdeeer?”
Tristan rolled his eyes. “I hope there’s no murder. Those are the worst.”
Every place had a different psychic energy, and Tristan never knew how it would affect his ability to see the past. Sometimes the past nudged against his mind, presenting transparent images, like the woman in the doorway. Sometimes it charged through like an elephant, knocking him back against the wall. In those, he not only saw but also touched and felt the movie playing out in his mind. In the worst moments, the vision took him over. When that happened, he had no idea what was real and what wasn’t. It took days or months to get used to a new place.
“What is this? Are you guys taking a break on me?” Kayla Collins pushed into the room, sweat glistening on her dark brown skin. Her gaze swept over them, a smile on her face. “Am I the only one around here who can handle the work?” She placed her boxes on the kitchen table.
“Why do you think I want to marry you?” Zack moved behind her. He wrapped his arms around her waist, lifting her off the ground. “Man enough for you?”
She smacked his arm. “You’re crazy, you know that?” She laughed as he set her down. Her dark brown eyes sparkled. “Alright, guys. Let’s keep moving. The rest of that junk isn’t going to move itself.” She jerked a thumb at the door.
“Aw, come on, Kayla. One break. We’ve been moving all morning.” Drew pulled up the bill of his Duke cap and scratched his damp hair. “And some of us have to work tonight.”
“Drew, quit whining. Everyone knows all you do is sit around old houses and wait for ghosts to show up.” Kayla pointed to the door again.
Drew groaned as he walked out. “It’s important work. I have to keep alert all night.”
Zack followed him. “Aw, poor baby.” He pushed his friend forward, and they both stumbled out of the apartment laughing.
Kayla tossed her hands into the air with mock exasperation as she trailed after them.
Tristan shook his head as he watched them go. How had he survived those two years in Wilmington without them? More importantly, he was grateful they were there the whole past year when he thought he was losing his mind. He had known Zack and Drew since they were kids. No matter how crazy he sounded, they always had his back.
He pulled off his light blue University of North Carolina baseball cap and pushed back the curls that fell into his eyes. He took in the small dining room/living room combination. Light brown hardwood floors and white walls waited for him to put his mark on them. A sliding glass door that led to a balcony stood across from him. He turned into the kitchen on his right and ran a hand over the smooth off-white counter tops. It was a good place. Despite the visions, it had a good energy. He could learn control here.
Originally, Tristan hadn’t wanted to leave his parents’ house. After everything that happened in Wilmington, he wasn’t sure the real world was for him. Then Zack and Drew suggested he move to Asheville, a city nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and finish his master’s degree. He was hesitant, but he trusted them. Zack and Kayla lived down the hall. Drew was a quick phone call away.
It was a place where he could forgive himself. Even though he missed the crash of the ocean and the salty, humid air, he was glad to move back to the crisp and cool mountains. His family and friends didn’t blame him for what happened, but he blamed himself. His cousin Karie’s screams still haunted him. Details of the vision that almost destroyed them both played over and over in his mind. Flashes of anger and intense rage ran through his mind. He still felt the solid wood in his hand.
He pushed it away. It wasn’t going to happen again. He refused to let it. Control. He had to learn control.
As Tristan ambled back to the door, a cold breeze brushed his cheek. He shivered. A quick glance around the room told him no windows were open. He started to walk again.
A woman’s laugh rang in his ears, and he froze. He took a deep breath. He didn’t acknowledge the breeze or the laugh. It was probably some remnant of the past, begging to be let in.
The air cooled. The temperature on the air conditioner control panel dropped from seventy degrees to forty and kept going. Tristan’s breath made white circles with every puff. Chill bumps formed on his sweat-soaked arms as he folded them. His shoulders hunched as his body shook. He lifted an eyebrow. It was the end of the summer in the mountains. Temperatures were cool, but they didn’t drop that fast. And definitely not on their own.
The front door slammed.
Tristan’s heart jumped into his throat. Just the wind. That was all. He glanced at the sliding glass door that led to the balcony and noticed it was closed. No wind, then.
He grabbed the doorknob, his breath sucking in as he touched the cold metal. Fighting the stinging iciness, he wrapped his hand around it and pulled. The door wouldn’t budge. He yanked and turned, but it stayed closed. Tristan’s calm melted away as his heartbeat picked up. Panic rose, swift and all-encompassing. His mouth dried.
The cold kissed his skin as he continued to work the knob. No movement. Not a creak. He was stuck in his apartment. His ever-increasingly cold apartment. Why didn’t the stupid door open? He banged on it with his fist.
“Zack! Drew! This isn’t funny! Open the damn door!”
The woman laughed again next to his left ear. Something cold and soft trailed down his neck.
He stood still while every cell in his body told him to run. But where to? He was stuck inside his apartment, and he wasn’t alone.
What the hell was going on?
A light glow appeared in the corner of his eye. He pivoted to face it, and his jaw dropped. The ghostly shape of a woman wearing a simple white sundress stood in the middle of his living room. A nonexistent wind lifted her long, white hair off her shoulders. Her piercing green eyes were the only spot of color on her. She studied him for a moment before gliding toward him, a hand outstretched. Her feet never touched the floor.
It took him a long moment to find his voice. “Who the hell are you?”
She cocked her head to the side, studying him as if he were a specimen. No life was in her eyes.
Tristan’s muscles wouldn’t move. He barely even breathed. It’s another vision, he told himself. But deep inside, he knew this woman was not in his head. She was too transparent. Tales of Drew’s ghost hunting ran through his head. Ghosts pulled energy from the room, making the air colder than it actually was. But didn’t they show up at night? The day was bright and warm outside the windows.
He shut his eyes and counted to five before opening them again. He dug his fingers into his arms as he jerked away. She had moved closer; an inch or two was all that stood between them.
Fascinated and terrified, he watched as she placed an ice-cold hand on his cheek. Wanting to back away, he told his feet to move. They were planted to the floor. Her fingers traced a freezing line down his jaw. She seemed to glow brighter the moment she touched his skin. A few seconds later, his body relaxed, and he sank into the nearest chair.
Someone jiggled the doorknob. “Tristan, you going to let us in?” Zack knocked on the door.
Tristan opened his mouth to answer, but no sound came out. His eyes were glued to the ghostly girl caressing his cheek. If he could stay there forever, he’d be content.
And then she was gone, disappearing as quickly as she appeared.
The door sprang open, banging against the wall. Zack walked in, his eyebrows turned down in confusion. “Tristan?”
Tristan blinked a couple of times and shook his head. Everything was fuzzy. His brain was sluggish, thoughts forming slowly. He wiped his face with his hands, jumping when Zack’s warm hand jiggled his shoulder.
More boxes thudded on the floor. “Oh, my God! Is he okay?” Kayla knelt in front of him. “You’re pale. Zack, he’s pale. Get him some water.”
Everything swam into focus. “I’m okay. I promise. I just…I don’t…” He glanced from Kayla to Zack. “There’s a ghost in my apartment.”
The couple exchanged a knowing look.
“What?” Tristan kept his gaze on Zack. “What is it?” His skin warmed. “Did you know about this?”
Zack set a bottle of water on the table. “Don’t tell Drew, okay? We’ll explain everything tonight.”
“Were you planning on telling me?” Tristan gulped down the bottle as if he hadn’t had water in a month. “I feel like I ran a marathon.”
Everyone went quiet when Drew ambled through the door. He peered around the box he carried and the humor left his face. “What’s wrong?”
Zack gave Tristan a slight shake of his head.
Tristan forced himself to smile. “Another vision, man. This one was a doozy.” His voice was too high, his breath too shallow. He hated lying to Drew.
Drew’s greenish-hazel eyes lit up. “Murder?”
“No, only a hot chick coming on to me.” Not far from the truth.
Drew relaxed and set his boxes on the edge of the table. “Well, at least this one wasn’t throwing a suitcase at you.”
Tristan met Zack’s eyes. “Yeah. Thank God for that.” His friend had a hell of a lot of explaining to do.
“Anybody want to tell me what’s going on?” Tristan sank into his chair with a cold beer. He studied the two friends sitting on his couch. “And maybe why they didn’t tell me before I signed a contract?” The bitter taste of beer was welcome.
Zack shrugged. “I didn’t think it was a big deal.” He studied his bottle, avoiding Tristan’s eyes.
Drew had left for his job an hour ago, and Tristan was ready for answers about the mysterious haunting in his apartment.
“You didn’t think it was a big deal?” Tristan leaned forward. “You talk your psychic best friend into moving into an apartment with a ghost, and you didn’t think it was a big deal?” His bottle clinked on the dark cherry wood coffee table.
“Look, the White Lady is a part of this place. A feature. I think she’s harmless.” Zack flashed him a grin. “I’ve seen her in the hall and my place, too.”
Tristan fought to remain calm. “A feature? How long has she been here?”
Zack sighed. “I don’t know. Since before we moved in. She doesn’t do anything but float around and laugh. She’s harmless.”
“According to the legend, she’s not harmless.” Kayla sipped her beer, her voice flat.
“Kayla, not this again.” Zack sighed. “It’s a legend, a story. It’s not real.”
Kayla narrowed her dark eyes. “She sure as hell is.”
“The legend?” Tristan’s stomach dropped. How could this possibly get any worse?
“Ten years ago, three guys committed suicide in this building. Some people say the White Lady made them do it.” Zack set his drink on the coffee table. “’If you see The White Lady, you die.’ It’s bullshit.”
Kayla shot him a look. “It’s not bullshit. Three different men all decide to kill themselves at the same time?” She turned to Tristan. “I’ve been trying to get him to tell Drew, maybe get an investigation going around here, but he won’t do it.”
Zack shook his head. “She’s a ghost. She can’t hurt anybody,” he insisted. “There’s no point in having cameras all over the place. I don’t want Drew watching me sleep.”
Kayla groaned. “We don’t have to stay here while they investigate, stupid.”
“Still. Having people walking around our apartment and filming is creepy.”
“Not as creepy has having a ghost haunting us.”
“Can we get back to the point?” Tristan’s voice rose. “Why did you keep this from me?” He waved his bottle in a circle, encompassing the room.
Zack raked a hand through his hair. “You’d have used it as an excuse, man. You were looking for anything to keep you in your parents’ basement, locked away like some crazy person. I wasn’t going to give you one.” He sat back, his face beaming. “Besides, history bothers you, not ghosts. It’ll be fine.” He took a swig of beer. “She won’t bother you at all.”
“But she touched me.” Tristan fidgeted in his chair as his eyes darted around the room. The memory of her icy touch lingered in his mind. Part of him wanted to see her again, but the other part wanted her to never come back.
“She touched me the first day we moved in, too. I think it’s her way of saying hello.”
Kayla snuggled closer to Zack. “I still think there’s more to her. I’ve never seen her, though. She only seems to let men see her.” She trembled. “It’s weird.”
Tristan gulped down the rest of his beer, hoping to dull the nerves. “Yeah, weird.”
If I ignore it, it will go away. Tristan wasn’t sure how true that mantra was, but he was going to apply it to the ghost situation. She didn’t reappear for the rest of the weekend, and for that, he was grateful. She had studied him like he was a curious insect. Why did she touch him? Why had he been so tired after she had? He had seen other ghosts a couple of times before, thanks to Drew’s love for hunting them. None had ever touched him, though, or left him feeling like his arms weighed a ton.
Who was she? And why did she haunt an apartment building? If any ghost would haunt that place, he thought for sure it would be one of the three men who had apparently died there. He shivered at the thought. Death visions were the worst, especially when he felt the person dying along with seeing it.
Tristan stepped out of the building late Monday morning, determined to forget all about Saturday night. His days of dealing with the supernatural were over. All he wanted to do was go to class, do his job, and live his life. He was too busy keeping visions out of his head. He didn’t have time to deal with a ghost.
He pulled his jacket tighter around him. Even in late August, the mornings were chilly in the mountains. Adjusting the shoulder strap on his messenger bag, he headed for the college.
His building, Hidden Forest Apartments, sat on the edge of the small Blackwood College campus. The college was half the size of the larger UNC-Asheville and focused on the liberal arts. Most of the students who went there continued on to get master’s degrees and PhD’s. Tinier was better in Tristan’s opinion, and being able to walk to school and work was a bonus.
Minutes later, he was following Dr. Isaac Smith out of a medium-sized office.
“I’ve got a good feeling about you, son. You seem to have a good head on your shoulders.” Smith talked a mile a minute as he walked. For a portly, older gentleman, he moved fast. Tristan jogged to keep up with him. “It isn’t easy to be a graduate assistant, what with all the freshmen, papers to grade, and your own school work. But I bet you’re going to like it.” They zipped around a corner.
Tristan broke in when Smith took a breath. “Yes, sir. I’m glad to be here.” He was surprised he got a word in edgewise. Smith had been talking since the moment Tristan entered his office two hours earlier. If he had been allowed to head to his own office in the first place, Tristan would have made it there much faster. He was the newest graduate assistant, though, and Smith said that he liked to give tours to the newest recruits.
The morning had already been long. He had spent it signing papers and meeting everyone from the history department, probably the whole college. There were so many people he couldn’t keep their names straight.
He had said hello to Dr. Ian Cameron, the head of the history department. He was a jovial, slender man with brownish-green eyes and gray hair who asked Tristan way too many questions. He wanted to know where Tristan saw himself in five years and what he planned to take away from his studies at Blackwood. Tristan couldn’t remember the other questions he had been asked after he left Cameron’s office.
Smith took a sharp turn and stopped short in front of a wooden door at the beginning of a corner. Tristan caught himself before he bumped into the older man’s back. Smith grinned and gestured to the doorknob. “Welcome to your home away from home, son.” He stroked his graying beard, pleased with himself.
A smile spread across Tristan’s face. He was going to have a normal life, as long as he kept his head down and stayed out of his own way. He placed the key in the lock and twisted the knob.
The office for the history graduate assistants had been a large classroom at one time. Two wooden desks faced each other from opposite sides of the room. One was to the right, beside the door. Nothing but a computer sat on the desktop. The other one rested between two large windows and had a huge purple bag lying on it. Picture frames, their black backs visible to Tristan, sat around the desktop computer. Wooden bookshelves lined the back wall, filled with musty books. It was everything he had dreamed.
“You’ll be sharing this space with one other graduate assistant, Jaime Liu. It looks like she’s stepped out right now, but I’m sure you’ll get a chance to meet her,” Smith said. He indicated the empty desk. “This’ll be yours.”
A slender woman with long, wavy, brown hair bounced through the door, a bottle of Mountain Dew in her hand. She smiled when she saw Tristan. “Hi.” She held out her hand. “I’m Jaime.”
Tristan shook her hand and introduced himself.
“Welcome. It’ll be nice to have someone new around here.” She bustled over to the desk near the windows and set down her drink.
Jaime grinned as she settled in her chair. “First day, huh?”
She leaned forward. “It’s not so bad here, but that one,” She pointed to Smith, “will talk your ear off.”
Smith chuckled. “Ms. Liu, you flatter me.”
Tristan smiled as he touched his desk. It was worn and well used, but it was his. His skin tingled, and his vision shifted. Jaime and Smith vanished. The room changed right before his eyes.
“Tell me you love me.”