Disclaimers: Depending on how sensitive you are, this story might be a bit scary. This story is based on a real place in New Mexico, though I've changed the name and some details a little to protect the living.
Language: Yeah, there's a little bad language in here, but what do you expect from folks who are unnerved?
Violence: Unfortunately, a little violence is necessary to get the point of the story across. Man! Mr. Jones is a mean S.O.B.!
Acknowledgments: Thanks to my beta reader, V dub (Cheers, mate!), for being the cream of the crop! Thanks also to Nicola for letting me "borrow" Li'l Horseshoe.
Dedication: To the real Ryan who is only a little like her literary doppelganger. I guess this means that any similarity of characters to people living or dead is purely intentional. Hehehe!
Please feed the bard: email@example.com
by The Bard of New Mexico
"Paradise Springs? Yeah, Dirk said it's supposed to be a really cool place to camp and that near the end of the trail, there are some ruins. The ruins used to be a mountain resort until it was closed in the '60's. I'm surprised he didn't mention it to you," Ryan told her cousin, Sarah, over a cup of coffee in Ryan's apartment. The cousins were planning a long weekend getaway and decided on camping since New Mexico's spring was turning out to be week after week of gorgeous sunshine and deep blue skies.
Sarah thought about Ryan's old friend from college, Dirk. He was a real history buff, especially when it came to American West history. "Yeah, I don't know why, either. I mean, he could go on for hours telling folks about the ruins."
"He told me he'd just heard about the place not long ago. He was going to do some digging in the local records to learn more about it. I don't think he's even been camping up there, but maybe he knows folks who have. His exact words were his favorite phrase," Ryan imitated Dirk, "'Have I ever steered you wrong?'"
Doubt flashed across Sarah's mind for a minute, but she ignored it. "Well, Paradise Springs sounds nice enough, right? It's not like it's called The Devil's Playground or something like that." She laughed.
"Right. Will you be ready to go on Friday? I was thinking we'd get up there late Friday morning, hike the mile and a half or so up the trail, and look around a bit. Maybe we'd get back Monday."
"Sounds good," Sarah agreed. She'd flown in from Virginia yesterday and was looking forward to another adventure with her favorite cousin, Ryan, who lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Friday morning dawned beautifully with different blues, grays, purples, reds, oranges, and gold. The skies were clear except for a few high-level herringbone clouds. Ryan, too excited to sleep, quietly got up early and double-checked her pack to make sure she had the most important items. She fixed herself some breakfast and a hot mug of peach tea.
After breakfast, she went to sit out on her front porch swing and listen to a little music. The mornings were still a bit nippy so Ryan was thankful for the warmth of the tea mug she'd refilled and reheated. Steam curled up from the top of the mug and reminded Ryan of those coffee commercials where people inhale the fragrance of their coffee in the morning and smile. The thought made her smile since peach tea was the thing that made her happy in the mornings, not a cup of coffee. She took a sip and savored the slight tang of the peaches. Yep, she told herself, that's way better than any coffee could ever be! Ryan thought of the actors' looks of tranquility, and then Nanci Griffith singing her version of Jerry Jeff Walker's "Morning Song for Sally" popped into Ryan's mind. It is a peacefulstart to the morning, isn't it? She decided that the actors' cheerful calm in the commercials was something she could agree with after all.
Ryan closed her eyes and listened to the sounds around her. Birds' chirping mixed with the occasional noise of a car, though the more Ryan concentrated, the more the cars' sound faded into an indistinct background hum. Light footsteps soon insinuated themselves on Ryan's mind and her eyes slid open to find a pair of light blue ones —similar to her own— staring back at her.
"Couldn't sleep either?" Sarah asked.
"Nope. I'm just really excited about this trip, I guess. There's a bite of breakfast in the refrigerator and some peach tea in the kettle on the stove if you want something before we leave. Just help yourself."
"Thanks," Sarah replied and turned around to go back in.
Li'l Horseshoe, Ryan's gray and white tabby cat with horseshoe markings on her sides, darted out and nearly tripped Sarah. Sarah muttered, "Cats! All they'd ever be good for is outer space… no… deep outer space exploration! Then again, I wouldn't be so cruel as to wish them on anything they might meet."
Ryan chuckled at her cousin's sudden grumpy outburst and picked up Li'l Horseshoe. "It's all right, girl. Dirk will take good care of you when we're gone. You like Dirk, remember?"
Li'l Horseshoe purred.
Dirk had loaned Sarah a pack, a tent that could sleep three people, and other various camping supplies. He didn't use them very often, but he had stored them carefully so they were ready to go when Ryan asked if they could borrow some gear. When the ladies asked if he wanted to come along, he thanked them and said that he preferred to stick his nose in books rather than in the great outdoors.
"Think you packed enough stuff?" Sarah questioned sarcastically as she casually held up the snakebite kit.
"Actually, we're going into rattlesnake and mountain lion country," Ryan replied with a big smile. "Best to be prepared, you know."
Sarah stared at her for a moment. "Remind me again why I thought camping was a good idea?"
"'Cause I'm your favorite cousin and you were looking forward to spending some time with me?"
"Oh, yeah." Sarah gave Ryan a big goofy smile that set both of them laughing.
The skies were as deep blue as a tropical lagoon and the sun shone with almost white light though little real heat. Clouds' shadows sometimes skittered along the ground and provided just enough shade to make it the perfect day. Ryan and Sarah headed north, since the canyon ran roughly north and south, and they strolled more than hiked. There was plenty of flora to see, with yucca, an occasional cottonwood tree, and plenty of long, dry, yellow grass. Once in a while, they stopped to admire a wildflower, a sage bush, a butterfly floating from juniper to pine trees, or whatever else Mother Nature offered that tempted them. Sharp lines ran almost diagonally across the face of the canyon walls. They revealed the layers of time and made the hikers stare in silent contemplation. The height and starkness of the canyon walls made the hikers stare in silent awe.
The main trail meandered higher and higher through the canyon until Sarah and Ryan came to a fork in the road. The path that continued north circled off to the left, and the path that veered right climbed up a hill at the canyon wall's base and doglegged sharply off to the east. A hill in front hid what might've been between it and the canyon wall.
A gentle breeze rolled through the canyon and dislodged a strand of Sarah's short reddish brown hair. She tucked it back into place and paused. "Which way? Left?"
Ryan considered the weather — there was seemingly little chance of rain — and the time. They'd left early, but it was heading towards the middle of the afternoon. She figured they had an hour or two of looking around before they needed to head back.
"Maybe right first. It looks like a short enough trail. We can hike it and then double back down the canyon and look for a campsite."
"Sounds like a plan!"
After a few minutes of hiking, the trail paralleled a tree line for another quarter of an hour and rose gradually all the way. The trail then turned abruptly from heading due east to suddenly due south. Another seven minutes of hiking and Sarah and Ryan found themselves staring at the first structure of a medium-sized compound. An old marker along the trail labeled it as the kitchen-dining hall. The view the women had, though, made them assume they were looking at the dining hall portion and that the kitchen was attached to the hall on the other side. The dining hall sat on a wooden trestle structure whose legs were sunken into cement for a more permanent foundation. There were large windows on three sides of the structure which must've afforded the diners a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains and wooded areas. The dining hall itself was wooden and unpeeled paint above the window frame showed that the place was once covered in ugly pine green paint. Weathered corrugated tin, acting as the kitchen/dining hall's roof, shone dully in the sun.
The dining room could only be entered or exited through the kitchen, though there was a door on the opposite side of the dining room from the kitchen. Sarah stared in disbelief. "Is that a door leading out that side of the building?"
"I hope nobody was stupid enough to walk through it! That first step would've been a doozy!"
"Yeah, unless there was a bridge or stairs leading up to that door." Ryan smiled because there certainly wasn't any evidence that anything had connected the door to the ground. She took out her digital camera and took some pictures.
The ladies turned their eyes back to the path ahead and started around the side of the building. Before they'd taken two steps, Sarah's head popped up.
"Did you see that?"
"What?" Ryan answered.
"That…that shadow in the window there. I saw it out of the corner of my eye."
"I didn't see anything."
"Yeah, but it was there. When I turned around, it was gone, but I swear it was there!"
"Maybe it was just your imagination."
"Yeah…. Maybe," Sarah reluctantly conceded.
They continued around the side of the building, along the path that made a U around the structure. They noticed the gray fieldstone retaining walls that lined the path. The tall basement that the kitchen sat on, however, was made of brown brick.
As suddenly as the path dipped down, it climbed again and wound to the kitchen's front porch. Someone had covered all the windows and entrances with wire mesh to keep people out of the rotting buildings. Ryan put her camera up against the mesh and took what pictures she could of the inside.
"Look at all those windows," Sarah marveled.
"Yeah. And they had screens on them, too. It must've kept the place nice and cool when the staff had to cook during the summer."
"I'm not so terribly fond of the pantry's color, though," Sarah added. The interior was somewhere between turquoise and powder blue, making its own unique, unappealing color.
The wind picked up, blowing dust. Sarah and Ryan squinted to keep the dirt out of their eyes, and when the dust devil passed, Sarah went ahead of Ryan to the stone steps that led south to a building's brick foundation. Help meeeeeee, Sarah heard on the wind. Immediately, she turned around.
"Ryan? Are you okay? What happened?"
Ryan's blue eyes blinked in confusion. "What?"
"Didn't you call me to help you?"
"With what?" Ryan asked, genuinely confused. She paused to take some pictures of the ruins up ahead.
"Umm…. Never mind," Sarah blushed and replied in a hurry, running the last two words together.
Ryan's eye caught on something shiny sticking out near the building's foundation. She sauntered over, clawed at the dirt, and dug it out. She held it up to examine it, but Sarah couldn't see it because Ryan's back was to her. "Huh," Ryan commented.
"Whatcha got there?"
"It looks like some sort of ligature."
"Yeah. Or at least that's the technical term for it." Ryan held it up for Sarah to see. "Ligature as in some kind of tie."
"You know, you've been reading waaaay too many Patricia Cornwell novels."
"Maybe," Ryan deadpanned and continued, "In this case, it's a tie that binds. See? There's a buckle here — it's missing its tongue — and part of a thick, wide leather strap. The leather's too thick and too wide to be of any practical use as a belt."
Sarah shuddered. "What's something like that doing way out here?"
Ryan's face looked grave. "I don't know." She tossed the relic back on the ground and scanned around the foundation quickly. "Well, there's nothing more to see here. If you're up for it, we could take a look at that last building before heading back." She pointed at it. There was a short path that led northwest to the structure.
"Okay," Sarah readily agreed. She paused to read the marker in front of the building. "Patients' quarters? What?" she asked barely audibly.
Sarah raised her voice so Ryan could hear. "This plaque here says this was the patients' quarters. What patients? I thought this place used to be a luxurious mountain resort."
"That's what Dirk said."
The last building, the patients' quarters, and the kitchen/dining hall made a small triangle. The marker identified it as the caretaker's house, and the path led right past the front door.
"That's interesting. I don't think I've ever seen a chimney built onto the front of a house before," Sarah noted.
They walked around the side of the house, curious to see what its back looked like, too. The house sat perched on the side of a hill. From the front, it looked like a simple wooden structure, again with a corrugated tin roof, and had its only brickwork in the chimney/fireplace. From the back, Sarah and Ryan saw that it was built on top of a solid brown brick basement, just like the kitchen. The padlocked basement door sported a large yellow condemnation notice.
Ryan looked up at the back porch and thought how wonderful the place must've been in its prime. She could imagine people relaxing on rocking chairs and sipping lemonade. She saw evidence of the tan stucco the back room must've been covered in at one time, and she snapped a few pictures of the house's picturesque back. Sarah and Ryan then made their way to the front again so Ryan could take a few more pictures.
Ty '81 and Maria & Tony were just some of the things taggers had spray painted onto door jambs inside the house. A sample of wainscoting remained and reminded Ryan of how beautiful that place could've been. The inside walls had been knocked out or pushed down, graffiti everywhere, and door jambs and support posts were about the only things standing inside. Some smaller, orange-colored wood posts reminded Ryan of old copper piping. Daylight glinted off a gorgeous hardwood floor in the back room that was largely intact except for ripped up places near the edges. Again, Ryan was imagining the place's old glory days when Sarah spoke.
"Do you get the feeling we're being watched?"
Ryan saw the hair standing up on Sarah's arms. "Yeah, probably by a hungry mountain lion," she joked.
Sarah scowled at her. "You're not helping."
Ryan turned back to the house and took a few more shots. She stared at the wood floors a few moments longer. As she was about to turn away, she saw a shadow float slowly across it. She shivered. A shadow? she asked herself. There shouldn't be a shadow there! She felt tingles on her spine as if long-legged spiders were running up and down her back.
Sarah tried once more. "This place is really starting to creep me out. Right now, I'm feeling particularly unwelcome. Let's go, okay?"
Ryan didn't have to be asked twice. She headed towards the path to the patients' quarters. When they were near the patients' quarters, they heard a man's voice coming from the caretaker's house, though they couldn't tell what he was saying. Whoever he was, he sounded angry.
"Don't tell me you didn't hear that!" Sarah called.
"I did," Ryan somberly admitted. "Let's just get out of here. Fast, but don't hurt yourself," the nurse side of her cautioned.
"I'm outta here!" Sarah agreed.
When the ladies got back to the fork in the road, they were breathless from their scramble down the trail. They felt they'd put enough distance between the ruins and themselves that they could pause and catch their breath.
Sarah bent double and panted until she got her wind back, and then she straightened up. She noticed how the sun shone on the top of the canyon, but at the bottom, it was all in shade. An unwelcome thought crossed her mind. The valley of the shadow of death.That's what this canyon is like. The valley of the shadow of death. She knew those words came from Psalms 23 and willed herself to think of what it was that came before or after that phrase, yet that was the only thing that she could think of; the valley of the shadow of death. It frightened her.
Being spooked brought out the anger in her. She snapped at Ryan. "Would you mind explaining to me exactly what happened back there?"
"How should I know?"
"You're the grounded one, right? You've been trained in science, medicine, and logic. Rationalize that one for me," Sarah challenged.
Ryan gave her an icy blue glare, "I can't! All I know is that we were the only ones up there."
"See," Sarah finished quietly, "it wasn't just my imagination, you know."
Sarah attempted to dissipate completely her flash of bad temper. "Paradise Springs? Do you think someone called it that just to be funny? Or do you think there was gaming going on there at one time and some old coot misheard and called it 'Paradise Springs' instead of 'Pair o' Dice Springs'?"
Ryan wasn't ready to be joked out of her anger. She was going to make Sarah offer a real apology for once.
Sarah put her hand on Ryan's shoulder to get her complete attention. "I'm sorry," was all she said, but she said it with a lot of sincerity.
Ryan studied her a minute. Sarah's baby blues always worked on her like sad puppy dog eyes. "Okay." She looked down the trail. "Let's go find a campsite."
When the tent was pitched, Sarah made a gumbo for dinner. The cheery fire and good food chased the spooky chills away for both women. They had a great time trading funny stories.
"You're kidding!" Sarah's sides hurt from laughing at one of Ryan's anecdotes.
"Nope! Li'l Horseshoe actually gets on her hind legs and dances if you sing this silly superhero song of hers. Of course, I have to hold her front paws. And then, near the end of the song, the pitch has to go up 'cause that's when she strikes her pose." Ryan explained everything with a serious face.
"Oh, man!" Sarah laughed all over again. "I have to see that when we get back home!"
"It's pretty funny," Ryan agreed. She stood up and stretched. It was a lot of fun talking with Sarah for most of the night and roasting marshmallows, but it was getting late and she was getting tired. "I'm going to hit the sack. How 'bout you?"
"I'll be along in a minute. Just let me put this fire out."
Sarah poured water on the fire and stirred the ashes with a stick until it was a messy, smoky soup. When she was satisfied that not a single ember survived her firefighting effort, she pushed aside the tent flap and entered. Ryan, on her back with her arm over her eyes, was already fast asleep, snoring softly. Sarah smiled, zipped the flap from the inside, and got herself ready for bed, too. It was 2 AM.
Ryan woke from her sound sleep, stretched, gazed across at Sarah who was sleeping soundly, and glanced at her aqua backlit watch. It was 4 AM. She figured she'd go back to sleep for a few more hours, so she laid on her back again and willed her mind to clear for more sleep.
She turned her head to the left and saw a long row of people stretched out on heavy-duty cots beside her. Some had blankets covering their legs. Some coughed until they had tears in their eyes and no more breath to cough, and others who had enough breath, moaned in terrible pain. There were a few who seemed to be dead, but in general, there was a slight rustling along the line that created a weak wave-like motion of bodies.
Too late, Ryan realized she was one of them! She felt a heavy weight on her chest and tried to move, but she couldn't. At first, she thought an elephant had sat on her. A solidly-built woman hefted herself on top of Ryan and was holding her down so the doctor could strap her arms and legs to the heavy-duty cot. She turned her head to face the woman and only saw a silhouette of the woman because the sun blinded her. Ryan tried to get the woman off her, tried to yell, but it was no use. The nurse made sure the straps were tight and gagged Ryan.
"That's the last one," the nurse informed the doctor gruffly.
"Good. Start at the other end of the line and give each of them 30 cc's of the new medicine." He emphasized the last two words and smiled icily. That smile, his conservative salt and pepper buzz cut hair, and not being able to see his eyes because of the harsh glare off his black-framed Buddy Holly glasses, combined to chill her.
"Yes, Dr. Mallon," replied the burly woman in her gravelly voice.
Ryan watched as the nurse administered each dose and came closer and closer. Her stomach flip-flopped. Tears slid down her cheek. Oh, God, NO! she yelled in her mind.SARAH, HEEELLLPPPP!!!!!!!!Ryan tried screaming aloud. The words were on her tongue, but they only came out in her brain.
Sarah woke up in the darkness. The moon shone brightly through the cabin window. She was on a cot in an unfamiliar room. A bedraggled lady donning an old flour sack dress that barely came to her knees sprawled on the cot next to hers and stared at her with big soul-dead black eyes. Her stringy dark hair lay scattered at the head of the cot.
"Where am I?" Sarah whispered.
"Questions like those are what got you sent here," the lady warned. She reached out a scarecrow-like arm to touch Sarah. "You're in the Sanitarium."
Sarah caught her breath. Her head swiveled like it was on a stick as she did a double take and blinked. This has to be a nightmare, she told herself . She pinched her own arm, but she wouldn't wake up. When she found she couldn't escape, Sarah's shoulders slumped resignedly. She asked the other woman, "Who are you?"
"Don't you remember? I'm Inez."
"I'm sorry. Some days are just better than others, I guess," Sarah lied to cover for herself. "What are you in here for?"
"I told you that a long time ago." Inez stared at Sarah, assessing her for a moment. Inez finally sighed and started in a low, bitter voice, "I would not marry the man my family picked for me. For that, they called me 'unnatural'," she spat out the word, "and had me locked up here. Of course, I could not do anything about it. Curse the laws made by men! I'm just as sane as anyone else!" She cried hot tears until they heard footsteps on the other side of the cabin door. She turned to Sarah. "Shhhh! Pretend you're asleep!" Inez quickly closed her eyes and regulated her breath.
Sarah followed suit but popped one eye partially open so she could see what was going on. A key jingled in the lock until the door clicked open. Sarah heard a man's voice. "Don't worry, Dr. Mallon," he whispered, "I took Rufus up the canyon a ways. He won't find his way back. He doesn't know a rock from a tree, the idiot!" The man chuckled softly. "By this time tomorrow, either a rattlesnake or a mountain lion should get him."
"Well done, Mr. Jones," Dr. Mallon whispered.
"Should I write a letter to notify his family of the 'unfortunate accident'?"
"No. They keep sending us money to 'keep taking care of the problem' but never ask about him and never come to see him. What they don't know won't hurt them."
Throughout the conversation, Sarah's heart beat faster and she sweated. Her stomach felt like it dropped to the bottom of her feet. She couldn't believe what they were talking about! It was murder, greed, and fraud!
The men stepped out from the shadows and stopped at the cot on the other side of Inez. One of the men wore a white lab coat and had buzz cut salt and pepper hair. The other man, a wiry man, had on a plaid flannel shirt and overalls. A heavy clumping sound told Sarah that he wore work boots, too. He had a large ring of keys. Sarah guessed he, Mr. Jones, must've been the caretaker since he didn't look like any medical attendant she'd ever seen. He certainly wasn't very sterile with his long, shaggy hair.
"Time for Mr. Baker to go to his final reward," the doctor whispered in mock sorrow. Mr. Jones nodded eagerly.
The men paused and listened for any unnatural sound that would indicate any of the patients were awake. Hearing nothing, the doctor motioned for Mr. Jones to grab a pillow off an empty cot. He did so and handed it to the doctor. Quickly, the doctor pounced on the patient and smothered him with the pillow. The patient was so doped up and taken by surprise that there was little struggle.
Sarah's body stiffened. She'd had more than enough. Without thinking, she jumped up and yelled, "What are you doing?! YOU KILLED HIM! Do human rights mean nothing to you people?!" She suddenly stopped, realizing that her hysterics just got her into an ocean full of hot water.
"You heard nothing, you hear me?!" the doctor whispered harshly. "Even if you do tell anyone, you're 'insane', remember?" He smiled coldly. "That's the only reason I'm going to let you live. But just to drive the point home, I think, Mr. Jones," he turned to address the caretaker, "you should give her a quick lesson."
The caretaker grabbed her upper arms and smashed her into the wall. His fist connected with her eye and then her ribs. The hits knocked the wind out of her. He threw her harshly back onto her cot, which collapsed underneath her. He left her bent double there and exited the quarters with the doctor.
Throughout the one-sided altercation, the patients pretended to sleep. Some were truly insane but not bad enough to know better. After a safe period passed, Inez opened her eyes quickly and knelt by Sarah. "You shouldn't have done that."
Sarah didn't respond. She knew she was wrong.
"Are you okay?"
Sarah nodded. Tears coursed down her injured face. She whispered, "I just want to go home!"
"Ay, mi amiga," Inez shook her head sadly and turned her huge haunted eyes on Sarah again, "once you come through the canyon and up the road, there is no return."
RYAAAAANNNNN, HELP MEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!! Sarah cried in her mind.
Both women woke drenched in sweat and screaming. In the early light of the spring morning, Ryan looked over at Sarah. "What the hell happened to you?" she asked.
"What do you mean?"
Ryan gave Sarah the nearest reflective object. Sarah's eyes were black and her face swollen. Her hands wandered to her ribs to see how tender they were. All-in-all, she felt like a piece of gum that had been thoroughly chewed up and spit out. She quickly told Ryan her story.
For her part, Ryan rolled up her shirt sleeves and found wide red welts with circles and buckle marks on her arms.
"What the hell happened to you?" It was Sarah's turn to ask. She fired off her second question before Ryan could reply. "What're those?"
"Crap!" Sarah yelled.
Ryan quickly told her story as she frowned and scooted over to the tent flap. She found it was still zipped from the inside. She heard a rustling noise behind her. Sarah grabbed things as fast as she could and stuffed them in her pack. "What're you doing?"
"I don't know about you, but I want to get outta here as fast as my feet'll take me!"
Ryan started getting her pack in order, though not as hurriedly as Sarah. "What about the sleeping bags and tent?"
Suddenly, the sound of invisible fists pounded on the top of the tent. "Leave 'em! Let's go!"
Ryan threw things into her pack as Sarah fumbled with the tent's zipper.
"Come on, come on, dammit!" Sarah screamed at the zipper. Finally, it gave way. The women tumbled out of the tent and high-tailed it down the trail to the truck.
Flat grassland spread out on either side of the highway. Ryan sang along with her Emmylou Harris CD and felt good about having escaped the nightmare they left behind. She handed Sarah her digital camera and let Sarah look through the pictures she'd taken at the ruins. After a few minutes, Sarah muttered, "Aw, geez!"
"You'd better pull over for this one."
Concerned, Ryan took her advice and pulled to the gravel shoulder. Sarah handed her the camera. Ryan's nerves jumped. In photo after photo, somewhat detailed shadows of human figures showed up. Near the patients' quarters stood a lady with long stringy hair and a short dress that barely came to the tops of her knees. In the shot Ryan took of the caretaker's house looking north to the porch, there was a figure of a man with long hair, legs spread apart as if he were blocking the doorway. There were also less-detailed human figures in other pictures.
Sarah turned in her seat to face Ryan squarely. Her eyes pleaded with her cousin. "What the hell happened to us back there," she queried softly.
Stubbornly, Ryan stated, "I don't believe in ghosts." Her tone assured Sarah that she brooked no argument. "But," she continued, "if I believed in such things, my theory would be that we were caught in some sort of battle of wills. The caretaker was probably the one trying to scare us off. The patients might've made us live things that we didn't really go through just so they could make sure that someone knew horrible evil and injustices took place there. It was time their voices were heard."
Sarah tilted her head to the side, considering what Ryan just said. "Makes sense, I guess."
"But I don't believe in ghosts," Ryan concluded lamely, without any real warmth of conviction in her voice. She pulled back onto the highway and drove a little faster towards home than she normally would have.
Ryan threw her front door wide open and burst across the threshold. She looked around for Li'l Horseshoe, found Dirk playing with the cat, and picked up the cat. She sighed wearily and hugged Li'l Horseshoe. Sarah brought up the rear, dragging her and Ryan's packs and closed the door. Dirk stared at the women.
"What the hell happened to you?" he asked.
"Yeah," Sarah calmly replied.
"Yeah," Dirk dreamily repeated. Then he popped back to his senses. "Huh?"
"Yeah. We've been to hell and back," Sarah explained, thanking her lucky stars they really did escape. Dirk blinked. Sarah cut him off. "Not now, Dirk. I don't believe I'll ever want to talk about it." She flopped down on Ryan's couch, leaned back, and covered her eyes with her arm.
Dirk dropped the subject and started another. "You guys wouldn't believe what I found!" Sarah uncovered her eyes and watched as he got up from his chair and retrieved his briefcase from the table. He pulled a U.S. Geological Survey aerial view from it. "This is the place where you were." He pointed at the ruins of the mountain resort. They were at the end of the left-hand trail.
"Oh, yeah," Ryan asked a little testily, "then what's this?" She pointed to the trio of buildings where she and Sarah actually ended up.
"The sanitarium," all three replied in unison.
Dirk's jaw dropped. "You mean, you didn't go left?"
"I knew we should've gone left," Sarah moaned from the couch.
"Oh, man! There have been some reports from campers there that they got some seriously bad vibes from that place!" Dirk changed the tack of the conversation again, hoping to stump the cousins. "Guess who ran it."
"Dr. Mallon," all three said in unison again.
"How'd you know?"
Ryan's voice filled with sarcasm. "Lucky guess." She didn't explain. Instead, Ryan gave him her best glare. "Next time you ask me if you've ever steered me wrong, pal, the answer is going to be a resounding 'YES'!"
Not minding her manners, Ryan set Li'l Horseshoe down, stalked over to grab her pack, and stormed off to her room, leaving her guests unattended in the living room. She dumped the pack's contents onto her bed, determined to set things in order before she stored her pack again. While sifting through the contents, she came across a fragment of leather attached to a buckle. It was a ligature. Ryan stuffed everything back into her pack. A pair of brown eyes and a pair of blue eyes watched her curiously as she hauled her pack out the front door. She went around to her side yard, took off the lid of her garbage can, and tossed the whole pack in. She had enough of camping.
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