Final Excerpt from "Darker Than" - 3 of 3

Final Excerpt from "Darker Than" - 3 of 3
“What?!” exclaimed Winter. “Erik, what are you talking about?”
     “The cops called me after I got to work,” he explained. “They said one of the neighbours had called about our house. I went back home to see for myself and—Winter, was like a car went through the house!”
     Erik paced as he continued his story. “The cops were still there and I asked them what had happened, but they said they didn't know; they were still investigating. They pointed out there weren't any vehicles around when they arrived, and they didn't find any skid marks or tire tracks on the road or on the lawn.”
     “My word, was anyone hurt?” asked Mr. Levins, sounding concerned.
     “No, thankfully,” said Erik. “Our parents are away in Greece for the month along with our younger sister; they're visiting family over there. I dropped Winter off here, then I went to work. Everything was fine when we left the house this morning...!”
     Erik turned to his sister and put a hand on her shoulder.
     “Winter, I'm sorry, but...the most damage was done to your rooms. The rest of the house doesn't even look like it was touched, but I can't be sure. I can't go in the house until the cops clear the scene, and when I left to come get you, they were still there.”
     Winter cried out in sudden realization. “Erik, my library—my books...!”
     “I know, Winter, I know,” said Erik, trying to calm her down. “I'm sorry, Sis. I've left a message for Dad to call me back on my cell, but I don't think they've even landed in Greece yet; their flight just left only this morning.”
     Winter began to panic. “Erik, what about she OK? Did you see her?”
     Kitters was Winter's cat. She found her as a stray last year, and she convinced her mother to let the cat stay in the house. Mrs. Banos didn't care for cats but had reluctantly allowed Kitters to stay, so long as Winter didn't allow her into the house too often. Usually that wasn't a problem, as Kitters was an outside cat and it wasn't uncommon for her to be gone for two or three days at a time.
     “I didn't see Kitters when I was at the house,” replied Erik, “but then again, I wasn't looking for her either. I've been on the phone all morning, talking to the insurance company with the info Dad gave me before they left. I still don't know what I'm going to tell him or Mom. I don't even know what happened...!”
     Winter dejectedly sank down into a chair and looked up at her brother. Despite her own fears about her rooms, she knew how Erik must have felt. Something had gone wrong the moment their parents left him in charge, and Erik was likely believing this was somehow all his fault.
     “We're very sorry to hear this,” consoled Mrs. Banyon, handing Winter's cellphone back to her. “Is there anything we can do?”
     “I'll need to take Winter home so she can try to salvage her things,” said Erik, gently rubbing his sister's shoulder. “Then we'll go to a hotel, or maybe to my dad's office in Toronto. Then all we can do is wait for them to come home.”
     “Of course, we understand completely,” said Mr. Levins. “Winter, just let us know when you're able to come back to school. I'll have Ms. Cornber keep some reference notes for you. You can catch up when you return.”
     “Thank you,” Winter said quietly.
     “Come on, Sis...let's go home.” Erik picked up Winter's knapsack and walked her outside to his work truck. It was a deep-blue pick-up truck with the words BANOS CONSTRUCTION stencilled on each side, along with the business phone number. Erik opened the passenger-side door for his sister, then got in on the driver's side. Together, they drove off towards the Banos' family home.
     Winter sat in shock as Erik drove. She was incredibly anxious to get home to see what had happened to her rooms. On impulse, Winter pulled out her cell and began to text Kendra.
Can't meet for lunch. Left school.
- What happened?
Erik came to school to get me. Trouble at home.
- Trouble? What kind?
House has been damaged. My rooms may be toast.
- OMG! I'm so sorry! What happened?
Don't know. We're still twenty minutes away.
- Call me.
     Winter paused before answering Kendra's text.
Not up for talking right now. I'll let ya know what happens.
- K.
- K. Make sure you call me.
     Winter put her phone away and sat there in silence. She was thinking mostly about Kitters, hoping nothing had happened to her. Winter also hoped her rooms and books were OK, especially her favourite book. She leaned her head against the window and watched the view zoom past as they made their way home.
     Suddenly, Winter was startled as they passed a man standing by the side of the road. She tried to get a better look at him in the side mirror but he was already gone. Winter was sure it was the same man in the black suit who had been watching her school earlier that day.
     Confused, she sat back and looked straight ahead, only to see them pass someone else, this time on the opposite side of the road. Winter got a better look this time, and now she knew she was right. It was the man in the black suit—but how had he gotten ahead of them?
     Then something else caught Winter's eye, and she looked out her window again. She swore she saw...something...moving through the trees that lined the road. She wasn't sure but she thought it might have been an animal—an animal with reddish-brown fur. When she looked again, it had vanished.
     Her brother couldn't help but notice her odd behaviour. “Winter, are you alright...?”
     “I thought I saw the trees, Erik...and there was this man—”
     “What man?”
     “A man wearing a black suit; I saw him outside the school today. Then, just a few minutes ago, I thought I saw him again...twice...”
     “What do you mean 'twice'...?”
     “We passed him twice, Erik...I'm sure of it...”
     “You can't pass someone on the road twice, Sis—not unless they're Superman...”
     “I know that, Erik...I'm just telling you what I saw...”
     Erik sighed. “I know you're upset, Sis—we'll be home soon, OK?”
     Winter didn't answer and stayed quiet for the rest of the drive. It wasn't too long before they turned into a familiar driveway.
     The Banos family lived in a sprawling bungalow, located near the Forks-of-the-Credit. Trees from a nearby forest lined the spacious backyard, and their nearest neighbour was about a kilometre away. In the distance, Winter could easily see the ridge lines of the Niagara Escarpment.
     As Erik parked the truck, Winter could only stare—one side of the large family home was destroyed. It was as if an enormous wrecking ball had torn straight through the walls from front to back. The roof had collapsed over the wreckage, and Winter gasped as she saw which rooms had sustained the most damage. One room had been her bedroom, and the other was her library and study room. Both were covered with fallen debris from the roof and attic.
     Just as Erik mentioned earlier, the rest of the house appeared untouched, except for the back deck, and their mother's flower garden which surrounded the house. Both were torn up and shredded, as if a football team had repeatedly trampled through them. Winter couldn't imagine what could have done this to her home.
     Winter bolted out the truck cab as soon as Erik stopped the vehicle. She heard her brother call to her as she ran towards the lopsided house, but she didn't stop. She had to inspect her rooms—especially her library. There was one book in particular she needed to find. As Winter approached the ruined house, she looked around for Kitters, but the cat was nowhere in sight.
     Winter gingerly stepped over layers of broken wood, shingles, and concrete, as she made her way towards what was left of her rooms. It was even worse than she thought; her bedroom was gone, there was virtually nothing left of it. Her bed, her computer, her dressers, her stereo; everything she owned was in a million pieces. It was a miracle the floor of the room was still intact; it still felt stable enough to walk on. Winter continued to move about carefully, picking through the wreckage. She was shocked to find most of her clothing looked as if it had been pulled from the closet and slashed with a long knife.
     Winter then stumbled over to what was left of her personal library. All the books she had collected over the years were still there, but were now buried, battered, and torn. Winter began to sift gently through the debris, as Erik came running up from behind her.
     “Winter, be careful!” he warned. “What do you think you're doing?”
     “I have to find it, Erik! I have to see if it's OK...!” exclaimed Winter, holding back tears. Winter had long believed herself to be a strong person, and not someone prone to falling apart over nothing. Now, with her possessions ruined and Kitters missing, she was having a hard time keeping her emotions in check.
     “Find what?” Erik asked her, but he already knew the answer. Winter was looking for the old story-book their grandmother had given her before she died, late last year. Winter had received many books from their grandmother over the years, but the old story-book had always been Winter's favourite.
     Erik was about to protest again when Winter squealed with glee. She had found the book, hidden underneath a crumpled bookshelf. The book was titled The Children's Book of Fairies and Folklore, and it was still in surprisingly good shape; just a bit dirty from being buried. Winter pulled the book out and hugged it tightly, then she looked up at her brother and smiled, her eyes now on the verge of tears.
     “Come on you,” he said, smiling back. “Let's get you to a hotel while we wait for Mom and Dad to call back. It's not safe to be rummaging about here just now; the floor could still cave in.”
     “What about waiting at Dad's office, like you said?” asked Winter, still hugging the old story-book.
     “No good,” said Erik, helping her up. “I just remembered; he had new locks installed before he and Mom left for vacation, and he hasn't made me a set of keys yet. Besides, his office is all the way in Toronto by Harbourfront, and I don't much feel like heading down there.”
     “OK, a hotel it is then.” Winter paused. “Erik...I still have to find Kitters.” She looked around as she clumsily put the old book in her knapsack.
     “Don't worry, Sis; Kitters will turn up,” said Erik. “She's an outdoor cat, after all...she'll be OK. We'll come back and look for her this afternoon once I've talked to Mom and Dad. That cat's probably not even anywhere near the house.”
     “OK,” said Winter as she walked back to the truck with her brother. Then she stopped short and tilted her head. “Wait a sec, Erik...listen—you hear that?”
     Erik stopped and heard exactly what his sister was talking about; it was the sound of a cat meowing very loudly, and it was coming from the woods behind the house. They both turned around and sure enough, there was Kitters; a bright-orange tabby cat, sitting at the edge of the trees about a hundred metres away, mewling at the top of her lungs.
     “Kitters!” yelled Winter excitedly. The young woman promptly broke into a run and headed straight for the woods, knapsack still draped around her shoulder. Erik was about to follow and then stopped himself; he knew from experience there was no way he could catch up with her, not once Winter had a head start. She could always outrun him, even when they were kids. He had no choice but to indulge his sister to gather up the cat while he waited for her.
     Moments later when Winter reached the edge of the trees, she watched as the cat reared up suddenly, then quickly bolt into the deep thick forest. Winter couldn't blame Kitters; the cat had to be spooked after what happened to the house. Still, Winter wasn't about to let the cat get away from her now.
     She looked up and saw the clear sky had turned grey. Storm clouds were gathering in the distance. Knowing it would soon rain and determined not to lose her cat, Winter left Erik behind and followed Kitters into the dense forest.
Adventure in the forest
Excerpt from "Darker Than" - 2 of 3

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