As JoEllyn slowed to make the turn onto the road that would take us over Bald Eagle Mountain, I straightened in my seat, grinning like a five-year-old on Christmas morning. Only one mountain and a few miles of interstate now separated us from Willow Lake, where Jo and I would be investigating the campus of Willow Lake College. Jo was one of the lead investigators in the paranormal investigation group I had recently joined. She and I had been college roommates, and we shared many interests; throughout college we had been like sisters. The main differences between us were that she was outgoing, flirtatious, and quite “girly,” while I tended to be a quiet, bookish tomboy, which made us at times an unlikely pair. Obviously, one of the interests we shared was a fascination with the paranormal. We had each had our own ghostly experiences throughout childhood and in college, which were often the topics of our late-night chats. Jo had held a job at the college’s tutorial center for a few years after graduation, and during that time, she had taken her interest in the paranormal one step further and started a Paranormal Club on campus. She had kept me up to date on many of the changes on campus and always begged me to come to Willow Lake for a visit. I had made plans to visit so many times, but then something always got in the way—my job, the passing of both my parents within a couple years of each other, and a broken engagement. After Jo moved to the Harrisburg area a couple years ago, any thoughts of my returning to Willow Lake had been shoved aside, until now. When Jo told me she was joining the Paranormal Club for an investigation on campus, I decided that this time, nothing would stop me from going back. Besides revisiting one of my favorite places in the world, I hoped to be able to get answers to some of the questions that had been gnawing at me for as long as I could remember.
As if reading my thoughts, Jo asked, “So, Kyr, this is your first time back to campus since graduation. Excited?”
I pushed a stray lock of red hair out of my face and met her eyes, grinning back at her. “You know it! But from what you’ve told me, I may not even recognize the place.”
“It looks like a different campus, all right, with all the renovations and new buildings going up, but you’ll still be able to find your way around.”
Recalling one of the more recent changes, I lamented, “I can’t believe they tore down the old paper mill. Remember how creepy that building was, especially at night? I always expected a hand to reach out of one of those broken windows and grab me when I walked by.” I shivered at the memory despite the bright, sunny day.
Jo reached over and thumped me on the shoulder. “You’re lucky someone or something didn’t grab you,” she scolded. “Always walking around alone at night. I hope you don’t still do that.”
“You know I would never do that where I live now,” I replied, glancing out the window at the new housing developments springing up where farmland used to be. However, I am planning to take a walk down Memory Lane—or at least along the river—after our investigation tonight, I thought. Not that she needed to know that.
“Good,” she said simply. I glanced over at her, feeling a bit guilty for keeping something from her. As I looked at her, something in her expression told me she was keeping a secret from me; she was terrible at keeping secrets.
“Jo?” I began suspiciously. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”
Jo looked over at me, her green eyes wide with feigned innocence. “Why no, Kyr. What makes you say that?”
“Because you look guilty,” I said, crossing my arms and raising an eyebrow at her. I should know that look, I thought. Guilt was a feeling I was well-acquainted with.
“Oh, psh,” she laughed, waving a well-manicured hand at me. “I’m not guilty of anything.”
“Okay, if you say so,” I shrugged, turning back to the window as if I didn’t care. We were about halfway up the mountain now, so I scanned the trees for deer or bears. I smiled to myself, mentally counting to ten. I knew she wouldn’t hold out for very long.
Before I got to eight, Jo let out a huff and admitted, “All right, all right. It’s supposed to be a surprise, but guess who will be joining us on this investigation?” She looked like a firecracker trying not to explode.
I stared at her for a second before it hit me. “No way,” I exclaimed. “Petery Paranormal is coming on this investigation, aren’t they? How did you arrange that?”
Jo laughed, her cheeks pink with excitement. “I had nothing to do with it,” she claimed. “Ed and Phil from the campus Paranormal Club set it up. They contacted Petery Paranormal and told them how much activity there has been since all the renovations began on campus, and Drac and Gabe thought it would be fun to do an investigation with a college group.” Jo was obviously tickled to death that the Willow Lake Paranormal Club had continued to grow in popularity even after she left the tutorial center. I also knew how much she had wanted to meet Drac and Gabe Petery, founders of Petery Paranormal and stars of the Project Boo-Seekers TV show. I had already met and investigated with them as a result of winning a radio contest last Halloween, and even though Jo had been the one to goad me into entering, I knew she had been jealous.
I smiled to myself, remembering that investigation. I never thought I’d meet the stars of my favorite paranormal reality show, let alone investigate with them, and the whole experience had been a dream come true. That is, until things started getting out of hand. I shuddered as I recalled how quickly the activity at the Berkeley mansion had gone from being a little frightening to downright dangerous, as we dealt with a vengeful ghost, a hundred-year-old double murder, and secrets hidden away in the house. I still bore a couple scars from the fire that landed me in the hospital.
Jo interrupted my thoughts. “Are you okay? I thought you’d be excited to see Drac and Gabe again.”
“Oh, I am,” I responded quickly. “I’m just hoping this investigation isn’t as wild as the last one.”
“Oh, Kyr, I’m sure it won’t be,” Jo assured me. She was quiet for a moment, and then turned to me with a mischievous glint in her eye. “So, do you ever hear from that Steele fellow your Aunt Julia told me about?”
It was my turn to let out a huff. Leave it to Jo to bring him up. “Oh, Jo! I’d like to forget I ever met him!” Meeting Spook Steele was one of the unpleasant experiences I’d had during that first investigation. Now that she had reminded me of him, I tried unsuccessfully to push him out of my thoughts, not wanting him to take up residence in my mind.
Jo gave me a sidelong wink. “Honestly, between your rants and the way Julia goes on about him, I seriously want to meet this guy. Julia did say he’s easy on the eyes.”
I rolled my eyes, hoping I wasn’t blushing as I lied, “I couldn’t see past his arrogance to notice.” The truth was, I recalled very clearly his brooding, dark brown eyes, his shoulder-length chestnut hair, and his wicked grin.
Jo slowed down as we came into the town that was nestled at the foot of the mountain. As she cruised to a stop at the town’s only red light, she looked over at me, bemused. “He left some impression on you, didn’t he?”
I gave her a wry smile and replied, “I guess so. Of course, I left one on him too.” I still cringed inside thinking of the hurtful things I had said to him, not to mention the fat lip I had accidentally given him in the graveyard. Without thinking, I muttered, “If only he were like Gabe.” I had begun crushing on the younger Petery brother the first time I saw Project Boo-Seekers, and meeting him in person had only intensified those feelings.
Jo gave me a stern look. “Kyr, you know I have the hots for Gabe as much as you do, but he is married. You need to stop wishing it otherwise.”
Knowing she was right, I said nothing. We took the ramp onto the highway that led into Willow Lake, and she continued, more kindly, “Look, I know this probably isn’t the time to be giving you love advice…” Then don’t, I thought irritably, not wanting another lecture about my inability to move on after Trevor. There was nothing she could say about that topic that hadn’t already been said a hundred times in the past few months. She must have read my expression, because she relented. “Okay, I won’t go there again.” My tight-lipped, triumphant smirk was short-lived as she continued, “But I will say that you need to stop putting Gabe Petery on a pedestal. Daydreaming about being with him may be fun…” She couldn’t hide a lecherous grin as she fanned herself with her free hand. “…A lot of fun, but Kyr, daydreaming about someone you can’t have to avoid the possibility of being hurt again, honey, that’s not good either.”
We fell silent again, both lost in our own thoughts. My mood didn’t stay dark for long, however. As Jo took the ramp that led into Willow Lake, I leaned forward in my seat, looking around at the town where I had spent my college years. We stopped at a red light coming into town, and I pointed to a small restaurant on the corner. “There’s the Mustang Grill!” I exclaimed. “I wonder if old Pete still works in the kitchen.”
Jo snorted and replied, “No doubt! Remember how he always had that cigarette hanging out of his mouth? I swear ashes were the secret recipe in his chili.”
The car behind us honked its horn, and Jo turned her attention back to the road. Seeing that the light had turned green, we turned left onto Market Street, and I looked around, amazed at how much had changed in ten years. The music store stood empty, its painted logo faded and a For Rent sign hanging in the window. Greenberg’s Drug Store had been replaced by a CVS. “Wait, there’s a Subway. Didn’t that used to be that smelly old pet store?”
Jo chuckled and raised an eyebrow. “I told you things have changed. Wait till we get up further.”
My heart sank a bit as I saw how different the downtown area looked. Suddenly the corner hair salon caught my eye. “Oh, Rita Rae’s is still here.” I had shared a studio apartment above that hair salon with another student one summer when I worked at the library. My roommate usually spent the night over at her boyfriend’s, so I was often alone. One night, I had witnessed a dish towel fly across the room, which at the time was the scariest thing I had ever seen. Oddly enough, I had never mentioned it to my roommate, but I had frantically called Jo and told her what had happened. She had always been more welcoming of paranormal activity than I was, so while I had freaked out over my experience, she had merely laughed about it and assured me that whatever spirit was in the apartment likely meant no harm. Still, I had slept with the lights on after that. “Do you remember my crazy experience there?”
“I sure do! I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so freaked out. I wonder if anyone else has had experiences there.” Jo grinned over at me. “Wouldn’t it be fun to check out that apartment?”
I shrugged noncommittally. We had turned onto Belle Vista Avenue and were nearing campus when my eyes flew open in surprise. Just as Jo had told me, there where the crumbling, sprawling brick paper mill had stood, a brand new student housing building was going up. While some people had called the paper mill an eyesore, I had always thought it had character and was a reminder of the town’s history. The street just didn’t look the same, and I felt as though something important were missing. “Wow,” was all I could say. As we passed the site, I turned in my seat and craned my neck, still in disbelief over the transformation.
Jo nudged my side, and I turned around. Before us lay the Willow Lake campus. She slowed down as we passed the Graham E. B. Lawrence Fine Arts Building and a couple residence halls. My jaw dropped as I saw the three-story building that used to be the one-story dining hall. “Arthur-Ambrose Campus Center?” I exclaimed, confused. “When did the dining hall become a campus center?”
Jo laughed, “About three years ago, when Dorothy Arthur passed away and left her entire fortune to the college. You had to have seen the Alumni Newsletters.” She quickly related the story of Mrs. Arthur, who had never herself attended Willow Lake, but had been “adopted” by one of the clubs on campus as a service project. The members helped her maintain her modest yet comfortable home after her husband passed away suddenly. Everyone had assumed she was a widow struggling to make ends meet, so it was a shock to everyone when the college was named the sole beneficiary of her estate, which was worth several million dollars. “I guess it pays to be nice to people,” Jo finished.
“That’s what my grandma always said,” I added, as we turned onto the side street that would take us around to the back of Douglas Hall, where we were meeting Ed, Phil, and Amber from the Paranormal Club.
Jo pulled into a parking space behind the residence hall, and we got out of the car. Two people were standing just inside the back door, and they came out to meet us. Jo stepped forward confidently and shook hands with a tall, blond man wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a red Love and Theft sweatshirt.
She introduced herself and me, and the man said, “It’s so nice to finally meet you, JoEllyn; we’ve heard so much about you and how you got this club off the ground. We’re so glad you could come. I’m Ed, and this is Phil.”
I stepped forward and shook Ed’s hand. As I reached for Phil’s hand, I was a bit taken aback. I had expected Phil to be a man, but Phil was a tall, willowy, raven-haired woman. She seemed to pick up on my momentary confusion and laughed, “Phil is short for Philesia. I get a lot of strange looks when people first meet me.”
I smiled back at her. “Well, with a name like Kyrie, I can say that I share your pain.”
Grinning over at Phil, Ed said, “Amber will join us later this evening. She works at the Admissions Office and won’t get off till five. She already met with Drac and Gabe, and they’re setting up over at Palmer Hall.”
“Not a problem,” Jo responded. “So what’s on the agenda?”
Phil motioned towards Palmer Hall, a classroom building that also housed the student computer labs and the campus radio/TV station. “We’ll go over and touch base with Petery Paranormal. We’re going to set up Center Command at Palmer and take advantage of the computers and all the other media equipment.” I gathered that Phil was the Paranormal Club’s tech expert.
The four of us headed towards Palmer Hall. As we followed the narrow sidewalk to the back of the building, I could sense the others’ excitement as they anticipated meeting Drac and Gabe, and whoever else they may have brought along from Petery Paranormal. I smiled, recalling how I’d felt the first time I met them, and I had to admit, I was just as excited to be seeing them again. As we came around the side of the building and caught sight of the Petery Paranormal vans, Jo suddenly grabbed my arm and did a little jump. Ed and Phil turned around to look at us, and Phil’s sparkling eyes told me that she was trying to contain her excitement too. JoEllyn giggled like a schoolgirl and asked, “So what do you think Drac and Gabe will say when they see you?”
Before I could answer, Ed interrupted, “Oh that’s right! You’ve already investigated with them!”
I smiled nervously and bit my lip. I didn’t like being the center of attention. “They might think, oh no, there’s that crazy Kyr. I hope she doesn’t bring another wild and crazy ride…”
“Oh, stop!” JoEllyn exclaimed, giving my shoulder a slap. “I’ll bet they’ll be happy to see you again. Why don’t you hold back so they don’t see you right away. Then jump out and surprise them.”
Ed and Phil agreed, and then started towards the Petery Paranormal vans. While they went around to the back to meet Drac and Gabe, I quickly dashed to the side of the van so they wouldn’t see me. I heard Ed and Phil introducing themselves to Drac and Gabe, and Gabe asked, “Is the other group here yet?”
Ed introduced Jo first to Drac and then to Gabe. I bit back a laugh as the usually confident JoEllyn McFadden stuttered and stammered like a star-struck teen.
Drac asked, “Are you the only one from your group who could make it?”
Jo suddenly recovered her composure as she laughed and said, “No, I actually brought one other member.” She stuck her head around to the side of the van and motioned to me. “But I think you already know her.”
Unable to keep a wide grin off my face, I stepped around behind the van. Drac and Gabe looked at each other and laughed. Gabe came forward and caught me up in a hug. “What a surprise, Newbie! It’s great to see you again!”
Drac was next, giving me a bear hug and picking me up off the ground. “This is awesome! So you did find yourself a group; good for you!”
I stepped back and laughed, “Jo sprung it on me on the way up here that you guys would be here. I just hope this investigation doesn’t turn out as crazy as the last one.”
Gabe cocked his head and joked, “Well, if you’re involved, how could it be anything else?”
Drac stepped forward and nudged Gabe, suddenly wary. “Speaking of the last investigation, this is kind of unexpected. How do you think this will go over with…?” He motioned with his eyes towards the other Petery Paranormal van. Lynette, one of the other Petery Paranormal investigators, had just peeked around the side of the van and said something to someone else inside, then started towards us.
I was just about to ask Drac what he meant when out of the corner of my eye, I caught movement. I glanced toward the van, and my stomach dropped. I felt the color drain out of my face as I saw none other than Spook Steele.