Excerpt: The Haunting of Tess

I have been writing a blue streak over the past month or two, and this weekend, I took inventory of what I have left to cover in the story. It was a jarring moment to realize, “Holy crap! I only have four chapters left!” Four chapters! That’s not much at all. In fact, it is not unreasonable for me to expect that, by the end of January, I will have a completed manuscript that is ready for editing and proofing.

I’m not sure how I feel about that.

On the one hand, it’s a relief (as it always is) to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s been a long time coming, after all. But on the other, it’s like saying goodbye to a friend. These characters have been a major focus of my life for the better part of the year. I don’t want to let them go.

But let them go I must. For whether I am ready or not, they are ready to fly out into the world and do what they will. And so, to acknowledge the inevitable end… or beginning, depending on one’s perspective… I am pleased to share an excerpt from my upcoming novel: The Haunting of Tess.

A two-hundred-year-old murder. A lover wrongfully convicted. An abandoned watermill haunted by a tortured spirit. The English village of Redley Green may hold more secrets than newcomer Tess Radcliffe expected to find… including one that might reveal a connection to herself.

CHAPTER 4

Tess waved a quick good bye, then headed back out into the morning sun.

She sipped her coffee as she walked the village, and munched on the croissant—incidentally one of the flakiest croissants she’d ever tasted. The pastry pieces clung to her lips so that each bite was doubly satisfying: the crunch between her teeth first, and then the sweep of her tongue to clean up the crumbs afterwards. It was so good that she didn’t care what she looked like to passersby. She finished the croissant far too soon, and had to argue herself out of going back for another.

With her belly humming richly, Tess reflected on the sense of peace she felt here. This village, in the Cambridgeshire countryside which she’d never before laid eyes on, evoked a stirring inside her. It was a stirring, she realized, that was beginning to feel like familiarity. Why was it, she wondered, that a place one had never visited before could feel so… right?

Pondering the odd notion, she continued on the road as it bent around the village. Beyond the houses and shops and buildings, trees shaded the asphalt and curtained farmland behind it. Low stone walls marked the edges of these farm properties which seemed as though they had been built into the landscape, and were embraced by it. This was unlike back home where vast tracts of cleared land baked in the sun along pencil-straight roads, broken only occasionally by a copse or a cluster of farm buildings. There was also the distinct difference that sheep dominated these farms, whereas at home, Tess recalled cattle being the dominant livestock.

Ahead, the road crested over a small hill and bent to the left at the top. When she reached the bend, she saw a mill in the distance. It was derelict, the brickwork crumbling and the wheel half-rotted. The river which had coursed through the village had travelled out here with her, and disappeared behind the building.

It was a stunning image, not just because of its forlorn beauty but because it was… comfortable. Unsettlingly so. For a brief moment, Tess slowed to a halt and simply stared. The sense of familiarity which had been slowly building inside her now deepened. If she could touch these bricks, they wouldn’t just speak through her fingertips. They would sing.

Of their own volition, her feet began to move again, carrying her closer to the decaying building. A thicket of weeds lashed gently against her ankles, sow thistles sneaking nefarious little scratches where their spiny leaves sheltered unseen amidst the taller crabgrasses.

She was knee-deep by the time she reached the foundation of the building. Tess pressed her palms to the brickwork. It was damp and cool, and smelled of must and earth. She closed her eyes, acknowledging a sense of contentment as it spread through her body. It was almost as though the mill were speaking to her…

But of course, that was just fancy. She dropped her hands, looked up at the structure, and smiled to herself.

Silly Tess.

Trailing her fingers along the bricks and picking her way through the dense weeds, she followed the foundation line towards the back of the building where the earth arched as though indulging in a luxurious cat stretch. It was at the top of the ascent that the river flattened into the mill pond. The antique wooden sluice, she saw, which directed water from the pond into the mill wheel, was intact, though rotting. Pond water streamed into the wheel pit along the banks of earth which had been piled centuries ago to dam the river—Man imposing his industrial ingenuity upon Mother Nature’s gentle design. The mill wheel, though still attached to the building, had collapsed in on itself and was not turning. Water churned at the base and frothed momentarily before rejoining the severed river to be carried away to other parts of England.

Tess folded her legs beneath herself, and sat on the grass to watch the water for a while.

It might have been minutes or it might have been hours that she was lost in her own little world. Time floated away like the river as she watched the tickling stream.

When she glanced up after that indeterminable amount of time—she jumped, startled.

On the other side of the mill, peaking around the foundation where wild shrubs had thickened to an impassable density, was a young woman.

Or, more precisely, half a young woman. Shadow and light from the overgrown flora, so much like the lattice of shadow and light on Tess’s bedroom floor from the magnolia outside her window, made the young woman’s image transparent. The apparition wore a pink dress of lightweight cotton. Tess could make out a simple, scooped neck and cinched waist. Where the dress should have tumbled to the woman’s feet, the image faded out slightly below where the knee would have been. A straw bonnet covered the figure’s head, from beneath which loose strawberry locks curled around the temples.

The face was not distinct, though the features could be described as delicate. The apparition stared at Tess with… not quite hostility. Discontentment? It was tangible. It hovered over the property like a canopy, shrouding Tess as well.

Tess waited for the grip of fear that would have been a logical response to encountering a ghost. But oddly, there was none. The apparition’s discontentment was benign, holding Tess’s gaze captive. For long seconds the two women stared at one another across the mill pond. Nothing more.

A breeze stirred, the trees surrounding the apparition shifted and the light changed. The image was gone.

The young woman was gone. But the feel of her was not. Unseen eyes remained on Tess, making the delicate hairs on her arms lift. Frowning, Tess went back to observing the water.

A ghost had watched her. Was watching her now. Though she was not a skeptic, Tess had never thought much about the spirit world or the supernatural beyond what was portrayed in cinema and books. And if what was portrayed in fiction had any basis in reality, then Tess should have run from the place the moment the apparition had appeared. Instead, she stayed where she was. The discontentment that hovered in the air had changed. Now it was a strain of sadness. A faint inkling of despair which suited the scene of the lonely, crumbling mill, abandoned in the English countryside.

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