Enjoy this free preview of the bestselling Bitten:
Madeline Leftwich sat at the train station every day at exactly thirteen minutes past midnight. The faded brown bench on which she sat did not often have consistent occupants, as transients and hobos were sparse this far north.
But there she sat, hands crossed over her lap. The floral pattern of the thick skirt she wore was handmade. Buckles and clasps galore adorned the uneven cut and fold of the garment. Her face possessed an absent quality––not that characteristics were missing, but instead a vacancy of spirit. That bench meant a great deal to her. This was the very place that childhood was left behind.
It had been exactly thirty-nine years since her mother placed her on that very bench, brushed back her hair, and told her everything was going to be alright. She said she would be right back. A promise to a child is a sacred thing. Even as an adult, Madeline couldn’t tear herself away from the compulsion to come wait for her mother every day.
The whistle blew each night as the passenger train rolled into town. Cold air rained down upon the open station. Often, sheets of ice were expelled from the track, lining the waiting area. Attendants were accustomed to her presence. Some even offered her coffee in the wee hours of the morning when they had no other friend.
However, this night she was quite alone.
The heavy bleating of the distant train horn filled the night, filtering through a cloudy fog. The susceptible and otherwise occupied Ms. Leftwich was not yet privy to the gossip of the town. Murder, a topic of great concern no matter the venue, would be especially virulent in such a small community. Distance revealed a dark object hurtling through the night, steam and precipitation sluicing from the hot steel.
The station was empty.
A half-lit banister showed the narrow, icy path that crawled back out to the blacktop just outside the front of the station. She watched the train collide with the open air of the darkness, the squeal of the tight brakes announcing its arrival with startling clarity. Heavy doors opened; artificial light spilled from the side of the train.
Madeline watched the open door––waiting.
Seconds passed into minutes; yet, there was no sound external to the cold nature of Minnesota. Winter had a feeling all its own. Groaning trees fought against the arctic grip of snow and ice. Lakes moving in the distance, far beneath the heavy weight of the ice that had taken residence upon them, filled the night.
Someone stepped out. Her coat was wrapped tightly around her lithe frame. Sandy blonde hair was tucked beneath a brown wool cap. The scarf around her neck, braided and frayed, looked as if it’d been sewn by someone she knew well––not the simple manufacture of mass production. Brown eyes watched the empty train station with great interest and a precision that marked her immediately as more than a mere observer.
A bulge at her side revealed a weapon. The simple black bag slung over the shoulder of her long brown trench coat made her appear to be a woman on the run––or perhaps one who simply liked to travel light.
She made her way toward Madeline. Her voice was sweet, her tone full of purpose. “Excuse me, ma’am. Is this Locke? Locke, Minnesota?”
Ms. Leftwich watched the woman with wide eyes that pooled with tears. She was severely confused. Was this her mother? She hesitated. This woman was younger––younger than she was. Was this possible? A mother who was younger than you?
“Mother?” Madeline asked, her voice rising shrilly.
Madeline didn’t stand; instead, she shuffled her purse at her waist. “Are you my mother? You left me here a long time ago. Said you would be back…said you would be back soon.”
Staring into the vacant eyes of Madeline Leftwich, it took the woman a moment of complete incomprehensibility to see that there wasn’t much left. All that remained was a sad example of what could laughingly be called a life.
“No. I’m very sorry. I’m not….”
Madeline stood quickly, her features scrunching in anger. “Why would you lie to me? Why would you leave me here? Why?”
“Ma’am, my name is Lauren Westlake. And I am neither your mother nor a trained therapist. Can you tell me if this is Locke?”
Madeline interrupted Lauren. Her words were filled with venomous rage. “Don’t pretend I’m a child. I know where I am. I know who I am. Just because you’re my mother, doesn’t mean you can leave me behind.”
Lauren looked at the woman in a mixture of shock and horror. She resisted the urge to physically restrain the woman, concerned about the reaction she might have. “What’s your name?”
Madeline’s face was the very picture of surprise.
“You don’t remember your daughter’s name?”
Lauren was uncertain how much further this charade should be carried, whether or not disengaging from the woman would be simpler. Looking at the woman carefully, she noticed that her clothing was handmade. The name Madeline was sewn into the breast of her outermost jacket. Stifling an irritated sigh, she continued. “Madeline. Your name is Madeline.”
And then as quickly as the madness had come, it dissipated. “Why are you talking to me?”
“Excuse me. I….”
Madeline looked at Lauren strangely and stood, gathering her belongings. She moved past Lauren and out into the night as if the interaction didn’t even happen.
Lauren watched her go, scrutinizing the entire exchange in her own mind. Shaking her head, she adjusted the bag at her back and moved forward past the dock of the train station and into the cold area just above it.
Ms. Leftwich was nowhere to be seen.
As far as Lauren was concerned, that was for the best.
The night was cold. A heavy veil of fog seemed to grow like a behemoth. She looked down the lane and saw only two endless views of darkness. The blacktop was crystalline, frozen precipitation having created an icy sheet better suited for ice skating than vehicular travel.
“Not exactly a warm welcome,” she muttered, drawing the top of her coat closer to her face. There were muffled sounds in the distance––muted voices. Sounds that could originate from only one kind of establishment: a bar. Lowering her head and pulling the strap of her bag tight, Lauren soldiered on.
MADELINE MADE a mistake that would cost her life. Each night she would wait for the sun to rise and then scamper home, ashamed. This night, her emotions got the better of her. Soon, she would now find herself in the presence of a creature of the night, one that would come to haunt and terrorize the inhabitants of the small town of Locke.
The moon overhead stung the fog, driving the ethereal wisps from its view. Wide and threatening, it looked peaceful when viewed in the company of others, in the arms of a lover perhaps. To Madeline Leftwich, a woman lost in her own mind, it was a portent of doom.
Thick branches grew over the sorry excuse for a path she walked each day. By daylight, the intricacies could be gleaned; at night, it was a haunted maze littered with obstructions and potential trip falls.
Her shoes were not suited for hiking through the woods at breakneck speeds, though that is what Madeline would need that night. When she paused at the center of the trail to make sure she wasn’t being followed, the dead silence of the night became a far more frightening sound.
“Who’s there?” she half-whispered, her voice cracking.
A branch snapped, frost claiming yet another soldier.
Another sound echoed in the night; this time much heavier, like weight lingering as a fledging branch gasped for its last breath before being trampled. She pulled her bag close to her chest, her face twisting in fear. Her eyes were wide as she searched the night frantically. “There’s nothing there,” she whispered, tearing her eyes away from the tree line.
Continuing forward, her steps were quicker, more deliberate. The woods around her thinned the faster she walked, white-speckled pines giving way to broken branches. The trail widened in places, enough that little pockets of dirt and soil were pushed up from use.
As if something were urging her forward, she began to run slightly, her breath expelled in heavy puffs of condensed air. She wheezed then––a panicked, hiccupping sound that erupted deep from within her chest.
And that was when she heard the first growl. There was something wrong with it. It sounded like an animal, the guttural low pitches. However, there was something human to it, a strange gargling sound.
Her feet were not as sure beneath her as she thought. The tips of her fabric shoes dug into the hard soil, making her wince in pain. Biting her lip hard, she forged forward, stumbling into an open area of the trail.
Trees crowded the edges of her vision and the clearing. The trail continued on the way she had been trampling, and then split suddenly into two smaller trails. The fog hung ahead of her, pulling away as if it were an entity all its own.
Silence permeated the area.
And then the growl came again. It sounded hungry, desperate; it was the pinnacle of auditory fear. “Who’s there? What? Why are you hiding?” She whimpered. “Please. Please.”
It seemed to come from all around her, enveloping the cold night air. The fog stirred; deep in its belly a shadow formed. Tall and hunched, it was a mass of darkness shaped like a man. Heavy in the shoulders, spines seemed to rise unevenly from the arms and body. Its head was lowered and the knees bowed as if it were ready to pounce.
It did not.
The figure stood, chest heaving. It was safely veiled by the fog bank. Hands that seemed to melt into long thin claws were obscured by the swirling mass of miasma ebbing and flowing within.
Her mouth opened, but no words came out.
Her mind raced. Panicked thoughts flooded her mind, erasing judgment and reason. She watched helplessly.
It took a single step forward.
Madeline Leftwich wasn’t a god-fearing woman. In point of fact, until that moment she never thought about death. Now, when confronted with something drawn from nightmares, her pulse raced and she realized, with a desperate certainty, that she wished to live.
The rain trickled then, a fat droplet striking her hair. Her feet hit the ground hard. She abandoned her bag. Churning, her feet dug into the hard winter earth. Her breath sputtered in front of her in rapid fits of exploding clouds. She whimpered as she ran, tears running down her face as trees slapped her hard across her cold, sensitive features; some left bruises, others broke skin.
The forest was now alive with sound.
Creatures hooted and hollered in the night.
They knew something was happening.
She could hear herself breathing.
She wouldn’t last much longer.
Her foot caught something lodged deep within the frozen ground. The world spun in circles as her back collided with the unforgiving earth.
Frightened and defeated, she kept very still. Where she had landed proved defensible: high brush bristling with heavy branches and evergreen leaves that hid her partly from view.
The forest beat a heavy drum.
Footfalls of animals loose in the night filled the air. There was one set of footsteps that rung above the others: something primal, something large. She covered her mouth with her hand. Pressing tightly, she watched as a shadow crept across her vision.
She peered out the side of the brush.
It stood like a man.
Up close the fur was matted, uneven, missing in some places. The legs were muscular and covered in fabrics that seemed to sluice fluid. Hemorrhaging from the torso, it moved with a predator’s grace.
Its face was covered in shadow.
Madeline felt a scream rise from deep in her chest and she pressed her hand harder against her mouth. Closing her eyes, tears streamed from them. Her chest heaved, but she tried not to move, locking her body into a paralysis.
She couldn’t tear her eyes away from it.
Turning, the face was still well hidden.
Long slender fingers, like dull blades, bounced against the creature’s legs. The clothing was torn and dirty. A smell emanated from it that could only be described as nausea in the depths of a septic tank. Lifting its head, it sniffed the air, a hood pressing against its mangled hair.
Her breath caught in her throat.
The slow turn of the creature and the bend of its legs as it lowered closer to the ground was more than Madeline could take. And before she could remove her hand from her mouth to scream, it was upon her.