Thicker Than Water
Chapter 1 of 4 · All · First · Last

Chapter 1 - Duncan Comes Home

By Mary Rajotte
May 27, 2019 · 5,694 words · 21 minutes

From the author: It has been 8 years since Duncan MacDoyle stepped foot in his hometown of Millbrook. It doesn't take long for old rivalries to surface and make him regret his return.

The current of the Strand River was as swift and unrelenting as Duncan MacDoyle remembered it. In the 8 years since he had packed up his uncle’s truck and left his hometown for the city, it seemed the tributaries had continued to carve the hillsides of Millbrook into rocky crags.

Fragmented angles of rock jutted out from beneath a layer of thick, spongy moss that made Duncan realize just how long it had actually been since he had been back to Dornach County. Life in the small mill town, he supposed, had gone on without him.

He maneuvered his car down the sloping main street and shuddered. He couldn’t be sure if it was simply the change in temperature as they drove toward Lake Aubrey, or if it was the site of the old stone mill at the bottom of the slight slope of Main Street.

The air coming in through the windows shifted as it was drawn up from the millpond, wheezing its dank breath into Duncan’s face.

The smell was one from his childhood, a smell he thought he had put behind him when he left Millbrook without a backward glance. The entire town was the same. Like some dark, clammy cellar, cold and dripping with icy water that made you afraid to touch anything. That same smell seeped into the shops that lined Main Street, so much that Duncan almost expected a freshly growing bed of moss on the packages his uncle used to send him to pick up at the post office back in the day.

As they passed by the town church, Duncan remembered that even the wooden pews smelled that way, too. He pictured himself and the entire MacDoyle family seated inside with the other residents of Millbrook. The way the mossy smell had wafted in through the back of the church as his mother, Arlyne’s casket was carried up the aisle. That musty scent had combined with the smell of melting wax and funeral oils as the priest passed by, waiving the chain censer with its pungent incense that still couldn’t mask the smell of the river. Duncan pictured himself, eyes squeezed tight, leaned into the crook of his sister’s arm. He could still hear Annis’ voice softly whispering epic tales of battles on the Scottish highlands that their father, Lachlan, read as a boy back home. Anything to keep his mind occupied and off the pungent smell.

When he snapped out of his daydream, he realized the mill was just ahead. He pulled the car into the crudely marked, fading parking spaces alongside it. Keagan, Duncan’s wife, groaned and stretched before she opened the door and got out of the car.

“You weren’t joking when you said Millbrook was in the middle of nowhere, babe.”

Duncan turned off the car, and took in a long breath. On the opposite side of the road, a couple of older men stood talking outside the Millbrook Mercantile. He could see them watching him in his side mirror and instantly wished he hadn’t agreed to come back to this place.

“You ready?” Keagan asked, poking her head through her open window and interrupting Duncan’s memory. “Or do you need a bit more time?”

Duncan looked toward the old stone mill. A group of school kids had congregated on the sidewalk were being ushered in through the old wooden doors. Seeing the mill immediately stirred in him a sense of both nostalgia and unease.

“Let’s get this over with.” He hit the auto window button, locking out the smell of the river, and got out of the car.

Duncan stood there for a few minutes, just staring at the building’s sloping, hipped roof and rough stone walls. The window frames were done in the same crimson as the roof and doors, but the panes, which were in white, gave the windows the look of wide eyes staring out at the street below.

In the evenings, Duncan remembered how the windows took on the look of some glowing beady-eyed monster. The only time he actually liked looking at the mill was at Christmas time, when boughs of holly and garland were strung around the window panes and lit wreaths hung in the center of every window.

“Maybe you’ll be lucky and they won’t even be here?” Keagan said.

Duncan rolled his eyes. “If I know my dad, he’s been here since sun up.”

They headed up the sidewalk and as the small bridge crossed over the Strand River, Keagan stopped to peer over the railing of the bridge. She planted her feet between the grates, pulling herself up so she could lean over and watch the water rushing below them, into the millrace.

Duncan lunged forward, grabbing her jacket by the scruff of the neck and pulling her down. “Jesus, Keagan! Would you be more careful?!”

As she staggered backward, Duncan held firmly to her collar, pulling her away from the bridge and stopping when they were securely away from the edge.

 “Relax, Duncan! I was just having a look!” She ripped free from his grip and smoothed her jacket back into place with one decisive yank.

“After everything I’ve told you, I thought you would know to stay away from the river!” Duncan’s hands were icy, his face blanched, his neck clammy. He forced his fingers through his hair, cursing abruptly.

“Duncan...relax! Look, I know you didn’t want to come back here. But you can’t keep blowing up at me. I’m on your side, here!” Keagan shoved her hands into her pockets and fished out her gloves.

Duncan closed his eyes, breathing in deeply, before looking back at his wife, who now stood leaning against the old carriage house that was adjacent to the mill.

“I didn’t mean to lose it, Keag.  But you know how I feel about this place, and that fucking river.”

He glared over her shoulder as the current coursed down the raceway toward the wheelpit.

She softened a little, nodding as she lifted her arm and motioned for him toward her. “I know, babe. But we have to try really hard not to get sucked into the negativity of this place. It’s hard enough being here as it is, after everything that happened. After the way you left.”

Duncan took her hand between his, rubbing it to warm her up. “I know. I’m just not sure I can do it, with everything that’s going on. Being back here after everything that happened to me here, to my family…”

“We’ll just take it one step at a time, okay?” She started to walk toward the mill, coaxing Duncan along with her. “We’ll pop in here really quickly, just to see if your dad is here. The sooner we get that out of the way, the sooner we can be there for your sister.”

Duncan relented, but only because his sister was the only reason he had agreed to come back to Millbrook. If it were up to him, he would stay away forever. But she needed him.

As they stepped through the double-wide wooden doors, the smell of the moist wood, the sawdusted floors, and the chatter of the school kids all created a wall of sounds and smells that instantly made Duncan nauseous. He grasped the door frame, but his hand flailed about wildly, unable to reach it.

Keagan flung around immediately, wide-eyed, her brow furrowed. “Duncan?! Are you okay?” She grabbed his thrashing hand, pulling it to her cheek, using her other hand to steady him and tried to catch his gaze as he gasped and choked for air.

“It’s okay, Duncan. You’re okay. Just look at” She pressed her palm to his face, pulling him into her until she locked his gaze. “You’re safe, Duncan. I’m here with you, it’s alright.”

His eyes were red-rimmed, filling with tears. But he looked at her, nodding as she tried to calm him like she always did when he became this panic-stricken.

His stomach lurched back and forth, but he was beginning to slow his breathing. He had almost begun to breathe normally again when a voice from behind him grated on his eardrums.

“Still spooked by this place, are you, Cousin?” Duncan’s eyes darted sideways. “You’d think after all these years you’d ‘a outgrown your fits. But then never could stomach much, now...could ya’?”

A stocky figure sidled forward, smirking. He reached his hand out to Keagan. Duncan looked down and noticed that the cuff of his flannel shirt was torn, and his stubby fingernails were black underneath.

“You must be Duncan’s little lassie, Keagan,” the man said, drawling his vowels with a slow, venomous precision. “I don’t suppose he ever told you about his ol’ cousin, now...did he.”

“Your name came up once or twice,” she said, tentatively extending her hand while she looked questioningly at Duncan. Connor latched onto her, pulling her toward him.

“Just once or twice? That all?” He shook his head, chuckling as he continued to grip Keagan’s hand and watched as Duncan squirmed. “I’m hurt, Duncan...I’m hurt.”

Duncan lashed out, ripping Keagan’s hand from his cousin’s clutches. “Screw you, Connor!”

Connor laughed loudly, and Duncan noticed that a few of the adults in the room had been watching them. He maneuvered Keagan behind him.

“Now, is that the kind of welcome your long-lost cousin deserves? After all, who took care of you all those years ago?”

“Is that what you call it?” Duncan choked.

Connor lunged forward suddenly, grabbing Duncan by the collar. “The fact that you’re still alive is more than you deserve, you--.”

“Enough!” Keagan broke the two men free, taking Duncan by the hand and leading him across the room to where the school kids stood. Connor called after them.

“She’s a feisty one, cousin. I like that!”

Keagan shook her head. “You were not kidding about that guy, were you?” She glared after him as he slithered through the crowd, patting some of the school kids on the back as he hovered over them and sweet-talked their teacher.

Duncan tried to tune out that voice, the one he had left behind eight years ago. He gripped the railing, trying to calm himself by taking in slow, deep breaths, but it wasn’t helping. He could feel himself starting to panic again, and the sound of the water as it hit the waterwheel below where they stood was making things worse.

“Look, maybe we should get out of here. You can see your dad later.” Keagan moved beside him, but it only made him feel more claustrophobic and sickened than he already was. His back stiffened as she tried to put her arm around him.

“Just give me minute, would you?” he barked.

She jumped back. “Ok...fine. Just don’t take my head off. I’m only trying to help you get though this.”

“I know you are, Keagan. Just stop crowding me for a god damned minute so I can think!”

She exhaled sharply. “Fine! You got it.” She turned and abruptly stalked off.

Duncan knew he had bitten her head off again, but he’d been doing a lot of that lately. Not that it made his actions any better. But at that moment, he didn’t care. He wasn’t really mad at her, just annoyed that he had let Connor get to him, just as he had in the old days.

“Well, if isn’t the long-lost son come back home!” Duncan heard from behind him.

He turned to find Cora Barclay, one of the tour guides of the mill, standing behind him. He smiled wearily at her. He had spent a lot of his time at the mill with her when his father was tending to business. Her husband, Angus, was on the board of The Town Council with his father, and so she was automatically given her position because of it.

“Now, is that any way to treat an old friend of the family? Get over here an’ give me a hug, Duncan MacDoyle! It’s been years since I’ve seen you here in Millbrook!”

Duncan stepped forward politely, letting her embrace him briefly before pulling away. “Hi, Mrs. Barclay. How are you?”

“Oh, busy, lad. Busy as always, but it’s for the good of the town, you know, so it’s all worth it!” she waved her hand in the air as she looked around at the kids who were scattered about the room.

As the school kids swarmed and buzzed around the room with the energy that came from the wonder and adventure of a school field trip, Duncan was brought back to his own childhood spent here in the mill. His family had owned it since the town was settled in the late 1700’s. Since then, one branch or another of the MacDoyle family had acted as the patrons of the mill, so much that milling was in their blood.

Back in his day, the mill was just as noisy, but in a different way. Where now, the air was filled with the chatter of the kids as they watched the water dropping into the water wheel and forcing it around and around again, Duncan remembered the mill of his childhood as much more aggressive and tense.

There was the scraping sound as the grain was weighed and dumped into the hopper; the whooshing of the elevator as it carried the grain up to the top floor where it was pushed into the cleaner; the thrashing of the grain as it slid back down to the main floor again through metal chutes and into the garner bins.

“There’s work to be done here, boy, and real men to do it,” his father would say, brushing Duncan aside with one hand while bearing all his body weight on the other.

Duncan tagged along behind the group as Mrs. Barclay continued to shout over the buzz of the kids while she explained the inner workings of the mill. He could almost hear the sound of his father’s shoes clunking along beside him, and the scraping of his cane as he steadied himself. Every now and then, Duncan would feel a thwack on his shoes if his father felt he was getting in his way.

As the memory began to slide from Duncan’s mind, he saw that the group was now climbing the wooden staircase to the second floor. As he followed behind, sliding his hand up the railing, he remembered the many times he had done the same on his way up to his father’s office, only to end up with a palm full of splinters. The railing was new now, as was the staircase, and much of the inside structure.

He could hear Mrs. Barclay as she relayed to the group about the renovations that had begun on the mill only a few years ago.

“With the help of a few generous donors, we were able to renovate the entire mill, including the loft you see above.”

“And this is where Mr. MacDoyle, the owner of the mill, oversaw the daily operations.” Mrs. Barclay was directing them toward the room Duncan was most familiar with, his father’s old office. The old paned window had been replaced with a large picture window, giving the old headquarters the look of some exhibit at the zoo.

He watched as some of the kids leaned across the railing and pressed their hands and noses up against the glass. He had done the same thing as a kid, but back then Duncan only had one fuzzy little pane of glass to look through.

As he stepped forward, again it seemed as though his memories of that room had been folded down over the scene before him like some translucent film of glassine paper. He could still see what was going on before him, but it was almost as if the room were out of focus and in it’s place was the mill of Duncan’s childhood.

He brushed past the group of bored school kids as they made clouds of steam with their breath on the glass. The room he had spent so much time in as a child was empty now, minus the few props that the council had laid out to illustrate what the office of a working mill was supposed to have been back in its heyday.

The old wood burning stove still sat in the corner, though it’s many years of soot and ash had been swept clean and it was now buffed and polished to a supreme shine.

An antique typewriter sat on top of the dual pedestal wooden desk on the right side of the room. There was a piece of paper still in the typewriter, as if the typist had left mid-sentence to attend to important mill business.

Above the desk, there was a vintage hat rack bolted to the wall, and a bowler hat sat perched on one of the hooks. Duncan never knew his dad to wear one of those hats, instead opting for a herringbone newsboy cap that he purchased from the McTaggerty’s hat and coat shop in Elgin.

The first thing Duncan noticed was that his father’s old desk was gone, and replaced with a newer, more ornately carved one. The desk he remembered his father sitting at day and night was more simple, much more rustic. There were no carvings, no embellishments like this one, that had new drawer handles resembling the kind of door knockers one could buy down at the Millbrook Mercantile and antique themselves with a bottle of oxide.

As Duncan turned and looked around the second floor of the mill, it seemed like every inch of it had not only been restored, but changed completely to resemble some ideal mill, and not the one he knew all too well, and wished he never had returned to.

The earthen bricks looked like they had all been scrubbed fresh-faced, their once filthy layer of ire and unease now gone so they glowed with an inner warmth. Many of the beams had been replaced in the recent renovations, making the inner skeleton of the mill look more strong than he remembered. He walked slowly over to the set of stairs that led to the top floor loft of the mill. When he looked straight up to the very ceiling of the building, he could see that the original beams were still in place up there. Their time-weathered surfaces, covered in knicks and scrapings, were spread flat and stretched over the foundation of the building like the bones of some decaying skeleton.

Duncan’s head began to swirl, as he let his eyes dance across the room. The glassine mask was beginning to shift as his heart began to race, and the room started to tilt and shift with it, revealing the old, more sinister mill he remembered in bits and pieces, as if they were trying to smash through the glass and shatter the scene before his eyes.

He reached out for the wall, stammering forward and across the room toward the steps that led back down to the main floor. His legs were barely able to hold up his weight, so that with each step he felt his knees buckling, and he was afraid he was going to trip on the stairs and go tumbling down onto the floor below.

He did his best to prop himself up as he clamored down the stairs, not able to look at the office one moment longer. He was beginning to get that seasick feeling again and knew he had to get out of there - fast. Finally planting his feet on solid ground, Duncan shuffled toward the front of the mill.

Just as Duncan had stepped out the front door, Mrs. Barclay reached out and grabbed him by them arm.

“Oh! I didn’t mean to startle you!”

Duncan forced a smile. “N-no. It’s okay, Mrs. Barclay. We just have...there’s somewhere we need to be.” Duncan looked around, desperately pleading with his eyes towards Keagan, who was waiting for him on the sidewalk.

“Now, Duncan MacDoyle! Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten what day it is!” She clicked her tongue against her teeth as she held a bag up and shook it at him. “Your father would be none too pleased to hear that you’ve forgotten about Auld Moira!”

Keagan came towards them, as Duncan’s eyes darted wearily back and forth between she and Mrs. Barclay. “Of course, I haven’t forgotten. It’s just...uh, actually...there is some place that we do have to be.”

Cora Barclay shook her head, sighing as she ushered the group of school kids past them as they streamed out from the wooden doors of the mill. “Now, your important appointment can wait for but a few minutes, no? It is for the good of the town, after all.”

“What is?” Keagan asked, wrinkling her brow.

“You mean he hasn’t told you about Auld Moira? Rotting Moira? Tsk, tsk, Duncan MacDoyle!” Cora looked at him squarely, her expression a mixture of amusement and an underlying tincture of disapproval as if she were just waiting for him to make a wrong answer so she could scold him. “You do remember what tonight is?

“Rotting Moira? No...I don’t think I’ve heard that story yet.” Keagan smiled politely at Cora, stealing uneasy glances at Duncan, who desperately wanted to be anywhere but here.

“Well, today is the kick-off for the town’s annual Mill Days Festival. Every year since the town was found back in the early 1800’s, there has been a festival to welcome Spring,” Cora said. She smiled and held the bag open for Keagan to peer inside. “Back in the old days, our elders used a rabbit or possum. Live! But we’ve become much more civilized over the years.”

Keagan reached into the bag, pulling out a yellow rubber duck. “What are they for?”

“Well, This little mill town has always relied upon the water...obviously, the water is the very life blood of Millbrook. And the elders, who came over from Scotland, very deeply believed that the water was to be feared and respected, and not taken for granted. Because when it was...when the townfolk got a little careless and forgot what we owed to the river, bad things would happen.”

“And you still uphold that tradition today? That’s great!” Keagan said.

“Indeed! Every Spring, the townfolk hold a festival...The Equinox, The Running of the Aubrey...what we now call Mill Days. One month of events that bring the community together to pay homage to the life-giving rivers and lakes upon which our humble little town was built.”

“Oh, is that what all the banners are for?” Keagan pointed down the main strip where the red and white banners that had been tied to the black iron lamp posts flapped in the breeze.

“Exactly that. All of this is just a reminder to the children in town, the ones whose parents might not be as stringent in keeping up tradition as they used to.”

“That’s tough,” Keagan said. “People grow up and move away.”

“And forget about where they came from and the rules of that place.”

Duncan couldn’t help but notice Cora looking pointedly at him.

“So, Moira,” Keagan said. “What does she have to do with all this?”

 “Well, as I said, this was an old fear, mind you. A superstition that the elders told the young ones to keep them in line. There was a story that our mums and das told us when we were growin’ up. It started long ago, back home in Scotland, about an old river hag who would sit at the bottom of the river and would reach up with her long claws and pull mischievous children underwater if they forgot to respect the river. She would tie them up with tendrils of duckweed so they couldn’t escape.”

Keagan laughed nervously. “Wow. That sounds like a scary thing to tell kids.”

“That may be, but it keeps our children safe.”

“And, the ducks?” Keagan said, holding hers up and turning it around in her hand.

“Back in the old days, a rabbit or runt hog was given to the river.”

“You mean...sacrificed?”

“Better that than one of our children, my dear.” Cora scoffed as she plucked the rubber duck back from Keagan and tossed it back into the bag with the others.

Keagan turned to Duncan. “I can’t believe you haven’t told me this story before!”

“Why am I not surprised to hear that? Duncan was never one for tradition, isn’t that right, Cousin?” Connor had come out of the mill, closing the big wooden doors behind him with a deep low thud, holding out two large bags for Mrs. Barclay to take.

Duncan suddenly seized Keagan’s hand. “We really need to go. Now.”

As he tried to pull Keagan towards the car, Mrs. Barclay interjected, reaching out for Duncan and clutching his sleeve as she maneuvered he and Keagan away from the mill and around the corner to where all the school kids had convened. “Now, now. You can wait just a few moments, Duncan MacDoyle. You wouldn’t want to upset Auld Moira, now...would yeh?”

Duncan sighed, which only made Connor snicker as he brushed past them.

“You’d better get in on the ceremony, Duncan. But I guess you don't want to get too close. We all know what happens when Auld Moira isn’t appeased.”

Duncan shot Connor a look filled with such hatred, that his face flushed bright red. Keagan tried to calm him, talking to him in slow, soft tones.

“Come on, Dunc. What harm can it do?” She coaxed him towards the group of kids, who were each excitedly plucking a bright yellow duck from the bags that Cora and Connor were holding out to them.

“That’s not the point, Keagan. I just don’t want to be all.” He glared at a large stone building across the street. “ I knew I shouldn’t have come back here.”

Keagan followed his gaze. “What is it?”

“It's Foundry Hall.”

“, do you think your dad’s in there?”

“He’s probably looking at us right now,” Duncan shivered. He looked tentatively up at the top floor, hoping he wouldn't see his father staring back down at them. Duncan suddenly had the urge to run. He knew he was going to have to see his father eventually. But he certainly wasn’t ready to see him yet, especially not here, in front of half the town.

“Let’s just do this and get it over with. The quicker we do it, the quicker we can go be with your sister. That’s why we came, Duncan.”

As they joined the crowd, Duncan recognized many of the faces of townspeople he had known growing up in Millbrook. A few of them nodded their recognition, and Duncan smiled weakly, clinging even more closely to Keagan’s arm.

As he turned to avoid their gazes, Connor was already addressing all who had gathered.

“Myself, the Millbrook Preservation Society and the entire town of Millbrook would like to welcome you, the students of Creighton Elementary, to the opening of the Dornach County Mill Days Festival.”

The kids hooted and hollered while the older people clapped.

Connor continued. “In this, our 190th year of Mill Days, we are proud to have you joining us in one of the longest running festivals in the country.”

“Now, if everyone in the crowd could take their ducks and hold them up high...” Connor waited while the chatter and giggles reverberated throughout the crowd as everyone held their fluorescent yellow ducks in the air.

“How many of you from Creighton Elementary know why we all have our ducks today? Keep your hands up if you know the answer!”

The kids cheered, shouting, “Moira! It’s because of Moira! Rotting Moira needs to eat!”

“That’s right! We all have to keep Auld Moira Mochie happy!” Connor held the microphone out over their heads, smirking in Duncan’s direction as the kids all chanted in unison.

“Into the rocky water, down in the frigid pool. Swim in the swirling river, and drown with Old Moira, you fool.”

Duncan's stomach churned at the sound, the very words he himself had been taught back in grammar school with all the other kids. He immediately had flashes of himself at 5, standing in this very spot, all the kids in town holding their ducks up high and singing the song they had been practicing all winter in class.

Connor brought the microphone back up to his mouth. “I don’t hear all of you singing! Duncan!” he shouted out, causing all kids to start twisting and turning in their spots as they tried to figure out who Connor was singling out. “Come on, Cousin! You may have been away for almost 10 years, but I’m sure you still know the words.”

Duncan swore under his breath. “Fucking asshole...”

Connor laughed into the mike. “It looks like my cousin forgot the words. That’s what happens when you move to the city and forget about your roots. Come on, kids. Let’s refresh his memory! Everyone over to the banks!” Connor waved his arms in a huge arc in the air, and the crowd started to flow to the spot behind the mill where the water flowed down the stepped rocks towards the edge of the river.

As the kids and some of the town folk congregated by the swollen river banks, Duncan gulped. “There's no way I’m going down there!” He pulled at Keagan’s sleeve as he fought against the flow of the crowd. “Let’s get out of here!”

As they turned to go, Duncan could hear Connor as he egged the kids on, singing the song for Rotting Moira, and all at once, a surge of screams wafted up from the crowd gathered around the edges of the Strand as they all tossed their rubber ducks into the current. Duncan and Keagan plodded up the street, back to the front of the mill where the car was parked. As they crossed over the bridge, Duncan stole a few glances over his shoulder and watched as the ducks careened under the bridge, bobbing along with the current, some of the ducks getting caught in chinks of ice, or in fallen branches that poked out from the surface of the river.

“It all seems kind of harmless,” Keagan said softly as she trudged beside him.

Duncan scoffed. “That's because they aren't using dead rabbits or piglets like in the ‘good olde days’.”

Keagan clicked her tongue against her teeth. “Duncan! Lighten up!”

He stopped mid-stride, glaring at her incredulously. “I can’t believe you would say that to me. You know what happened to my mother. Fuck!” He snatched the car door open. “Let's go.”

Keagan got in the passenger side. “I didn’t mean anything by it. I know what happened to your mom was awful. I was just trying to...make things a little lighter. To ease the tension.”

“Well done, then. Stellar job. I feel a thousand times better. The trauma of my mom drowning in the river has magically disappeared with your lame jokes. Well done!"

Duncan forcefully turned the key in the ignition, revving the engine to punctuate his anger before flipping the gear and backing the car out of its spot.

As he maneuvered the car up the street, Keagan said nothing. She slumped back in her seat, looking absently out the window at the tiny snowflakes that had started to drift down from the storm clouds that had been hanging threateningly over their heads the entire way there.

As Duncan maneuvered the car back up the slightly sloping hill toward his family homestead, flashes of his childhood came rushing back to him. His Uncle Desmond had taught him how to navigate this road long before he could even see over the dashboard. It had become a Sunday ritual the year he turned 13. Every Sunday, after church and dinner and the chores were done, his Uncle would scrape his chair back from the table, reach over to tousle his hair and purr a "Wha' do ya' say, boy?".

They passed the post office, turning down Lake Street to the west side of town. The houses were mostly hidden in the shadows now that the sun had started to set, but Duncan could still make them out. It was almost as if the scenes he had buried in the back of his mind of this place were super-imposing themselves over what he was seeing with his own two eyes.

The old Wright house still had the same porch swing as he remembered, and it still creaked as it swung slightly in the evening breeze that came up off the Strand River.

Further down the road, he could already spot the outline of the barn of his old next-door neighbors, the Cayles. As they grew nearer, his stomach did somersaults as Ryleigh's face flashed in his mind. He hadn't seen her since he left, but he was sure that her red hair was the same, her grey eyes still as enticing as he remembered. He had to admit, being back in town was strange, but as he drove past her house and the car headlights illuminated it for a moment, he could have sworn he saw himself as an 8-year-old, leaning against the barn with his head burying in the crook of one arm, counting aloud while the rest of the local kids scattered and scrambled for a hiding spot.

Keagan stirred beside him, and the reverie faded, just as the barn had also in the past eight years. Duncan could see the chipping paint now, and noticed that the old rooster weather mane on the top of the barn slumped to the left as the roof now seemed to be slumping on one side.

"How much further, babe? I'm starving!"

Duncan slowed the car as they came to a small dirt road, and swung it to the right. A few yards in, he stopped the car and turned it off. Still holding onto the steering wheel, he turned slowly to look at her.

"We're here."

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