I started writing this story about five years ago. The first eight chapters and most of the ninth were written in years past, but I managed to stumble across them while extremely bored and decided that I actually liked them and wanted to continue--and finish--the story. After some minimal tweaking... Here is chapter one! I hope you enjoy!

"And I was thinking to myself, this could be heaven or this could be hell…"-- "Hotel California," by the Eagles

Chapter One

Verity Justice awoke in darkness. She lay still for a moment, then slowly drew the covers up to her chin, shivering inside at the thought of being alone in the dark. She gathered up her courage, then reached out to the right feeling around for the lamp switch. Her flailing, trembling hand met nothing.

Then she remembered with a start where she was. Reality became even more suffocating than the darkness.

Verity sat up and reached to the left, jerking the chain of the unfamiliar lamp. Light burst into the darkness, expelling it, and revealing a small, neat bedroom with dark blue walls. It was Verity's new bedroom, in Verity's new home.

She glanced at the alarm clock under the lamp. Big, red numbers and letters read "4:11 am." Verity sighed. Too early to wake up, too late to go back to sleep. She leaned back into her pillow, closing her eyes, feeling disoriented, as if she were in between reality and dreams. The feeling was almost physical, grabbing hold of her insides and twisting them.

You're in Abode, North Carolina now, Verity. You're not home anymore. Don't you remember?

She sighed and sat up again, brushing her long, straight red hair back from her face. Since I'm up, I might as well fix breakfast or something…

Verity had never been a coffee-person. A natural early riser, she had never felt the need for the beverage, and she had never liked its bitter aftertaste. But now, her first morning in her new home, she had definitely felt the need for some good, strong coffee. The warmth of the mug felt good in her hands as she stood on her new front porch, looking out at the scenery before her.

The little house she was now renting stood on the outskirts of the tiny town of Abode, one of those has-been places filled with abandoned buildings and old cars. It was a quiet place, a perfect place to escape the unfortunate events that still made Verity feel slightly sick to her stomach. The false accusations of cruel, hateful people still echoed in her mind…

"Hello there! Are you the artist?"

Verity moved her gaze from the ivy-covered brick of an abandoned trains station to the person standing at the bottom of her steps. She smiled. Her visitor was an older man, dressed nicely in black slacks and a white button-up shirt. "Yes. That would be me." She motioned for him to join her on the porch. "The name's Verity Justice," she said, sitting in her porch swing.

The elderly gentlemen sat in the wicker rocking chair across from her. He reached out a hand toward his hostess, a warm smile on his face. "James Manson."

"Nice to meet you, Mr. Manson," Verity said, shaking his hand. "I suppose the whole town knows about me by now."

James laughed, and the sound of human laughter warmed Verity's chilled soul. "Right you are, Miss Justice! Small towns!" He shook his head, grinning. "I heard someone once say that God made the country, Man made the cities, and the Devil made the small towns."

Verity laughed. She had not laughed in awhile, and it felt strange. Her throat felt rusty. But she laughed anyway. "I'm inclined to agree with that, Mr. Manson," she said wryly, thinking of the small town she had abandoned for this one.

"Call me James," the older man said. His eyes were gray-blue--and shrewd. "I can see that you may have experienced the Devil in a small town."

"Indeed," Verity said with a grimace. She crossed her arms over her chest, feeling suddenly insecure. "I hope I won't see any of him in this one…" She sighed, then stood quickly. "How rude I've been! Are you thirsty? I have some coffee made." She raised her mug.

"No thank-you, Miss Justice. I'm fine. Sit down."

Verity smiled as she sat, cradling her mug with both hands. "It's Verity."

"Good." James slapped one knee. "I like you already, Verity. You seem like a fine young lady."

"Thank-you. I like you, too," she replied.

"Well, I'll be going soon," said James. "I can't stay for long. I just wanted to see what kind of person you are. Some of the ones who came to this town…" He shook his head and stood. "I'd better hit the road."

Verity stood as well. "I'm glad you stopped by, James. I was feeling a bit… out of sorts."

"I'm glad I stopped by, too," he replied. "I'll have to take a look at your art sometime." He started down the steps, then halted abruptly and turned around, fixing Verity with a narrowed gaze. "Whatever you're running from, Verity Justice, I hope you find better here."

Verity swallowed down the lump that rose suddenly in her throat. "Me, too. Thanks."

"Farewell," said James, giving her a little bow. And then he was off, walking briskly by the dusty road, whistling an old song.

And then Verity was alone again. She stood there on the porch for awhile, sipping the sugar-laced coffee, looking out at the little town. It looked… forlorn, she thought. Sad, as if perhaps it missed its days of glory…

"Silly," she muttered to herself. "They're just buildings. It's just a town." But then she went back inside planning to paint the sadness she saw in the place.

She ate a cream-cheese coated bagel for breakfast, then read a little while. She was reading "The Great Divorce," by C.S. Lewis. It fascinated her how most of the characters in the story, given the choice between heaven and hell, chose hell. Most people probably would, she thought bleakly.

By the time 11:00 rolled around, she decided that she would go out to eat for lunch. She hurried to her bathroom and checked her makeup, then slung her pocketbook over her shoulder and headed for the door. Just as she was about to exit the house, her eyes were caught by the sight of the painting she had just painted. She stopped walking and stared at it. Had she really painted something so dark? The picture portrayed the ruins of a city under swirling storm clouds. The dark colors communicated a feeling of loss and loneliness.

Verity shivered involuntarily, then took a deep breath and walked out the door.

A few minutes later, she was parking her black Dodge Stealth in the parking lot of one of Abode's five restaurants--Mandy's Diner. At first she thought it was closed. The blinds--oddly dark in color--were drawn and shut, and there were only two other cars in the parking lot. Then, a middle-aged couple walked out the door of the little restaurant, and Verity knew it was opened.

She got out of her car, locked it, and went inside Mandy's Diner. She was instantly greeted by the smell of barbecue and the sound of bells jangling on the door.

"Hi there. Are you the artist?" came a call from behind the counter.

Verity smiled. Of course, everyone in this town of 700 probably knew exactly who she was. She met the curious stare of the slim, middle-aged woman behind the counter. "That's me."

"Just sit down somewhere, honey, and I'll send Tammy to get your order," the woman said cheerfully.

"Okay. Thanks." Verity made her way across the black and white tile floor to a red vinyl-covered booth in the corner. The place was classic--salt, pepper, ketchup, and "special sauce" placed around the metal napkin dispenser, metal ceiling fans, checkered floor, even a jukebox! Yes, everything in the diner was classic except for the dark blue blinds on the windows, blinds that were closed.

"What can I get for you?"

Verity looked up at her waitress, a tall, thin young woman with wildly crimped dark hair who could very well have stepped out of an 80s movie. "Uhm… do you have a menu?"

"Oh! Yeah! How stupid of me!" The girl rolled her eyes at herself. "Hang on just a sec! I'll go get you one!" She turned and rushed toward the counter, then was back in a flash with a plastic-covered, tri-folding menu. "Here ya go. Holler when you're ready." And she was off again.

Verity looked over the menu for a few minutes before making her choice, then lifted her eyes from the paper, searching for Tammy the 80s waitress. She felt a bit nervous about actually "hollering" for the girl and hoped to get her attention some other way. Finally, the girl emerged from a saloon-style swinging door behind the counter, and Verity waved at her.

"You ready, Miss Justice?" Tammy called.

"Yes!" Verity replied. It did not surprise her in the least that Tammy knew her name.

Tammy quickly made her way to Verity's booth and took her order, which consisted of chicken strips with barbecue sauce and a medium lemonade. It turned out to be very good--classic, small town, home-style fare. Verity ate the chicken, drank the lemonade, left a tip, paid at the counter, and left the restaurant.

With its dark blue blinds and rounded edges, Mandy's Diner looked like a storm cloud in her rearview mirror.

The house smelled like paint. The smell was not unpleasant, but being susceptible to headaches, Verity knew that she needed to get out of the house and get some fresh air. She could see the dying rosebushes swaying in the wind outside her kitchen window, so she figured it would be chilly outside. Taking this into account, Verity slipped her navy blue pea coat over her shoulders before going outside.

The sharp chill in the evening air felt bracing, and Verity breathed deeply of it. Savoring the coolness in her lungs, she began to walk. With no destination in mind, she wandered the dark and empty streets of Abode. Few lights were on in the buildings. Fewer people were out.

Verity walked along the sidewalk, familiarizing herself with the locations of all the important buildings--the pharmacy, the library, the grocery store. Soon, her wanderings led her to a very different place on the other side of town. She found herself gaping at the sprawling structure before her. It was a Victorian style mansion, complete with crenellation and towers, separated from the street by a high stone wall and a wrought iron gate.

Verity clung to the cold bars of the gate, green eyes wide.

"Impressive, isn't it?"

She jumped at the sound of the voice, eyes darting around. She discovered the source of the voice to be a young man, perched atop the stone wall. He was a slender, leanly muscular individual, with quite beautiful blue eyes. "Y-yes. Very impressive. Is it abandoned?"

"Abandoned? Hm. You could say that." He crossed his arms. "Who are you?"

Verity blinked. "You mean… You mean you don't know?"

The young man smiled wryly, tossing his head to clear his eyes of the strands of dark brown hair that had fallen over them. "Should I know?"

Verity shrugged, grinning. "Most everybody here knows. I'm new to town. Just moved in yesterday. My name is Verity. Verity Justice."

"Verity." His smile softened. "I like that. It means truth."

"Yes." She bit her lip, nervously twisting her hands together. "What's your name?" she asked finally.

"Riley Morgan at your service!" he announced grandly, leaping lightly from the wall and executing a graceful bow.

"Nice to meet you," Verity said, laughter lacing her voice.

Riley gave her a thoughtful gaze. His eyes were fringed by long, dark lashes, she noticed. "Why did you come here?" he asked curiously.

Verity froze, the smile slowly fading from her lips. "Uhm… Well, I'm--"

"I'm sorry." Riley held up a long, slender-fingered hand. "I'm being rude. I shouldn't have asked you that."

"No, no. It's okay." Why did she feel the need to explain herself to this young man? "I'll tell you. I had an… unfortunate experience in my old town. There were rumors about me--untrue ones. I had to get away--fast. So I did. And here I am."

"Ah. A refugee."

"Of sorts. Yes."

They smiled at each other.

"You interest me, Verity Justice," Riley said, moving closer to her, hands in the pockets of his black jacket. "I want to know more about you."

"Okay…" Verity bit her lip, wondering just what she had gotten herself into by choosing to take an evening stroll.

"Where do you live?" Riley asked.

"In the little brick house on Oak Avenue, just down the road from the laundry mat, across from the old train station," Verity told him without hesitance. Why the heck am I just trusting this guy? He could be a serial killer or something!

"May I come see you tomorrow?" Riley inquired.

"Yes," Verity said quietly. A pleasant chill ran through her body as she met his eyes. "I would like that."

"Good." Riley smiled crookedly. "Very good. When can I come?"

"Uhm… Whenever you want to, I suppose," Verity said. "I'm an artist. I work at home, so…" She shrugged. "Anytime's fine."

"Is 7:00 okay with you?"

"Sounds good." She could not help but smile then, biting her lip and clasping her fidgety hands in front of her. What was it about this attractive young man that made her feel so giggly and girlish? It had been ten years since ninth grade…

"So how old are you, anyway?" Riley asked suddenly.

Verity blinked. "Excuse me?"

"Ah, man! I'm sorry!" Riley ran a hand through his thick, straight hair, smiling sheepishly. "You don't ask a lady her age."

"It's okay." Verity gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "I'm twenty-three."

"Ah." Riley smirked. "So young to be living off your art!"

"You can't be that much older than me," Verity countered, exhilarated at this testing of her wits.

Riley raised an eyebrow, standing akimbo. For a moment, he looked as if he was going to laugh. Then he said simply, "I am older than you."

"How much?" asked Verity

"Not telling," said Riley, a playful edge to his smooth voice. "Now it's my turn for a question. Is your art your only form of income?"

Verity grinned. "Not telling."

"Ah." Riley was grinning as well, slender-fingered hands shoved deep in the pockets of his black jacket. "Well I'll just have to find out by getting to know you better, won't I?"

If I smile any wider, my face is going to crack! Verity thought. "I guess you will," she replied.

Riley's smile suddenly faded, and he took a step closer to Verity. "I'd better be… You'd better be getting home, Verity. It's late. Be careful in this town, will ya?"

Verity blinked. "Uhm… Okay. Is there something I should know?"

Riley's smile returned, but this time, it touched his eyes with a hint of something bittersweet. "Don't worry. I'll look out for you, alright?"

"Alright." Verity felt her insides tighten at the thought of this handsome young man taking care of her…

"Hey, how about I walk you home?" Riley suggested, offering her his arm.

"I'd like that," said Verity, looping her arm through his.

As they walked down the dark streets of Abode, Verity could not help but get the feeling that something enormous was about to happen in the little town. Sneaking a glance at Riley, she wondered if maybe it already had…