Toxic Friendships Book One
by Adrian Lilly
File Size: 446 KB
Print Length: 238 pages
Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
About the book:
Something sinister is happening at Grove University...
Some nights the woods on the edge of campus glow with a spectral, shimmering red haze. Marne Montgomery knows—she’s seen it.
She also saw a figure in the haze. He beckoned to her and then vanished.
Marne laughs off the incident until her roommate, Sara Murdock, shows her a picture of a student. The one Marne saw in the woods.
But he’s been dead for more than a year.
Suddenly, Marne and Sara are tangled in a secret that threatens their college careers—and their lives. Their only hope is to find the cause of the red haze…
Before someone else dies.
Red Haze is a haunting psychological thriller that hovers between the spectral and the natural, blurring the lines between remembrance and regret, dedication and obsession, justice and revenge.
Brad Rogers tightened his tie as he pushed through the front door of the Rho Epsilon Delta fraternity house and skidded down the steps to the street where his car was parked. A hangover pounded across the front of his head, and he was running late for his internship. The sun only hinted at rising, tinting the clouds above him a pale pink, and gloom hung in the early morning haze. He stepped in a puddle from rain the night before and felt the water splash up on his calf. “Shit.”
His internship, mandatory as a business major, was a bit of a pain in the ass as far as he was concerned. He had done his best to avoid morning classes only to be in an office at eight in the morning. He figured he would have enough of that once he graduated. He shook his head in disgust and started the car. He rubbed his bloodshot eyes and ran his hand over his short, brown hair before throwing the car into gear.
The wipers slapped across the windshield in a slow beat, clearing the light drops of rain that gathered on the glass. The row of sorority and fraternity houses pulled away into miniature dollhouse versions in his rearview mirror as Brad pulled onto a main thoroughfare. He fiddled with the radio as he coasted to a red light. He looked at the clock: 7:55. Being five minutes late isn’t such a big deal.
By lunch, his headache had subsided and his half day at the office was over. The owner of the company had felt differently about being five minutes late, and Brad was still fuming about getting his ass chewed. But, he needed a letter of recommendation after college and it counted toward his grade for his business class. He decided he would make an extra effort not to drink before his next day at the office. But it’s rush week—what do they expect?
As Brad stuck the keys in the ignition, he noticed a piece of paper on the passenger seat. It was folded in fours. He picked it up and flipped it over. Trust no one was written on the paper.
Brad huffed and shook his head and unfolded the paper. His jaw tightened as an image printed on the paper bore into his eyes and the night it captured tore through his brain. He could feel the cold of that January night. He could feel his swollen jaw. He could feel the tracks of the tears on his cheeks. He could feel the panic that shook his body coursing through his veins—again.
A still from a video was printed on the sheet. The video showed Brad, ringleader of the hazing on the night a student, Wes German, died.
Brad folded the sheet back up and laid it on the seat and folded his hands in his lap.
He turned suddenly and looked in the backseat. It was empty. But it’s in my car!
How did it get in my fucking car? Brad thought: Was the door locked just now? He didn’t notice but he always locked his car, or so he thought. He doubted the note could have been there this morning and he didn’t see it. But he had been in a rush and hung over. Was the car locked this morning?
And last night—it was a blur. A group had hit a couple bars in town. Who had been in his car? Reg. Kip. A couple of pledges. Their names wouldn’t come to him right now. “Think. Think.” He hit the steering wheel.
Trust no one.
Was this a warning—or advice? He wondered. Brad looked around to make sure no one else was in the parking lot. He snatched the paper and unfolded it again. The image showed him so clearly. His mind brought the night into sharp relief. He followed Wes into the woods and found him disconnecting a camera from a tree. Brad had never seen the footage on Wes’s camera. Was this it? But Reg had destroyed it, or so he told Brad.
Trust no one.
Reg had been in his car last night. Brad knew that for sure. Shit! Reg has been my best friend since junior high! Brad tried to start the car but his hand was shaking too much to get the key in the ignition. Would Reg and Staci be doing this? Would they try to find their way out of what they had all three done? The thoughts tumbled through Brad’s mind, making him feel both betrayed and betrayer. Brad’s instinct was to confront them. Beat it out of them if he had to. He felt the rage build within him. He clenched his hands around the steering wheel. They had told him to hide the body. It was their idea. His headache roared back to life as blood pounded in his temples. His mouth felt dry and pasty. Panicked gasps caught in Brad’s tight throat, made him feel like he was suffocating. He pulled on the knot of his tie and puffed out his flushed cheeks in a great exhale. Brad took a slow, deep breath and waited. He clenched his eyes closed and counted silently. What if it isn’t them? What if someone else knows?
Trust no one.
Brad took another deep breath and stuck his key in the ignition. He had to figure out who sent the letter without letting anyone else know he received it. He had to find the sender of the note and stop him. At all costs.
Spring Rush Week
Chapter 1: Thursday
An obsidian silence unfurled around Marne Montgomery as she stepped out of earshot of the Greek side of campus. Her heels clicked on the sidewalk, a sharp crack in the night air. Marne cast her eyes from side-to-side, suspicious of the shadows washing toward the sidewalk, like the ocean at night. Beacons of halogen lamps dropped halos of light onto the path, cutting the darkness that crept from the woods between campus and Greek Row.
Marne shivered and pulled her sweater tighter around her shoulders. The night had grown colder while she was at the Alpha Pi Omega house, attending her first activity of rush week. The event had been only slightly demeaning: the sisters perused the rushes and decided who could stay and who should not bother. Marne found herself hoping, partially, to be let go; however, she feared her boyfriend, Brad Rogers, would have something to do with her success. Brad was president of the Rhos, Rho Epsilon Delta, basically the older brother fraternity for the Pi’s. Brad had encouraged Marne to rush; he was “sure she’d get in.”
The event was billed as an opportunity to learn more about the sorority, but, in reality, was a chance for the sisters to scrutinize rushes and decide who would be asked to pledge. Marne had watched as hopefuls—some who actually thought they had a chance but never did—took pamphlets and eagerly asked questions and listened with keen interest. For Marne that was the most dreadful part, watching others who desperately wanted to fit in and knowing how rejected they would ultimately feel.
Staci Gallagher, a senior and self-appointed queen of the sorority, had led a presentation on the history of the sorority. Photos of famous alumna were sprinkled with tedious trivia about the founding, past, present, and future of the sorority. Marne had spent much of the presentation imagining herself on a beach, bathing in the sun. She had become so engrossed, she could almost smell the salt air, hear the gulls call.
Marne tossed one last glance back at the sorority house. Staci seemed a little too involved in her success for Marne’s tastes. Any attention or involvement from Staci was too much as far as Marne was concerned. If asked, Marne would have lied and said she liked Staci, though she could easily pinpoint a number of traits she hated: Staci’s obsessive concern for her looks and banal tastes in food and clothes as well as the fact that Staci seemed completely apathetic to any suffering besides her own. But Marne’s distrust and animosity went deeper. Marne knew that inside Staci lurked a truly malicious being wrapped and covered in a sticky, gooey, girly façade.
Greek Row, where all the fraternities and sororities stood, was separated from the sheer masses of the campus by a river and stretch of thin woods that split the Grove University campus. The woods—about three acres wide—ran along the river where warehouses and businesses once stood. Old corner stones and even rusting wrought iron fences from buildings littered the woods. Such finds felt haunting, mysterious, like an archaeological dig, though the history of the street was well documented. The buildings had been destroyed by fire, though Marne couldn’t remember when. The river, seemingly small, had once been a channel for commerce. Now a recreational path wound along the edge between the river and woods and connected to a state forest on the other side of campus. How the world had changed! Marne thought.
When stepping out of the Pi House, Marne considered visiting Brad, then asking him to walk her home, but decided against it. The night was seeping away quickly and she had some reading to do; she wouldn’t be able to drag herself away from him in any time shorter than an hour.
Besides, the moon was full and cold and quiet of the night felt like comfortable companions. The lights and vociferous joy of the Greek side of campus dwindled behind her as she followed the path away from Greek Row and into the woods.
Silence cloaked the woods. During the summer, she imagined the woods alive with bird calls and scurrying animals. Tonight, the night was crisp and clear and the wind still. Her footsteps crunched on the gravel path. A gray haze hung to the edge of the woods and filtered across the path ahead of her. As she approached, the fog dissipated, like a mirage chased and never found, though when she looked behind her, she could no longer see Greek Row through the haze.
Suddenly, in the near woods, a sound startled Marne. Footsteps fell, loud, and trampling. She fumbled in her pocket for a can of Mace—you could never be too careful, rapists abound on college campuses—and she cursed herself for not walking with it in her hand. She directed her eyes away from her pocket to the origin of the noise.
She saw nothing.
Her hand slid from her pocket freeing the can of Mace. Marne turned, looking in all directions. Around her, slowly at first, the haze crept toward her, enclosed her like a slowly moving fist. She unintentionally gasped as the night grew noticeably colder within the fog’s grasp. Marne shivered and hugged her arms to her body. She trudged onward.
The thick haze blinded her. She couldn’t see the bend in the path that signified that she was nearing her side of campus, but she could hear the bubbling of the river, so knew she must be near. Her feet clicked off the gravel and onto the wooden bridge.
She walked to the edge of the bridge and peered into the water just a few feet below. Mist clung to its surface but she could see the turbid swirls of the river below her. Now, the river was at a winter low and it wound its way through campus, as it did during the summer, as an innocent, delightful addition to the campus. The sound of it was soothing and the woods around it offered a place to picnic in the shade.
But in the spring, the river would swell menacingly. Over the years, several students had died in the river, trying to swim, often drunkenly, when they shouldn’t have. The deaths had even spurred a campus legend that a madman was hunting students and drowning them. But, the deaths had happened over so many years, the killer would now have to be in his seventies and incapable of luring a young, fit man to his doom like a Siren. The idea of stumbling across the folded clothes and shoes of a fellow student on the shore, and knowing that the student’s body would later be dredged from the river was disconcerting, and was the stuff of urban legends, but toxicology reports always confirmed the obvious: drunken stupidity.
Marne’s roommate, Sara Murdock, had written an article for the school paper just the year before after another young man had died in these very woods after a night of drinking—according to the article. Marne squeezed the railing and shivered. Listening to the river now, Marne felt it hard to imagine the torrent it could become and the toll it could take, as it bubbled over the rocks, splashing and ceaselessly seeking a place to run. Marne felt like that at times; she felt that she was constantly seeking the next place to run. She had felt that way since her brother, James, had died. She wanted to run from her last horrible memories of him, of his blood, his gasping for breath; she wanted to run from what it had done to her family: her medicated mother and alcoholic father; she wanted to run from the obligation she felt to fill the deep, gaping chasm left by his absence. Most of all, she wanted to run from her guilt. She should have saved him.
Marne felt the heavy melancholy that dangled above her head at all times straining to break free and crush her. She swiped at the tears on her cheeks. Suddenly, she shivered violently as the night grew damp and cold around her and she felt someone standing next to her.
She looked behind her. Marne gasped.
The mist hovering at the edge of the woods swirled and radiated red. A red glow emanated from somewhere within the woods and reflected on the countless water droplets that hung in the air, turning the mist sinister, surreal. The light pulsed, turning the mist red again, then faded, and pulsed again, in quick, repetitive bursts that colored the night like a beacon. “What the hell?” She stepped away from the bridge and back onto the gravel path. The gravel crunched under feet.
Marne took another step into the mist. She felt her feet slide in the wet grass as she stepped off the path. A slow moving figure trudged through the mist along the edge of the woods. “Hello?” She called. Marne stepped closer to the woods, her Mace raised. The figure was a young man, about her age. He paused and glanced back at her; their eyes locked. He hesitated only a moment before parting branches and vanishing into the red haze.
“Wait!” Marne called. “Oh, God, please, wait!” She took a few timid steps into the woods then stopped, resting her hand on a tree. Around her, the mist stopped glowing. As the red glow retreated deeper into the woods, the mist became the simple, pale-gray it had been when she started into the woods. The boy was nowhere in sight.
Shaking, Marne stepped back onto the path. She glanced back over her shoulder and peered into the still woods. The haze hovered between the trees, motionless, colorless. The waters below her continued to murmur. She trudged onto the bridge, her footsteps hollow and heavy on the wood, her heart pounding. Once across the bridge, she sprinted away from what she had seen.
Chapter 2: Friday
The haunting quiet of the campus shifted over Marne with the cold January air. Most students would return to Grove University the following week, when the semester began. Rush Week, when hopefuls visited various sororities, ran the week before the semester started.
Walking through a campus not yet alive with the hum of students bustling to classes or chattering on the walks felt like a stroll through a long forgotten city. Though frost glittered on the grass and cold air slithered across her cheeks, Marne remembered the feeling of an abandoned Pueblo she had seen when she was a child on a family vacation. She and James sprinted through the sand, kicking up dust, and talked about the children who must have played there hundreds of years before them. Then they stopped, silent, and grasped the creeping eeriness that swept an empty, abandoned landscape. Though they had not told each other what they were thinking, Marne always felt that James shared her sentiment.
Empty spaces from that day forward reminded her of that one quiet moment.
Despite the cold, Marne stopped in the quad, near a fountain turned off for the season. The outstretched arms of the fountain’s stone maiden loomed above her, casting a V-shaped shadow on the pavement. Marne closed her eyes. She embraced the quiet, the aloneness. Concentrating, she could hear muffled laughter, and traffic, farther still. A tear slid from under her closed eye, and she instinctively reached up and swiped it, leaving a cold, wet smear on her cheek.
Marne opened her eyes to the harsh white morning light and grimaced. Still three days until the campus would be filled with students, including Sara. Marne missed Sara. The winter break felt long and arduous at her house. Marne had not looked forward to the holidays. Her parents threw their annual New Year’s Eve party. Every conversation, every moment shared with her parents felt like glass crackled and ready to shatter. Marne tired of watching her father slug down scotch and her mother pop prescription pills. Her family had become a farce and only she could see it.
Rush Week for Marne became an early escape—one encouraged by her mother. Her mother, Tabitha, was a Pi alumna, making Marne a legacy. Her mother reveled in the idea of Marne following in her footsteps.
“Why are you standing in the cold?”
Marne startled, though she recognized the voice. “Hey, Kip.” Marne smiled. Kip was a member of Brad’s fraternity. “I was just enjoying having the campus to myself before next week.”
Kip shoved his hands in his coat pockets. “I bet you’re not even checking out any other sororities.” Kip spoke with a bravado she could tell he did not feel, parroting Brad and the other fraternity brothers he worshipped. Marne detested Kip.
Marne chuckled. “The Pis are the only sorority.”
Kip nodded. “Good to hear.” His awkward smile split his lips. “I like the idea of you as our kid sister.”
The words stung her. Marne’s eyes narrowed, stern. “I’ll never be your kid sister, Kip.” She closed her eyes and turned her back to him dismissively. “Never forget that.”
She listened as his hurried footsteps retreated. She wondered, only momentarily, if Kip would mention the run-in to Brad. Marne smiled again, feeling the cold air tiptoe across her face.
The need for the next three days to pass shivered across Marne’s skin and she hugged herself. She walked toward her dorm to dress for the next event of Rush Week.
* * * *
Marne was studying her face in the mirror, applying make-up, when someone knocked at the dorm room door. “Just a moment,” she called. The knock was unexpected, as the campus was still mostly deserted. The urban legend about the murderer in the dorm room and the dying roommate knocking for help popped into her head. Marne rolled her eyes at herself and walked to the door. “Who is it?” She asked before opening the door.
“Brad. You expecting another guy?”
Marne eased the door open and leaned her shoulder against it, blocking him from entering. “Maybe I already have another guy in here,” she said coyly.
“Then I’ll have to kick his ass.”
Marne stepped aside, letting Brad in. ‘Don’t get any funny ideas. I’m ready for the sorority meeting tonight.”
Brad chuckled. “I just stopped by to walk you over.” He smiled. “But, now that you mention…”
Marne slapped his chest playfully. “I’ll get my coat.” She walked across the room and looked in the mirror again.
Brad stood by the door and a disapproving look crossed his face. “Sara’s side of the room is so”—he paused looking for a word—“proper.”
“Sometimes I think the only reason you want me to join the sorority is so we don’t room together anymore.”
“It’s a perk. True that.”
Marne pulled her coat on. “Why don’t you like Sara?”
“She’s a bad influence.”
“Ha!” Marne huffed. “Sara? A bad influence? I study more because of Sara.” Marne shook her head. “No, you don’t like Sara because she’s smart.”
Brad raised his hands in mock defense. “Hey! I know you guys are BFFs.” He rolled his head back and forth. “I just think she’s a troublemaker. And she’s not as smart as she thinks she is.”
“No? Why do you say that?”
Brad pulled Marne close and kissed her on the nose. “She can’t stand me. How smart is that?”
* * * *
Marne stifled a yawn and turned her head discreetly. A projector cast images of smiling children on the wall as Staci beamed about the money the sorority raised in the previous year for the Ronald McDonald House. The meeting tonight was to acquaint would-be Pis with the ebullient and charitable nature needed to be a member. The charitable acts, Marne admired; Staci’s self-congratulatory tone she did not.
A sister flipped the lights on and Staci continued. “Our theme this year is ‘One Planet. One World.’ All of our charitable causes revolve around the environment.”
Sisters and hopefuls alike clapped as Staci troubled to appear humble. A smug smile pinched her face and she said, “Feel free to mingle.”
Staci saddled up to Marne at the hors d’oeuvres table. “So what did you think?”
Marne raised her napkin to her lips and dabbed. “I found it rather informative. I wonder how you decide on a theme for the year.” She knew asking questions was good. It made her seem interested.
“I’m so glad you asked that!” Staci’s face split in a too-large-to-be-sincere smile. “We have a charity committee, but we vote as Sisters.”
“Very democratic. I like that.”
Staci nodded. “You’re a sophomore now.”
Staci shook her head. “So, why didn’t you rush sooner? Your mother was a Pi after all.”
Marne was prepared for the question. “I really needed to focus on scholastics. I had a fear freshman year would be tough—and it was.”
“Hmm.” Staci ladled Marne a cup of punch then ladled one for herself. She asked, “Where did you go to high school?”
“I went to an all-girls Catholic school. Saint Drausinus. It’s about an hour from here.”
Staci chuckled. “You’re practically a townie.” She leaned in conspiratorially. “But I won’t tell anyone.”
Marne met her gaze. “So is Brad, remember.”
“Well, he’s from the city.”
“So am I.” Marne rolled her eyes. “Well, the suburbs.”
Staci snorted. “Duh.” She sipped her punch. “Brad went to a boy’s school, didn’t he?”
Marne nodded. “Yeah. Saint Eustachius.”
“I can see why you worried about your freshman year. Brad’s on the five year plan.”
“So, we’ll find out this weekend if we’re going to be asked to pledge?” Marne changed the subject diplomatically.
Staci trailed her fingers across her throat absently as a syrupy smile cut a thin line across her face. “Yeah, but you have nothing to worry about.”
“There’s always something to worry about.” Marne sipped her punch and gazed over the rim at Staci.
Staci held her gaze a bit longer than Marne felt comfortable with, so she turned away. She could feel Staci’s eyes still on her, an unasked question stagnant in the air. “Are we going to the Rho’s party?” Marne asked evenly.
Staci smiled. “As soon as we’re done here.” Staci swept her hand over the table. “Be a dear and help me start clearing things.”
Staci, Marne, and a few other Pis and rushes trudged into the cold night air toward the Rho House. The jubilant group chattered and laughed down the sidewalk. Bass and clamoring music from competing parties rumbled down the street and seemed to collide and wrestle over them. As they approached the Rho house, the sound of their music became deafening, drowning out all competing noise.
* * * *
He watched from the woods. Silent. Still.
Darkness and cold drifted away, unknown to him. Hours ticked by and he waited. Branches, brushed by the wind, clicked against the trunks of trees. The phosphorous glow of the street lights washed the street and the students, huddled in bunches as they walked down the street, in ghostly white. This time of night felt real to him. Made him feel real.
Peals of laughter and hooting broke the silence of the night. As a door opened, music boomed onto the street and light danced on the faces of the newcomers to the party, a group of girls. Brad stood in the doorway in silhouette, welcoming the new partiers. His brusque baritone voice rose over the noise with a hardy welcome and drunken laughter.
The watchers’ eyes narrowed as hatred flooded his veins.
As the door closed, the shard of light from inside closed to a crack and died. He raised his hands to his mouth and blew on them to warm them.
One night, they would make a mistake. And he would be ready.
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