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“I want to go to that seafood restaurant again. The one with the all-you-can-eat crab legs?”
Eric nodded. “I remember it.”
“It was so good.”
“It was pricy.” He sat at the table, finishing up his coffee and watching his wife as she fluttered around the kitchen, cleaning up after breakfast.
“It was worth it,” she purred.
He supposed it was. Karen loved crab legs. It was one of her favorites. It made her happy.
“And that little fudge shop!”
“Can’t miss the fudge.” He finished his coffee and handed her his cup. He didn’t offer to help. He knew better. He’d just be in the way. The kitchen was Karen’s domain. She’d long ago claimed it as her own and now ruled it with the authority and grace of a queen. He’d given up trying to be helpful in here. No matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t seem to get the dishes clean enough to please her, or put them away in just the right places. Everything had to remain immaculately clean and tidy. There was a place for everything and everything was always in its place. Though you wouldn’t know it by the state of her disorganized closet or the chaotic mess that was her bathroom counter, in this room, nothing short of perfection would do.
He was equally useless when it came to cooking. He could barely make toast right. Any attempt he made to help her prepare food only slowed her down. The only thing he was good for in this room was retrieving things off the high shelves where she couldn’t reach. (And being somewhat shorter than average, he couldn’t even do that half the time without a stepstool.)
If he was a good boy and just sat quietly and stayed out of her way, she’d let him stay. Otherwise, she was likely to shoo him out of the room like a troublesome child until she was done.
Luckily, he remained useful throughout the rest of the house. He did a satisfactory job with the laundry and could fix most things when they broke. He managed the bills and mowed the lawn and shoveled the driveway. He earned his keep.
And of course he was the killer of the spiders. If nothing else at all, she’d keep him around just for that. Although she occasionally reminded him that lots of younger, fitter men could kill spiders too, just to keep him on his toes.
“We should take one of those dinner cruises on the lake, too,” she sighed. “Doesn’t that sound nice?”
She shot him a sour look. “Don’t be cheap. It’s our anniversary.”
“I’m not being cheap. I’m just being realistic. We spent a little extra last year because it was our ten-year anniversary. I don’t think we should get too carried away this year.”
She turned and leaned her back against the counter, pouting. “Eleven years is better than ten. Why shouldn’t we do it bigger this year?”
Eric smiled and let his eyes wash over her. She was wearing an oversized Packers tee shirt that barely covered her bottom and nothing more. Her long, brown hair spilled down over her shoulders, still disheveled from bed.
Eleven years ago, when they walked down the aisle, she was much slimmer, but he didn’t miss that tiny silhouette one bit. Borderline anorexic, she’d spent the previous seven years starving herself and desperately trying to climb out of her popular, prom queen older sister’s shadow. About the time he proposed to her (never because she was thin and beautiful, but because she was simply beautiful inside and out) she began to accept who she was and that she didn’t have to be anyone else. She allowed herself to gain back some of that middle-school weight that she’d hated so much and the result, Eric thought, was breathtaking. To this day, she remained exquisitely curvy and, in his opinion, extraordinarily sexy.
And as he sat staring at her now, he found that he really didn’t want to discuss their upcoming romantic getaway.
“What do you want to do?” she asked him.
Eric stood up and strolled around the table to where she stood. “I just want to be with you,” he told her, and then kissed her lips.
“Charming,” she said, smiling. “But you can be with me any day. What do you want to do this weekend?”
Eric kissed her cheek and then her neck. “I’ve got a few ideas,” he assured her as he slid his hands down the sultry curves of her waist and slipped them under the hem of the tee shirt.
“Whoa,” she said, pushing his hands away. “Down boy. We’re talking about our anniversary trip now.”
“We are,” he agreed, nipping at her ear. “It’s just a little preview.”
She pulled away from him and pushed his hands out from under her shirt again. “We’re not spending four hundred a night just to stay in the hotel room and play naughty nurse.”
Eric stood up straighter, his eyebrows raised. “Naughty nurse? Did you buy a new outfit?”
Karen pushed him, barely stifling a smile. “I was being sarcastic.”
He frowned. “So…no naughty nurse?”
“No. I’m not going away for the weekend just to play dress up for you.”
“I don’t understand. We’ll pay four hundred a night just to sleep somewhere, but not to—”
“Exactly. Yes. So no naughty anything.”
Eric kissed her again. “Well there’s always the French Maid.”
“I never should’ve let you talk me into buying that.”
“But you did.”
“I did. But I’m not packing it.”
“Aw. Why not?”
“This is our anniversary weekend. It’s not about you.”
He leaned back and looked at her, his eyes narrowed. “Not about me, huh?”
“Not about you,” she insisted. “It’s about me.”
“Why is it about you?”
“I’m your wife. That’s the way it is. Ask anyone.”
Again, he kissed her on the neck. This time she didn’t pull away.
“We still have to decide what all we’re doing this weekend.”
“We will. It’s only Wednesday. We don’t leave until Friday.” He slid his hands up under her shirt again and grasped her naked hips beneath it. She didn’t push his hands away.
“But I have so much to do before we leave,” she protested, even as she lifted her chin to let him kiss her neck. “I promised to make cookies for the church ice cream social. And I promised Shana Lesternap a dozen pies for the firehouse picnic.”
“Plenty of time,” Eric assured her.
“I have to get it all done by tomorrow evening.”
“No problem for Creek Bend’s resident culinary genius.”
“Now you’re just sucking up.”
“Maybe. But you’re still the most talented woman I’ve ever known.”
Karen made a fair amount of money as a freelance baker and cake decorator. It was rare for a social event to take place in this town without something delicious made in this very kitchen.
“You promise to help me plan?”
He continued to kiss her neck. “Of course I do.”
Eric kissed her lips again.
She kissed him back.
He thought it was going to be a very good day.
Then the damn doorbell rang.
“You’ve got to be freaking kidding me,” grumbled Eric, his voice muffled against his wife’s probing lips.
She giggled and kissed him again.
He didn’t want to stop. He squeezed her bottom and pulled her closer, kissing her harder.
Again, the doorbell rang.
Karen laughed. “Get the door, stud.”
“They’ll go away.”
She pushed him away. “Just get the door.”
Eric sighed and turned away.
Whoever was at the door began knocking.
“This’d better be really important!”
Behind him, Karen laughed again.
When he opened the door, Eric found a teenage boy with tousled black hair and hauntingly dark eyes staring back at him. He was dressed in a too-big tee shirt, torn blue jeans and worn-out tennis shoes.
“Are you Eric Fortrell?” the boy asked.
Eric wanted badly to lie, but he nodded.
“I’m Jude Thorngood, sir. We need your help.”
I’m sure you do, thought Eric. These kids tended to show up several times a year, typically selling candy bars, cookies or coupon books. Occasionally magazine subscriptions. Usually not so early in the day, though… He never bought anything. He was a teacher at the local high school. He already participated in more than his share of fundraisers. “Sorry, this really isn’t a good time.”
But the kid was more persistent than others. He stepped forward, his hand outstretched, pleading with him. “There isn’t any more time, sir.”
Dramatic, he thought. This kid really took his fundraising seriously. “Maybe you could come back later. I’m in the middle of something really important right now.” He glanced back toward the kitchen. He really wanted to be in there with Karen.
“This is important.”
“I’m sure it is.”
“Just a few minutes of your time. Please.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m really busy.”
“You have to listen…” But Eric was already pushing the door closed. He had no intention of listening to a teenage boy try to convince him that his football team needed new practice jerseys (or whatever it was he was out begging for). He volunteered for enough bake sales and dances and car washes that he didn’t feel the need to humor these kids on his own front porch.
And yet, they still always managed to make him feel guilty when he said no. He stood there for a moment, his hand resting on the doorknob, annoyed. Then he turned away from the door and started across the living room. He’d gone as far as the couch when he heard Karen scream in the kitchen, startling him. As he bolted from the living room to see what was wrong, he heard her shout again, this time shrieking his name.
He’d always had a very vivid imagination. It was the foundation on which he’d built his love of reading that turned into a love of literature and led him to becoming an English teacher. He could always slip into those other worlds, immersing himself in Tolkien’s Middle-earth or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Unfortunately, it had a side-effect of offering him the most terrifying of scenarios during moments like these. As a result, it was far too easy to picture Karen in the kitchen with her hand lodged in the garbage disposal or her foot crushed under the weight of a frozen turkey.
How a bright woman like Karen might come to be in such situations was well beyond him, but he never claimed that his too-vivid imagination was in any way logical.
Fortunately, Karen was not in mortal peril. He burst into the kitchen to find the boy he’d just closed the front door on sitting at the table, staring at her, a bright smile on his face. She stood with her back against the sink, her eyes wide. She was pulling down the hem of the Packers tee shirt with one hand and covering the more than generous amount of cleavage revealed by doing this with the other. She looked both mortified and infuriated.
Eric didn’t take the time to wonder how the boy had managed to get inside the house. He rushed to the table and hauled him out of the chair by his arm.
“Who the hell is he?” demanded Karen. “Why is he looking at me half naked?”
“I don’t know! I didn’t let him in!”
“Get him out!”
“I am!” He was already steering the boy down the hallway as Karen bolted out of the kitchen and up the stairs, slamming the bedroom door behind her.
Jude craned his neck as far as it would go to watch her leave and then looked at Eric, grinning. “Your wife’s really pretty.”
“Shut up, you. I ought to kick your ass.”
“I need to talk to you.”
“I told you I was busy!” Although he wasn’t likely to be busy now. Thanks to this stupid stunt, he was sure he wasn’t going to be “busy” for quite a while. “I should call the cops is what I should—” When he looked down, however, he realized that he was no longer holding the boy’s arm. He was gone.
He turned and found him sitting in the kitchen chair again, his arms folded casually on the table, smiling back at him.
“How the hell…?”
“You can’t get rid of me. We need your help and I can’t leave until you’ve heard what I have to say.”
Upstairs Eric heard the closet door slam. He needed to get this kid out of the house now or they were both going to catch hell. “Fine,” he sighed. “But outside.”
That, it seemed, was satisfactory. Still smiling at him, the teenage boy who ruined Eric’s perfectly nice morning stood up and followed him out onto the porch.
“Now what the hell is so damn important that it just couldn’t wait?” snapped Eric. He wasn’t remotely concerned about offending a student. It was clear by now that this had nothing at all to do with any kind of school fundraising.
The boy didn’t waste any time. “It’s my mom. Someone’s trying to kill her.”
Eric stood there for a moment, staring at him, trying to wrap his head around what he’d just heard. “What?”
“He’s already killed Grandpa. We didn’t think it was possible, but he did it.”
“Wait… Somebody killed your grandpa?”
The boy nodded. “And one of the girls, too. Regina. He’ll kill us all before he’s done. We need your help. Desperately.”
Eric felt a hot lump forming in his belly. Was this kid really talking about murder? Was somebody hunting down members of his family? “Shouldn’t you be talking to the police?” But he found that he already knew what the boy’s response to this was going to be.
“Police can’t help. If Grandpa couldn’t stop him, they wouldn’t have a chance, even if they would help.”
Eric knew the answer to his next question, too, but he asked it anyway: “Why wouldn’t they help you?”
“They’d never believe us.”
Of course they wouldn’t.
“He won’t stop until he kills all of us.”
“The magic man.”
“Magic man?” This all sounded crazy, but the craziest part was that it all made a certain kind of sense. None of this was any less believable than some of the things he’d already seen. He sat down on the porch steps and ran his hands through his hair, frustrated. “And you think I can help you?”
Jude stood over him, staring at him with those dark, pleading eyes. “You’re the only one. Mom said so. And she’s never wrong.”
Now Eric’s palms were firmly planted against his eyes. It was happening again. And just before his wedding anniversary, no less.
“She sent me to find you and bring you back with me.”
“We’re hiding out on a farm in Illinois.”
“Illinois…” sighed Eric. “Fantastic.”
This had happened twice before. Not exactly like this, of course. But it had happened. Once last summer and then again just last month. He already knew that much more than just his morning had been ruined.
“Please,” begged Jude. “You have to help us.”
Eric dropped his hands and stared up at the boy.
“We don’t stand a chance against him without you.”