Authors: Jennifer L. Hart
“I’ll catch up with you tomorrow.” Sam, who probably hoped whatever medication the hospital had given us would have worn off by then, clapped his hat on his head and left.
Leo looked from Neil’s bloodstained shirt to my torn and muddy jeans. “So you gonna dish already?”
“I promise to tell you as soon as we get out of here,” I said. “Sylvie, would you check and see if the hospital has an all-night pharmacy so we can fill Neil’s prescription before we jet?”
“Don’t worry about it.” Neil got to his feet. He looked as bone weary as I felt. “I’ll take some over the counter stuff.”
“But, your nose—”
“Will hurt like a bitch for a few days, but I don’t want to take anything.”
Our gazes locked and comprehension dawned. Neil routinely took a prescription to ward off nighttime combat flashbacks, a medication that had weird interactions with other drugs. He lived in terror of attacking me or the boys while he slept, something that had never actually happened. But irrational fear was just that, irrational. Our normal pharmacist knew to look out for certain drug interactions, but away from home he didn’t want to take any chances.
“Fine.” My tone implied it wasn’t fine at all. Just because I understood didn’t mean I agreed with his call. But it
his call and I would respect it, though I thought he was being a dumbass. “No extra sympathy for being a tough guy.”
He gave me a half smile. “Give me a cold beer and we’ll call it even.”
The four of us rode back to the estate crammed into the Prius like a bad joke. Leo and Sylvia took turns peppering us with questions. I slumped against my husband and answered monosyllabically whenever possible. Yes, we’d seen a ghost. No, we didn’t think it was the bean nighe. No, I didn’t recognize her. Yes, we’d both seen her.
I answered this last one for Neil, who stared silently out into the darkness. Did he believe it really had been a ghost, or was he still harboring the thought that it had been a flesh and blood woman? One who traipsed around the woods in her nightgown.
Though I couldn’t pinpoint why, I was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the woman on the road was, in fact, a ghost. And not just any ghost either. “I think the ghost we saw was the Grants’ daughter.”
Beside me, Neil tensed and Sylvia glanced at me in the rearview mirror but it was Leo who turned to ask, “Who are the Grants?”
“Neighbors. Their daughter died a while back.”
“In childbirth?” Sylvia made the turn down the obstacle course driveway to the estate.
“I don’t know. It seemed nosy to root around in their pain during our first meeting.”
“So, why do you think she’s the ghost you saw?” Leo asked.
“Just a hunch. Do you have internet access here? I’d like to find out more about her.”
Sylvia shook her head, pulled over the bridge and parked. “No, but Alex said the diner has free Wi-Fi, since there’s no McDonald’s or Starbucks in town. I’ll look into it first thing in the morning.”
Under normal circumstances I would have volunteered to go with her, but the thought of doing anything, even at some distant point in time, was too much to handle. “Is there any food?” I asked Leo as the clowns unloaded from the car.
Even by the light of the moon, I saw him cast me a speaking look. It said, “And just who do you think you’re talking to, laundry hag?”
We all stumbled inside and took turns being jumped on by Atlas, who had torn up half the linoleum floor on the porch. Leo gave him an extra head scratch when he saw the dog’s handiwork. “Good boy, you saved me a morning’s worth of scraping.”
Neil and I dove headfirst into the apple and chestnut stuffed pork chops, candied sweet potatoes and homemade apple pie, the remains of dinner. “You know, I can’t remember the last time I went a whole day without cooking,” I said between bites.
Sylvia nibbled on a rice cake smeared with organic peanut butter as Leo cast her the evil eye for her culinary choice. “Well, that makes sense, since you’re always taking care of everybody else.”
I took a sip from the glass of fruity Zinfandel Leo handed me. I had to put down my fork and reach for it with my left hand since the stitches tugged uncomfortably in my right whenever I tried to use it. “You make that sound like it’s a bad thing.”
“It is,” three traitorous voices informed me.
“What’s so wrong with doing for others? Leo does the same thing.”
“It’s not the same,” Leo insisted. “That’s my job. I have me time, too.”
“So do I,” I insisted.
“Name one thing,” Neil rasped, “that you did, not because someone asked you to or because you thought you should, but just because you wanted to.”
I waved him off. “I do stuff like that all the time.”
Sylvia and Leo exchanged a look as Neil leaned toward me. “Like what?”
“This is stupid.” I rose with the intention of carrying the dishes to the sink.
Without thought, I reached across for Neil’s plate, but started when he grabbed my hand and said, “You can’t, can you? You can’t ever stop long enough to let other people take care of you.”
Though I tugged my hand back, he had a solid grip on me. “Picking up a plate or two is not a big deal. I’m not a frigging invalid, for crying out loud. And let go of me.”
He didn’t. “Leo, tell Maggie what you told me earlier.”
“I had to make up stuff for you to do.”
I swung my head to face Leo. “What?”
“Laura’s already picked out new everything for the place. Lighting, bathroom fixtures, flooring. They’re coming later this week.” To his credit, he didn’t gloat, merely stated it as a fact.
I stared at him, betrayal and anger dispelling my fatigue. “Why am I even here then? And for God’s sake, do not say it has to do with the ghost.”
It was Sylvia who spoke. “We thought it would be a good idea for you to have a break.”
“We?” My head whipped back and forth between them as my mind whirled like a carnival ride. “Is this some sort of frigging intervention?”
From the way their gazes darted away from mine, I knew that was
what was going on.
“You were all in on it? The two of you, Ralph and Laura, too I suppose.” My vision wavered as I imagined my mother-in-law being told I needed to be tricked into a pseudo vacation.
“Don’t blame them, it was my idea.”
The softly spoken words did nothing to ease the blow. Slowly, I turned to face Neil, who still held my hand in his. There was a tearing sound that rang in my ears and I wondered if any of the rest of them heard my heart breaking.
“Let go of me,” I said, impressed at the calmness of my tone. “Or so help me, I’ll break your nose again.”
He let go.
Another sleepless night alone in an unfamiliar bed. My hair was snarled since I hadn’t bothered to brush it after my shower, too tired to deal with another mess. But despite the bone deep weariness, I sprawled flat on my back and watched as moonbeams filtered through the dated and semi-functional vertical blinds and made patterns on the bedding.
My hand throbbed to the beat of my heart. Would you look at that? The damn thing still worked after all, even shredded like an overused sponge. I didn’t know where Neil was, didn’t care. No, that wasn’t true. I did care, because I hoped he was halfway to hell, the manipulative bastard.
I knew Neil had it in him. The offspring of two corporate attorneys and a man used to getting his own way, well, it was a miracle he hadn’t pulled something sooner.
With a frustrated noise, I flopped onto my side and pounded my injured fist down on the pillow where his head was supposed to be. Rat bastard son of a motherless goat! I couldn’t think of enough unflattering epithets for him.
Damn him, damn his handsome face, he’d tricked me. Me! And not just tricked either. He’d staged a huge and ridiculous scenario, played on my guilt over keeping him at arm’s length, molded me like I was a piece of clay and shaped me to his liking. He’d brought in reinforcements too, my friends, our family. For a shocking moment I imagined my own brother being in on it, but dismissed the possibility. Marty couldn’t keep a secret to save his life and Neil wouldn’t risk it getting back to me until he got what he wanted.
Of course, I wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted. What was supposed to be the end goal of the farce? Sex, obviously, but this was about more than just the physical distance I’d put between us. Did he think that I wasn’t lonely, that I didn’t want to lose myself in his arms? How many nights, since the first attempt on my life, had I laid awake and longed for him to just touch me?
You could have asked.
I heard his voice in my head as though he were right beside me.
“Why should I have to ask?” I said the words out loud. “Why didn’t you know?”
All I knew for sure is that every time I reached for you, you pushed me away.
“Because I needed more than sex,” I whispered to the darkness. As absurd as this conversation was, imaginary Neil had a point. Part of this was my fault, for not stating clearly what I needed from him. So yeah, I’d own my own mistakes there, but that didn’t give him the right to concoct this absurd scheme.
I thought about how he’d reacted when he unearthed my lie about Leo’s allergies. How hurt he’d acted that I hadn’t been honest with him, the big faker. Yeah,
the conniving pot calling the reluctant kettle black.
But then other images assaulted me, chopped up flashes from the terror earlier, after the accident. When he hadn’t responded as I called his name, and the look in his eyes when he told me to save myself, to leave him to his fate. He hadn’t been lying then.
What if I hadn’t been able to get him out in time? What if he’d died? My heart seized at the thought and a hand rose instinctively to rub the sore spot in my chest. Would I still be upset that he’d gone to so much trouble for me, for us? Somehow, I doubted even I could hold a grudge then.
I flipped over again like a burger on a grill, this time onto my stomach. What the hell was this mattress filled with anyway, rocks?
With nothing better to do and frustration riding me hard, I hit it with my good hand and heard a groan. What the hell?
I repeated the motion and another moan, lower and longer than the first, filled the room. Every hair on my body stood on end. I shimmied over and reached for the lamp on the nightstand. Clicked it on.
Nothing happened. No warm glow of reassuring light filled the small space. That was weird. It had worked fine when I went to bed a few hours earlier. What could have happened to it since?
Maybe the power was out. There was no digital alarm clock in the room, no way to tell if we had an outage. I glanced around and barely fought panic when the sound came again. It wasn’t coming from the abused mattress, but from the wall behind it. At least, I thought maybe it was. My heart was getting a hell of a workout tonight. I felt my pulse throbbing, heard the beat of blood in my ears.
“Okay brain, time to work,” I said and surveyed my choices.
Option A: Scream. Tempting, but what would it really accomplish? Or I could, B: Calmly go wake up the rest of the house. That would achieve the same thing as option A, let the rest of the house know someone was making awful noises in the wall behind my room, but I wouldn’t look like such a ninny. Or C: Figure out just what the frick was going on myself.
Put that way, it wasn’t much of a choice.
Impressed that I hadn’t panicked completely yet, I glanced around. No flashlight, or if there was one, I had no clue where it might be. I needed some light to see by though. The bathroom light might help, but I considered the distance between the doorway and the headboard and it might not be enough. And any light would ruin my night vision.
My gaze fell on the vertical blinds. Before I thought better of it, I moved to the sliding glass door, adjusted the angle and then pushed them aside.
A man stood silhouetted in the moonlight.
I screamed at the top of my lungs and stumbled back, landing hard on my ass.
The sliding door opened and the man spoke, though I couldn’t hear what he said over my shrieks. Why hadn’t I double checked the door lock?
Apparently, I was too stupid to live.
A hand clamped over my mouth and stifled my cries. I tried to bite him but his hand was cupped in such a way that my teeth couldn’t make contact. An arm went around my back and he pulled me closer. A panicked whimper escaped. Oh God, I was going to die.
A big, dark shape charged in the open door and licked the side of my face. Atlas.
“Maggie, damn it, it’s me,” Neil said.
It took a moment for his words to register but then I caught his scent, stronger than usual because unlike me he hadn’t showered since we’d returned. The hand uncovered my mouth and a string of blistering curse words fell from my lips.
“What the hell, Neil? You scared me half to death.” I shoved him, though not hard enough to do any damage or even make him budge from his crouched position. “What did you think you were doing, lurking outside the door like that?”
“I was camping out there.” He pointed to a rumpled sleeping bag on the porch. “But I heard you shifting around in here and was coming to check on you. Is your hand bothering you?”
I drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, giving my pulse time to rein in my panic. Atlas took the opportunity to jump on the bed, turn around and flop down with an exhausted sigh. He must have sensed I was too distracted to yell at him.
“I’m sorry I scared you.” Neil helped me up off the floor. “Do you want me to get you anything?”
I shook my head, still a little dizzy. “So, that was you groaning?”
“Groaning?” I heard the frown in his voice.
Atlas growled when, as if on cue, another moan erupted from the wall behind the bed.