Bess woke up late the next morning. The blankets enveloped her like a cocoon, and she didn’t want to leave their heavy warmth for the stark chill of the house.
Finally, a little after ten, she forced herself to get out of bed and head into the bathroom. She splashed some water on her face and swept her messy hair into a frizzy ponytail. The water was cold, and her exposed neck prickled, so she put on the sweater she had worn the previous day.
After pulling it over her head, she glanced past Tess’s still-sleeping form to the window beyond. The world was covered in a thick, spotless layer of snow. She smiled slightly. It seemed to signal a fresh, clean start to the day. Perhaps the tension of the previous night would be soothed by the beauty of the woods and the promise of a snowy day.
She tightened her ponytail and, feeling the goosebumps on the back of her neck rise afresh, decided to carry her blanket downstairs. She wrapped it around her shoulders like a cape and headed for the landing, holding onto the railing to make sure that her thick socks didn’t slip on the wood.
When she arrived downstairs, her parents’ bedroom door was closed, and her father’s Vista Cruiser was still in the driveway. She supposed that he had decided to sleep in and make the best of a surprise day off.
There were Carlsberg cans in the wastebasket. The memory of fizzing champagne brought a dull ache to her head, and she rubbed her temple. How much had she had to drink last night? She couldn’t quite remember. What was the cure for hangovers, coffee?
Her father believed that coffee was to be taken black. The only necessary addition, he thought, was a bit of cold water—and even then, it was necessary only after tentative fingers and lips had tested the temperature.
Bess wrinkled her nose at the thought. She needed something with a little bit of flavor. Something that didn’t seem like an endurance contest.
Tea was the obvious choice.
As quietly as she could, she took out the tea kettle and set it on the stove. A couple minutes later, she was snuggled into the sofa and waiting for the water to boil. She considered watching television, but she decided to wait until the rest of her family was up.
How wonderful would it be if she could claim the television for herself for once, maybe get a little levity? She could watch the news and merely turn the noise up if her sister complained that it was “boring.” Everyone in the Andrews house knew that, if you were the first person awake, you were able to decide what you wanted to watch.
And God only knew how many of Tess’s sitcoms she’d sat through.
She padded over to the set and pushed the POWER button. As the screen flickered to life, she mashed her fingers against the volume buttons to ensure that the noise didn’t startle her family awake. She smiled to herself. While she may have been ruthless enough to commandeer both the blanket and the television set, she wasn’t cruel enough to wake them with the droning voices of the national news anchors.
The first story that came up was about a dip in the stock market. Boring.
The next story had to do with rumors of strife between Burt Reynolds and Sally Field. Inevitable.
The story after that was a feature about a small puppy who’d rescued his owner from a flood. This made her think of Dancer, so she changed the channel.
The next station was the local news. A man in a brown, cheap-looking suit frowned as a small illustration of Mariner appeared in the corner of the screen.
“In other news, tensions rise in Mariner as questions remain regarding the two bodies found in the area.” Bess sat up and listened in spite of herself.
“Henry Thomas’s body was discovered nearly three weeks ago….” At this point, Bess was sure that she could recite the facts of the attacks in her sleep. She was nearly able to mouth along with the anchor as he explained.
“Mariner police say that they cannot conclusively state what—or who—may have been responsible for the deaths.” A clip of Officer Marsh began to play. It had obviously been taken from yesterday’s broadcast.
And there, Bess thought, was the spin. Marsh had left too many maybes in his story, and now those maybes were the story. She watched the clip play out, and she noticed that the uncertainty in Marsh’s face looked even clearer than before.
The anchor returned, now looking faintly disapproving. “And that’s the news from Mariner. Now on to…” Bess switched off the television and sighed. At least the situation hadn’t yet been deemed serious enough for national coverage. There was still a chance, she hoped, that this might be the end, and the whole thing would become one of those odd urban legends that was passed around—a mystery maybe-killer they knew not of.
The kettle began to shriek, and Bess jumped. After she had collected herself, she ran to retrieve it from the stove. A few minutes later, she was adding a liberal amount of cream and sugar to her cup. What was the point of tea if not a vehicle for other, more delicious things?
She shook her head, remembering how she had dumped nearly the entire sugar bowl into her cup the first time she’d made tea. Her parents had recoiled, but Tess and she had agreed that it was one of the best-tasting drinks they’d ever had. Bess had been able to feel the grains of sugar pass between her teeth and over her tongue. They had melted away as she and her sister grinned at one another. Only the finest delicacies for the Andrews sisters.
The memory gave her an idea. She pulled out a second cup and made more tea. This time, she added several teaspoons of cream, and several heaping tablespoons of sugar. She went to the pantry and pulled out one of the leftover cookies from the party. After transferring the teacup to a saucer (and wedging the cookie beside it), she carried it up the stairs to Tess.
Tess hadn’t stirred since she’d rolled over the night before. Bess crawled up on to the small wedge of free space at the edge of Tess’s bed and started to jump up and down.
“Tess! Tess! I made breakfast for you, Tess!” The words came out a quick, hard chant. “Tess! Tess! I made breakfast for you, Tess!”
Tess moaned theatrically.
“Okay, okay, I’m up.” She sat up quickly, and her movements shifted her mattress and caused Bess to lose her balance. She fell hard and caught her knee on the edge of the frame.
Another “Tess!” escaped her lips, this one more surprised and indignant. “Tess, look at my knee. Thanks a lot.” She looked up reproachfully, but Tess was already busy examining her tea and cookie.
“You shouldn’t have been jumping on my bed. You knew what might happen. But hey, thanks for breakfast.” She examined the cookie. “On second thought, no thanks. These are probably stale by now.”
“What’s wrong with a stale chocolate chip cookie? It’s still a cookie.”
“Well, the flavor, for one.” Tess took an experimental bite. Bits of hardened chocolate fell onto her nightgown. “And, you know, the fact that it feels like it might crack my teeth.”
She set the cookie down and picked up the tea. “Maybe you did better with this.” She took a small sip, and then a larger gulp. “Mm, sugary. Just the way I like it.” She raised her cup in a mock toast to Bess. “To my sister Bess, who made half of a good breakfast.”
Bess laughed. “Half? That cookie’s pretty small.”
Tess swung her legs over the side of her bed and brushed the crumbs from her chest. “Nope, half. That’s as much as I’m willing to give you.” She stood and stretched. “Come on, let’s go make some real breakfast.”
Bess followed her sister downstairs and listened with a smile as she chattered on about an odd dream she’d had—something involving snow and the boy who’d asked her on a date. Tess, after seeing her sister’s discarded blanket on the couch, also wore a smile as she snatched it up.
“I think a special snow day calls for a special breakfast. Let’s see what we have.” She rifled through the pantry.
“Let’s see…terrible cookies. No. Cereal, but not enough milk. I don’t think so. Bread, which could be good if we had anything to put on it, which we don’t. No.”
She shook her head theatrically.
“Why don’t we head to the store and grab something for breakfast? A snow day calls for something special.”
Bess frowned. “Won’t the store be closed?”
“No, it should be open. Remember last winter when they closed during the storm, and everyone got angry because they couldn’t get their extra emergency rolls of toilet paper or some such nonsense? Trust me, they won’t make that mistake again.”
Bess didn’t want to leave the soft cocoon of her house and walk around town in the snow. Or walk around town at all.
“I don’t know, Tess. I’m kind of tired.”
“We didn’t exactly do much yesterday,” Tess reminded her. “And I’m much more willing to brave the cold if I get breakfast at the end of all of this.” She cast Bess a sidelong look.
“Or do you want to spend all day at home, watching the same video clips of Peter Marsh and hoping that they’ll play something new?”
“I just…” The words sounded silly even in Bess’s head. “I just want to stay safe.”
Tess laughed. It wasn’t a cruel laugh, but a reassuring one.
“Come on, Bess. It’s a freezing, frosty winter wonderland out there. Most people are going to be inside all day today. I mean, there might be a few kids sledding or starting snowball fights, but I doubt that they’re going to want to strip the meat from your bones.”
Bess was silent. Tess tugged at her arm like a small child.
“And anyway, it’s still light outside. Nothing bad is going to happen before the sun goes down.”
Bess still didn’t want to leave the house. But the thought of staying in, with only soap operas, Peter Marsh, and her own creeping apprehension to keep her company, was even less appealing.
“Okay, fine. But I’m going to need a few minutes to get dressed.”
Tess nodded. “Of course. I’m not mean enough to make you go out in your pajamas.”
Bess smiled in spite of herself, and tugged the blanket off of Tess as she passed.
“That may be true, but I’m mean enough to take this.”
Once upstairs, she surveyed her options. The sweater she’d been wearing for the past couple of days was probably due for a wash. After a few minutes of deliberation, she selected one of Tess’s college sweatshirts (it didn’t look quite as good on her) and a down-filled pair of pants that were designed for cold weather. She added her itchy beanie and a rainbow-patterned scarf her grandmother had given her. The scarf was the only thing that kept her from looking like a drawer full of mismatched hand-me-downs.
She studied herself in the mirror, trying to think of an accessory or two that might brighten up her ensemble. Perhaps some jewelry…
What about a knife? The thought came to her unbidden, and she pushed it away.
No, really. She thought of her and Tess, obliviously walking back from the store, focused on keeping their feet from slipping on the ice and their purchases from toppling into the snow. A deserted street. Something watching them from behind a corner or hidden behind a curtain. That something deciding to attack.
That’s ridiculous, the small voice accused. But the images kept coming—of her and Tess being followed and watched. And what would happen if they were to be separated? Bess knew that she wasn’t strong enough to fight anything off by herself.
She looked around the room. She didn’t have any weapons to bring with her.
Then she remembered. On the same Christmas her grandmother had given her the scarf, her grandfather had proudly given her and Tess one pocketknife each. They were a little old, and a little rusty, but their grandfather had joked that that would make it even more painful for anybody who might choose to try and hurt them.
“Just a little something to have when you go off to college,” he had said. Bess wondered what he might think if he knew that she was defending herself from potential assailants right at home in Mariner.
She tried to remember where exactly she had put the knife. She had stored it away with the rest of her gifts, and had gradually forgotten about it as the opportunities to use it had continued to stay far away. She hadn’t taken it to college after all.
She crossed the room and flung open the doors of her and Tess’s shared closet. Most of Tess’s clothes had been dumped in small piles on the floor, and she pulled them out and threw them onto her sister’s bed. After a minute of lifting and tossing, she was able to gain access to the shelf in the back.
The lower shelves were covered with several musty sweaters, single earrings, and outgrown shoes. Bess stood on the tips of her toes and felt along a shelf that was just below the one that had housed the blankets. Her hands found the edge of a shoebox.
She pulled it down carefully, taking care not to spill any of its contents on the already clothing-covered floor. There was no lid, and she began tossing old photos, friendship bracelets, and other forgotten items onto her own bed.
Just when she thought she would have to step back into the closet for further searching, her eye caught the glint of a rusted blade.
She reached for it. Seconds later, her hand was clutching the knife. Its blade was tucked inward into its sheath, and only a small, silver-and-copper-colored sliver was visible. The handle was rough, and her initials had been scratched into the splintering wood.
It wasn’t very impressive, but it would do in an emergency.
Plunging into a dark, pitiless eye…
No, she wasn’t going to think about that. It was only a precaution.
She slipped the knife into her coat pocket as Tess entered the room.
“Looking good.” She cast a pointed glance at her own college sweatshirt. “Are you almost ready to go?” Bess nodded as she took in her sister’s nightgown, tousled hair, and bare feet.
“Yeah. What about you? You’re the one who wanted to go out so badly.” Tess ran a hand through her hair.
“True, but I needed a couple of minutes to fully wake up. I’m not feeling so great.”
Bess perked up. “Oh. Maybe we can just go out tomorrow, then.”
“Nice try. I’m not eating bread and water for breakfast—two bad meals in the span of an hour just might push me over the edge.” Tess clutched her slim stomach as though she were about to vomit.
“Fine,” Bess said, fingering the knife in her pocket. “Don’t mind me, I guess.”
“I never do.” Tess looked past her to the small mountain of clothes on her bed. “Okay, what’s this? Is it some sort of unsubtle hint for me to get dressed? Sorry I didn’t come up right behind you.” Her voice took on a sarcastic lilt.
“Sorry,” Bess mumbled. “I was just, um…looking for my scarf.”
“Huh. Well, next time you’re looking for it, can you please put everything back where it belongs?” Tess dumped the clothes carelessly back onto the floor of the closet. After looking at them for a moment, she selected a white blouse and a dark blue sweater, along with her own pair of snow pants.
Bess watched as her sister pulled off her nightgown and buttoned herself into her blouse and sweater. She looked as though she were going to an expensive tearoom instead of the grocery store. Even as she joked about the thickness of the pants, Bess thought that they actually matched well with her outfit. If she looked like a sad collection of hand-me-downs, Tess looked like a department store mannequin.
Tess insisted on applying makeup, which made Bess feel even more childish in comparison. She watched her sister swipe on several coats of mascara, and fix her hair into a high, swinging ponytail. She looked fresh and happy.
Bess snuck a glance at herself in the mirror. Their respective positions had rarely been so physically apparent. The heir and the spare. The princess and the frog. Jacob and Esau.
She was older, if only by a minute or two, but that had been the first and last advantage that she’d ever held over her sister. Since then, she had felt like every moment with her was a moment of giving up a little bit more of her birthright.
It didn’t help that Tess was so kind to her. If she had been cruel, then Bess would at least have felt justified in wallowing in her feelings of envy and dissatisfaction. But Tess seemed to hardly be aware of the effect she had on people—including her own sister. And, even if she was, she had never used it to her advantage.
Tess gave her ponytail a final lift and shrugged on her coat. “Are Mom and Dad still asleep?”
Bess answered in the affirmative. She hadn’t heard any activity coming from her parents’ bedroom, even while the two of them had been scrounging for food. It occurred to her that perhaps her parents were trying to sleep away the events of the previous day. Bess wondered what they might think when they saw the anchor’s report playing on a steady loop.
“Okay, come on.” Tess led her sister down the stairs in an exaggerated tiptoe, and Bess watched as her hair swung behind her and caught the light coming in from the windows. Her own hair remained hidden under her old, itchy cap.
Tess pulled on her boots and, without waiting for Bess, stepped out into the bright sunlight.
“Isn’t this great?” She asked. “It looks like something out of a fairy tale.”
Bess had to admit that it did look lovely. The snow on the ground glittered in the sun, and the icicles that hung from each roof made them look like enormous gingerbread houses. The sky was clear, and there was no wind whipping at her face.
Tess turned at the mailbox. As she did so, her left heel slid out from underneath her. She threw herself forward and regained her balance. Blushing slightly, she looked around as if to confirm that nobody had seen her slip. But there was only Bess.
“Watch out for that ice!” Tess called. The color in her cheeks was disappearing. Bess carefully picked her way between the slippery patches to join her sister on the snowy sidewalk. She wasn’t sure she wanted breakfast this badly.
As they walked, Bess noticed something strange. There were very few people walking around—which wasn’t unusual during this kind of weather. But none of them said hello, or even acknowledged the two Andrews sisters.
Instead, they cast quick, suspicious looks at them. When Bess stepped off of the sidewalk to make room for a couple, they quickened their pace and looked her up and down as she passed. When Tess raised a hand to wave at a man passing by, he mumbled something and averted his eyes.
“Is it just me, or are we suddenly the biggest social pariahs in Mariner?” Bess muttered.
Tess pointed. “I don’t think it’s just us.” The man who had looked away from her was giving the same treatment to a woman walking several yards behind them. The woman in question didn’t seem offended—perhaps because she was attempting to avoid his eyes as well.
Bess looked up and down the street. All around her, people were dodging, avoiding—and in some cases—even trying to confront the few people who were attempting to greet them. She and her sister were nearly the only ones who hadn’t yet given up.
“What’s going on? Is this a joke of some sort?”
Tess shook her head. “Remember yesterday? Even Mom was telling us to be careful. I think, after watching the news last night, people are scared that there may be some sort of killer on the loose. All that gossip has finally borne fruit.”
“That’s ridiculous! It’s nothing!” Bess felt sick as soon as the words left her mouth. Tess said nothing, but she raised an eyebrow. “I mean…you know what I’m trying to say. Not that it isn’t a tragedy, but….” Her voice faded until it was almost a whisper.
“There’s no proof of anything like that.”
“There’s no proof of anything like that yet,” corrected Tess. Bess gave her a sharp look. “Oh, come on! You know you’re worried just as much about it as everyone else is.”
“And you don’t think that, when our police can’t give us straight answers, that people aren’t going to be scared and suspicious? Whoever’s doing this is probably someone we’ve met before.”
Bess had an image of Mrs. Dillard waving a butcher knife while her eyes turned into black-coal spheres. It was so ridiculous that she had a stifle a strangled laugh.
Her poise returned quickly when she saw the look on Tess’s face. “So, okay, everyone’s avoiding one another. What do we do?”
Tess cast a dark look at the people passing by. “We do the same,” she said. “Even if we’re just doing it so we don’t call attention to ourselves.”
“You really think that’s the right thing to do?”
Tess laughed harshly. “Two teenage girls aren’t going to successfully spread messages of peace and love to an entire town, Bess. There’s nothing we can do, at least not until this whole thing blows over.”
“Do you think it might blow over soon?” Bess thought of passing her neighbors silently and avoiding their fearful eyes for months on end.
“It’s what we have for now.” Her sister’s mood had fallen dramatically. The memory of feeding her sugary tea felt as though it was from a thousand years before. “Come on, there’s the store. Let’s make this quick.”
Being inside the grocery store was even worse than being on the street, Bess thought, because you had walls trapping you inside with everyone else. She and Bess grabbed a cart and made their way to the bakery section. Tess had suggested, as a reward for their terrible trip, stuffing themselves silly with a wide variety of sugary pastries.
“I mean, they have to be better than stale cookies,” she’d cracked as they entered, and Bess had understood that it was both an apology and a peace offering.
Now, standing in front of the displays, Bess couldn’t work up much of an appetite for anything. She was still focused on the way everyone was silently hunched down over their carts.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a small hand on her arm. It was Jacob Polley.
“Hi, Bess! Hi, Tess!” He was holding a small powdered doughnut. “Look, I got a free sample!”
“That’s nice,” Bess said vaguely. At least someone was still kind enough to give out free doughnuts.
Jacob took a bite of his doughnut, and snowy bits of powdered sugar fell down the front of his coat. “What are you two doing?”
“We’re just grabbing some breakfast, Jake,” Tess said cheerily. Bess appreciated her sister for picking up the slack in the conversation. “What are you doing?”
Jacob shrugged. “We were out of food when it started snowing, so my mom made me come here with her.” His eyes lit up. “But she said that, if I’m good, she’ll let me go to the river and play with Paul and John this afternoon!”
“I wish I could be there,” replied Tess, examining a plastic tub of muffins.
“Do you want to come?” exclaimed Jacob, his eyes brightening even further. Bess saw Anne Polley turn to look at them as she rounded the end of an aisle.
Tess smiled at him. “I really, really wish I could. But I have stuff to do.”
“What kind of stuff?”
Bess saved her. “We have to clean our room.” She made an exaggerated, displeased face. Jacob frowned.
“So, when I grow up, my mom will still tell me that I have to clean my room?”
“If you live in her house.” Tess laughed. Anne was looking over at them with a faintly worried expression.
“Jacob!” she called. “Jacob, let’s go!” Jacob popped the last of his doughnut into his mouth.
“Bye, see you later.” He gave them a small wave and ran back to his mother.
“We’ll play another day!” Tess yelled after him. Anne avoided her eyes, but Jacob gave a thumbs up.
Bess shook her head. “We’ve been babysitting Jacob for years. It’s not like we’re complete strangers.”
“For all his mom knows, we could be.” Tess chuckled ruefully. “But you’re right. She could at least have waved at us.” She picked up the tub of muffins.
“What about these? I think I’m ready to get home.”
Bess agreed. As they approached the lone open checkout counter, Tess snapped her fingers.
“Milk. We can’t have muffins without milk. Can you run and grab some?” She gestured to the woman in front of them, who was arguing with the cashier about coupons. “I think this is going to take a while.”
“I’ll be right back.” Even after listening for just a minute, the argument was beginning to give Bess a headache. She was glad for an escape.
She wandered back toward the dairy section. As she did, she passed Jacob and Anne. Jacob gave her a small wave, but Anne did nothing.
Soon, she was standing in front of the glass case of milk. It was cold, and she rubbed her hands together as she grabbed a tall, red carton. As she closed the door, she tripped slightly and stumbled back, nearly dropping the milk. She flung her arm out, and her hand caught the edge of a soft coat as she steadied herself.
“I’m sorry, I…”
She trailed off as she saw exactly who was behind her. Peter Marsh loomed above, his face fixed in a kind of pained grimace.
“I’m sorry.” She couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“That’s okay.” She thought perhaps that he was trying to smile, but the grimace had merely deepened. They both looked at one another.
“How, um, are you doing?”
A hint of a genuine smile broke through his frozen expression. “Well, after that speech yesterday, not so great. I guess I should have given it a couple more drafts, huh? You threw me off a little bit.”
Bess felt her face reddening and tried to stammer out another apology. Officer Marsh held up a hand.
“It’s fine,” he said, his tone indicating that it wasn’t quite. “Just…don’t let the hysteria get to you. Once we have definitive proof that they’re animal attacks, people will forget about all of this very quickly.”
His tone was firm and dismissive, and Bess’s embarrassment morphed into irritation.
“I hope you find that proof soon. Good to see you, sir.” She shook his hand.
“Me, too.” He dropped her hand and continued to the end of the aisle. Bess began walking back to the front of the store.
There’s still nothing. He still knows nothing, but wants everyone to behave as if this is just a normal occurrence.
She rejoined Tess at the counter. The woman in front of them was still arguing with the cashier, but she seemed to be losing the battle. After a minute, she pulled out her purse in a huff.
After another minute, she and Tess were loading their milk and muffins onto the conveyor belt. The cashier wore a slightly smug expression, probably due to her victory over the previous customer. She greeted them with a sugary “Hello there!”
As she scanned their items, she nodded approvingly.
“You two have the right idea—as soon as my shift is over, I’m going to be stocking up on whatever I can find.”
“Is there another storm coming?” Tess’s voice was light. The cashier looked at her, slightly incredulous.
“Of course not! I’m talking about that killer that’s on the loose. I’m planning to stay at home until all of this is over.”
“They didn’t say there was a killer on the loose.” Bess had meant for her words to sound strong, but they came out like a whine. “They just said that they didn’t know exactly what it was.”
The cashier looked at her as though she were a particularly stupid child.
“And I say that’s code for killer. Trust me, if they find some young girl’s remains in the river over the weekend, don’t say that I wasn’t right.” She dumped their items into a paper bag. “That’ll be $6.65.”
As they left the store, Bess kept turning the woman’s words over in her head. She turned to Tess, who was staring off into the middle distance.
“Do you think people are going to start getting hurt?”
“Look, I don’t know.” Tess’s tone was softer than her words. “But we know even less than the police do. And because we can’t do anything to change the unfortunate situation we find ourselves in, I vote we go home, have a proper breakfast”—she lifted the grocery bag slightly—“and try to forget about it, okay?”
“Okay.” They walked back home in silence and avoided the gaze of anyone they passed.
When they arrived, their parents had finally risen. They were watching another episode of Biloxi Beach Memoirs, but Bess noticed, as they passed the front window, that their gazes kept jumping toward the door. Her mother quickly switched off the television upon catching sight of her.
“Breakfast!” Tess cried as she opened the door. Their parents looked displeased.
“We didn’t know where you were!” Sarah said, her arms crossed over her chest. “Imagine waking up and seeing that your daughters have disappeared!”
“The least you could have done is left a note,” Will added. His mouth was twisted into a deep frown. The light from the outside passed over his eyes, and he winced.
Bess was silent, but Tess threw up her arms.
“We went to the grocery store!” she cried. “We go there all the time! Why is it suddenly such a frightening thing?”
“Things are a little bit different right now,” Sarah said, her voice softening slightly. “We don’t want to see either of you get hurt because you were being careless.”
“Walking to the store in broad daylight is careless?”
“Right now, it could be.” Will’s voice was firm, and he rubbed his face. “Your mother and I talked about it last night. We also saw a news report about the town hall this morning—”
“There’s nothing in there that we didn’t see yesterday!” Tess interjected.
“That’s true, but I was seeing it for the first time. Officer Marsh seemed to know not much more than we do. It makes me think that we have something to be afraid of.”
Tess backed down, evidently realizing that she was not going to win this particular argument.
“Okay. We’re sorry. Really. We just wanted to get some fresh air.”
“We know that,” Sarah replied. “We just want you both to be more careful. Leave notes. Let us know when you’re leaving the house, and how long you’ll be gone. That sort of thing.”
“Okay, we will.” Bess spoke up for the first time.
“Good.” Will’s expression relaxed.
There was a silence in which nobody seemed to know what to do. Sarah sat awkwardly back on the couch.
“I’m going to watch some more television,” she announced. “Just to take my mind off of everything.”
The rest of the family sat around her, and Tess passed the muffins around. Bess willed her mind to turn away from dark eyes and to focus on the screen in front of them, on a soap-opera world that was bright and cheerful, and where true pain never quite registered.
The creature moved quickly along the side of the river, looking for life. Further ahead, it heard shouts.
Three young boys were playing in the snow. They were oblivious to everything but their games, and they threw loose handfuls of snow at each other and staged swordfights with sharpened sticks. After a while, they began to complain of the cold, and the three began saying their goodbyes. It was nearly dusk.
For a moment, it looked as though the three boys were going to travel home by the same route. But, as they gathered their sticks, one boy split off from the others. He pulled his coat close to his body and began walking toward where the creature was hiding.
The creature wondered if the town had found it and was trying to trap it. How else could the situation have worked so wholly in its favor?
The boy hummed quietly as he picked his way through the snow. The other two boys had turned down another road, and they were soon out of sight.
It was only it and the boy, now. It knew from watching him play that his voice was louder than the man’s had been, and it wanted to be able to silence him quickly. It would not consume him immediately, but instead keep him alive until the mice and insects were completely gone. Now that snow had fallen, he would need reserves.
It trailed the boy along the river’s edge, and followed him through a large thicket of trees. As it moved between the trunks, its talons scraped against the bark.
The boy stopped and turned. His mouth fell open, and he unconsciously lifted his sharpened stick into the air, as if preparing for battle.
The creature lunged.
Bess could feel her body growing numb. She had spent most of the day watching television or reading, and her arms and legs ached for movement. She lifted her gaze to the dark sky as she stretched. It was later than she’d expected.
“I think I’m going to head to bed,” she announced to nobody in particular. Tess nodded her agreement.
“As interesting as it is to watch soap opera couples break up and make up on repeat for seasons at a time, I think I’ve had enough for today.”
Sarah stood and combed a hand through her hair. “That makes three of us.”
As she leaned over to kiss Tess goodnight, the phone rang, and she jumped.
“I wasn’t really expecting any calls today, especially so late.” She picked up the receiver gingerly, and Will crawled over to the television set to turn it off.
“Yes?” Sarah’s voice was soft from a day of disuse. She cleared her throat. “Yes, Anne, how are you?”
There was a moment’s pause as she listened, and her face crumpled into a worried expression.
“No, we haven’t seen him.” She pushed her hair back from her face, away from her ear. “Are you sure that he didn’t decide to spend the night with one of his friends?”
The rest of the family was listening attentively now, and the uneasy feeling had resumed its residence in Bess’s stomach. But, instead of occupying its familiar vague, nearly subconscious territory, it began to seep throughout the rest of her body like rain into the earth. Bess recognized this new feeling as a slowly rising terror.
“Okay. Yes, we’ll keep an eye out. Let us know if there’s anything else we can do. Yes. Yes, definitely. Okay, goodbye.” She hung up the phone and sighed heavily.
“What’s wrong?” Bess asked the question even though she was sure that they all knew the answer.
“Jacob never arrived home today,” Sarah said. “Anne says that she checked with his friends’ families, but they haven’t seen him since the boys split up to go home.”
“Have they called the police?” Will asked. His brow sunk over his eyes.
“Yes, but who knows what they’ll be able to do?” Sarah shook her head as if to clear it. “I’m sorry. I’m just anxious.”
“I think we all need a good night’s sleep,” Will offered. Bess was thankful that he had been the one to bring it up. She averted her eyes from the empty glass of wine in his hand.
He doesn’t normally drink that much.
“Yeah, Mom,” Tess added. “I’m sure everything will turn out fine.” But there was a quaver in her voice, and she pressed her lips together.
“We’ll see,” Will said, and he echoed Sarah’s sigh. “Goodnight, girls. We love you.”
Sarah completed the kisses that had been interrupted, and Will followed. Bess watched as her parents walked into their room and shut the door. As soon as it hit the frame, she could hear their voices behind it.
She and Tess did not speak as they got ready for bed, save for half-hearted goodnights. Tess turned out the light, and Bess focused on a spot of water damage above her bed. Tonight, nothing could keep the small voice from dominating her thoughts.
She felt the creeping terror consume her.
For the first time since the Christmas party, she did not long for the morning. Instead, she willed the darkness to stay, and to keep hidden the truths that she knew would be revealed in the hard light of day.Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in