Loading...
Menu

Test Witcher Chime

#

Book Description

Savannah Caleman’s family has been coming apart since the early 1920’s. The pain of a horrific suicide, loss of the family ranch, and the stigma of insanity track them to their new home. It’s a property the locals call “The Witcher Place,” and the troubles the Calemans bring with them only deepen the troubles already there….

The Witcher Place becomes a focus for insanity and the manifestation of ghosts and shape shifters, bringing Savannah to the brink of madness. Horror abounds, and Savannah turns to distant relatives for answers, fearing the insanity is real and has spread throughout her family. She is forced to face her own inner-demons and the manifestations of horror that inhabit her new home. The Witcher Chime.

***

 

#


#
p={color:#000;}.

Shakespir Edition

A Petrichor Press Publication Copyright © 2016 Amity Green

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

Cover artwork Copyright ©2014-2016 Liliana Sanches

ISBN: 0692705856

ISBN-13: 978-0692705858

PETRICHOR PRESS

***

 

Contents

Book Description

Title Page

Preamble

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

If You Liked …

About the Author

 

#

Preamble

That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.”

Genesis 6:2

***

 

#

Prologue

The Witcher Place, Victor, Colorado

June 6, 1988, 7 p.m.

Savannah Caleman stepped onto the porch planks, dropping a round gas can beside the door with a derisive, metallic clank. Everything she touched was coated, fuming, and combustible. Muted sunlight tumbled through foggy dusk. A warm, afternoon wind blasted last winter’s leaves from the aspen grove across the yard, scattering streaks of burnished gold in contrast to a bruised sky. The wind chimes danced with uneven low harmony, claiming the peace. The screen door smacked shut, bounced from the jamb and came to a whining stop. Cool chain links grated in her clammy grip as she sat on the porch swing for the last time and started a gentle pace in an easy to-and-fro. Darkness poured from inside the house, the divided-light panes contrasting Mother’s sun-yellowed sheers pulled back at the sides. The entire thing was tinder.

A reluctant, sad smile tugged at Savannah’s dimples. Soon, the whole damned house would burn, the ashes a tribute to the ruin of her life, carried away by black smoke spiraling into the night sky. The minutes ticked by with the creaking of the swing as she fought the urge to get it over with, to strike a spark of life into looming death. Timing was everything. Oblivion was her reward for waiting it out.

A mountain lion screamed in the distance. Finally. Savannah pulled a crushed box of matches from a dampened pocket, fingering the strike pad as the wind quieted. The family’s horses trotted through the yard, experimenting with freedom. A fresh sob caught in her throat when her mare stopped at the porch steps and nickered to her. Savannah closed her eyes, tears cascading. So much hate fractured her heart. The bastard that drove her to such an extreme belonged in hell and after what he’d done to her family, it was her pleasure to escort him through the flaming gates.

“Go! Yah!” she yelled, flipping an arm. The horses snorted and took off at a sprint toward the hay field.

The chimes slowed as the wind calmed and eerie silence took over. She didn’t react, just waited it out, watching her fuel-splattered cowboy boots swing above the painted porch floor. Tears dried, salty in the corners of her mouth. Strands of hair stuck to her cheek, but she left it that way. She’d assigned her lot. She was simply bait. A worm on a hook. A snared rabbit with a predator following her screams.

The heavy scent of decay bounded from the trees, tumbling toward her on an invisible fog. For the first time she wasn’t terrified when the death-scent thickened until it was the only tint on the air. Nausea rumbled in her gut and she swallowed hard.

Mother had left three sleeping pills in the medicine cabinet and Savannah had taken them to mute the sting. They’d done a little more than that, and she was dizzy as hell, but the time had come. She wiped her face on her shirt and slid from the swing, pulling the screen door wide enough to touch the side of the house as she hurried through to the stairs. Aged wood creaked beneath footsteps behind her, and to no surprise, the screen didn’t slam, instead being caught and held open.

A fist of adrenaline clenched inside her chest as she fought the urge to sprint up the stairs on wobbly legs. One careful step leading another, Savannah ascended to her bedroom through a growing haze, closed the door, and dropped onto her bed. Wet linen clung to her t-shirt and skin as she backed against the headboard, feeling tendrils of her long hair clinging to accelerant dripping from splashes on the wall.

A small line of saliva plummeted from her bottom lip, chilling her chin. She wiped it away with a wrist, amazed at just how screwed up she was after taking a few little pills. An empty stomach likely amplified the drug, which battled adrenaline in her system. The jarring thrash of beats against her sternum faltered, and she hoped her heart would soon give in to sedation. Tears mixed with cold sweat as she forced herself to concentrate on good thoughts and wait for the right second. She couldn’t jump the gun and spring the trap too early.

Savannah closed her eyes and focused on memories of her siblings. Chaz and Molly danced with her in the kitchen, red balloons tethered to their little wrists with strings, bouncing in rhythm as they giggled, singing along with “Monster Mash.” A weight anchored around her ribcage, pulling her against the mattress with soothing, cool waves of calm.

When the doorknob wiggled once and began to twist, she readied a match against the pad on the carton, grasping hard to avoid dropping it with her sloppy grip. The door swung, wedging slowly to reveal a rectangle of darkness.

“Here kitty, kitty,” she crooned.

***

 

#

Chapter 1

The Cresson Mine, Cripple Creek, Colorado

June, 1922

“The bloody thing’s lost its wits.”

Four men huddled beneath a pitiful light bulb, encircling a brass birdcage, watching a canary flit about. Feathers puffed from within the small area, knocked free when the bird launched itself one last time against the bars. One wing continued to pump at the cage floor, where the small bird landed, tiny head cocked at an impossible angle and chest heaving.

The wings stopped and the miner holding the cage at eye level deposited the untimely little tomb onto the uneven, cut-rock floor. The men continued to stare, wide-eyed and gathering closer in the meager halo. Machinery chugged softly from far above, steel wheels screeching along tracks.

“The air’s tainted, then,” a miner stated with a tremble that rivaled any common stutter.

“They don’t do that. They just kick over. And this’uns still breathin’,” another said. “It ain’t the gas.”

“What the hell’s wrong with it, then?” the man asked, nudging the cage a bit with the toe of a boot. “’Suppose it don’t matter no way. We get topside or we’re dead men.”

The smallest of the men crept to the farthest reach of the light, wet eyes even wider than his normal, scattered look. “Somethin’s wrong in here,” he said with a quaky voice. “Animals sense things us men can’t see.”

“Spare us, Nelson. We don’t need none of your woo-woo shit down here,” one gruff voice warned.

Nelson shook his head, pointing a shaky finger at the cage. “If that bird’s tryin’ that hard to get outta here, we should be, too.”

“One went out on us at the Independence last year, before those poor bastards rode the cage to the bottom,” the first said, approaching for a better look. “Faint-hearted, these little ones.”

No one spoke as fresh memories circulated. Vignettes of terror played as each man’s mind recapped a version of the accident. Fifteen miners were literally broken to bits when the cable frayed loose, sending the lift plummeting over fourteen-hundred feet to a miner’s version of a sump-soaked hell.

“Poor bastards,” he said, again his low voice breaking dense silence. His breath laced into steam in the dim paths of light. They took turns huffing clouds of vapor in disbelief.

“That’s a day, then.” Nelson paced free of the group, snatching gear and tossing it onto a half-full ore cart. “The damned bird’s given up the ghost and the temp dropped somethin’ mighty.”

“It’s no’ upta you. What ya reckon, Charlie?” one man asked, gesturing to the crew foreman with a nod.

Charlie Caleman, a shifter who’d built years of confidence as a lead, didn’t make snap decisions. He nodded calmly. The big man stood half a foot over the tallest, searching the faces of his crew and returned his gaze to the first one who’d spoken up— his brother, Paul. He considered quickly. Three lives depended on his judgment. The first instinct was to keep the calm and get them out. They were low, nearly seven hundred feet deep at the bottom of the shaft and had made decent ground that day, cutting a new room into the mountain. The ceiling was right at seven feet, and they’d hollowed out enough flat ground that the men walked easily from cart to shaft under a new line of electric light. Going got real rough for the last hour and some, but fluorite and dusty quartz ran thick in purple veins, pointing to pay dirt that would still be there at the top of a new day. He gestured toward the path out.

Nerves spiked in his stomach. A bird kickin’off was one thing. The life of a miner was another. He tilted his timepiece to the light, steeling himself. There was less than an hour left before he and his men would head topside for the night anyway. He clasped the watch closed, sending a metallic snap ricocheting from wall to wall in the chiseled-out cave.

“Pack it in,” he said, low and calm. “Get yourselves out. Nelson,” he said, holding the flighty miner’s gaze, “calm the hell down so you don’t get one of us hurt.”

No one argued against their shifter, or superstition, both of which were known to keep miners alive. The men hastily turned to retrieve various diggers and canteens.

Nelson jerked his pick free from where he’d lodged it into the rock wall. The crackle of splitting granite rent the dim room. The men stopped their hustle for an instant when the light flickered. Air hissed somewhere, filling the space with the smell of a hundred corpses. A lone splinter of stone slashed free, tumbling and clacking from above, coming to rest inside their meager line of light.

“Aw Jesus!” Nelson screamed, breaking into a flailing sprint for his life.

“She’s comin’ down—” one crew-member yelled, the last of his words cut off when a slab of rock slammed down from above. His helmet shot against a wall as bone crushed with wet snaps, and frothy gurgles of air released from organs. The mountain screamed as gasses pushed free, busting cracks in every direction. Fissures slashed through stone fast as lightning cutting the night sky.

Charlie Caleman didn’t know why, but he dodged a blast of gravel, grabbed the bird cage and lunged toward the stope leading to safety as a wall of fluorite-veined granite sloughed, crushing his crew and brother behind him so fast he only heard one tortured scream from inside.

  • * *

Three months after the death of her husband Paul, Rebecca Caleman refused to wait for the bank to claim her house in Victor, Colorado. She let defeat slide off her shoulders and silently released the property in hopes of retaining the last shreds of her dignity. In the days shortly after the mining accident that claimed her husband, the cellar stocks ran empty so she picked up and moved her four daughters and one son a few miles south to the Caleman family ranch on the Shelf Road. Her husband had worked hard to afford a nice home for them, away from the drudgery of ranch life. Rebecca was grateful her in-laws maintained the Caleman property and offered them a portion of the monstrous house.

Paul had been a good husband, and his brother Charlie remained one of the most kind-hearted. Although he was a gruff shift boss at the mine, losing his brother just weeks before had taken a toll on Charlie, leaving his face creased with grief and diminishing his easy smile. Rebecca cycled, trying to hate Charlie for being the one that survived. Certainly, it was chaos in that shaft when the mountain came down, but wasn’t there one thing he could have done to save his brother? Why save a dead bird? Why wouldn’t he die trying to rescue her husband?

Charlie didn’t speak of the accident and she couldn’t bring herself to pry any further. She’d been told what happened. It was an accident, plain and simple. Miners accepted the risk to make the good money. Paul chose to put himself in danger to provide a good life for his family. Charlie accepted larger responsibilities, being the boss. He was responsible for the safety of his crew. There were but a handful of lives with him, and Charlie chose to save a damned birdcage. God gave her strength to forgive. That didn’t stop her from wishing she could hate him.

But he was just too good. Caleman men were chiseled from the block that way, apparently. Charlie offered to take them all in the day of the funeral service for Paul, but Rebecca waited, searching for enough work to cover her bank note. She finally conceded, but at least she’d tried.

Resilient to the point they earned a healthy dose of jealousy from Rebecca, the children meshed well with their cousins on the ranch, splitting the morning milking, stall mucking, and hay stacking duties up nine ways between them. Rebecca was guilt-ridden at first, bringing on more mouths to feed, but seeing how her children rose to the responsibilities of ranch life made her proud, lessening her remorse.

“It’s just another glass of milk and baked potato,” Charlie said, patting her shoulder. “We’re family.” His thin, forced smile was lost behind his coffee cup. “And besides, now that all your young ‘uns are here, I haven’t touched a shovel in weeks.”

Rebecca nodded and smiled as best she could.

She did what she could do, keeping house with her sister-in-law, mending and sewing, cooking, and sketching free hand pictures to sell in town, earning a little money to help the family.

Not only did her art keep her hands busy, it helped when her mind began to race and she thought about the horrid death her husband suffered, his big, strong body torn apart, and her heart threatened to break all over again. It was during those times when she was most productive, creating beauty on plain parched, lifeless paper. Adding color like splashes of vibrant life, again jealous even of her own work, because the thing she gave to her work was the very essence she felt she lacked. She was a shell. An empty vessel, cold and echoing. A plain, white canvas, lacking vibrancy and lust for life. Depth of soul.

At first, she sketched things that comforted her. Sunshine on her husband’s face in the morning. One of his eyes with a pool of color so deep she saw herself looking back, and heard him telling her, “You’ve got my heart, girl,” like he did countless times to make her smile. She sketched his hands, strong when he provided for his family, soft as the fur of a cottontail when he touched her.

Gradually, she moved on to the beauty provided by the vast, mountainous acreage at the ranch. A doe and a fawn in a glade. A family of skunks with lively kittens wrestling by a stump at twilight. She’d walk for hours, watching the sun to keep her bearings, thrilling in her ability to see God in the scenes she found. Each span of beauty was a gift from above. All color in a sunrise was painted by angels; the same ones that kept their brushes nimble and moist, awaiting a clean palate for sunset.

One bright morning the most beautiful, enormous cougar was laid out on a ledge across a crag. The mountain lion’s gaze was locked on her, so it appeared to have been watching as she meandered the wilderness, one big paw bent at the wrist and dangling from the slab. From her vantage, she guessed it to be much larger than she, outweighing her by over fifty pounds. If the thing got a hair, it could likely clear the chasm separating them, but it reclined, instead watching her every step with tawny-gold eyes.

She’d never considered the color of a wild cat’s eyes before. They stood out beautifully in the fawn-colored face, contrasting, soft white blending at the jaw and continuing along the cat’s underneath. Its belly rose and fell, and she fancied she heard the deep rumbling purr as it blinked, basking, and watching. The massive tail twitched, the only agitated part of the animal, like a house cat cornered by an ornery toddler. It seemed caged then, perhaps stuck there on the ledge, trapped by its own cunning. She backed away with their eyes locked on each other, finally turning to run once the cat was out of sight.

The trip back to the ranch house was a quick one. Rebecca’s heart pounded as she pulled a long canvas from behind the headboard in her bedroom and flattened in on the pad. She’d concentrated hard during the hike back, memorizing the subtleties along with the strengths of the picture in her mind’s eye. When the canvas stared back at her, taunting with a question of blank lifelessness, she answered by laying out the sketch at a quick pace. It was her only large canvas, left over from months ago. The big ones were terribly expensive, but Rebecca knew it would soon be a painting, deeper and beautiful beyond anything she’d ever done. She created for hours, barely eating or sleeping between cycles of the sun.

Six days later Charlie hung the painting over the couch. The mountain lion gazed out from his perch above, swirling fog pooling deep in the crag below. Rebecca beamed with pride. The painting wouldn’t be sold; it would hang for the family to enjoy. The children hugged her and told her it was brilliant. Charlie and his wife shook their heads, smiling at her talent. Soon, everyone went back to their preoccupations, leaving Rebecca standing in front of the painting, tears streaming her cheeks as she gazed into the feline eyes and saw herself looking back. Paul would have loved it.

  • * *

Two days later Rebecca backed away from the door as her oldest niece sprinted through, sobbing, holding the hem of her skirts high as she ran. Charlie ducked through the door behind her, a switch poised in his huge right hand, but the girl continued through the room, quickly making herself lost in the sprawling house. He snapped the willow in half, bending it back once to sever the moist bark holding it together and flung it to the floor.

Not wanting to show the look of incrimination, one that she knew would reveal her shock, Rebecca dropped her gaze and said nothing, the only sound in the room the drawing of Charlie’s ragged breath.

“Don’t you say a bloody word,” he growled.

“I wouldn’t,” she whispered, eyes still averted.

He stomped back outside, slamming the door.

Rebecca charged through the house, searching for the girl to see what could have prompted Charlie to act in such a manner. He was kind and patient as he was tall, and she’d never heard him raise his voice at one of his children, let alone whip one. Following the sound of the girl’s sobs, she came to a closed door and pushed it open, intent on consoling the child. She stopped, hands falling limp to her sides.

Two of the girls had come to aid the child, having helped her out of her clothes. Tears streaked all the young women’s faces. Their mother held an open tin of salve, eyes wide, surveying like she didn’t know where to begin.

Welts rose on tender flesh at the backs of the girl’s pale thighs, some to the point of tearing the skin. Bruising had begun in places, creating blotches of blackness scattered down a thin back, bottom and legs. The girl was in shock, hugging her frock against her chest, trembling as if she might freeze. She stared at Rebecca, teeth chattering.

“I left the gate open,” she admitted.

“Has he ever—” Rebecca managed.

“No, he’s never hit anyone,” one of the distraught girls wailed, throwing her hands over her face.

Rebecca did the only thing she could think to do. She threw her arms around her bloodied niece and held her as she cried from the pain when her mother started slathering on the salve.

  • * *

Charlie apologized. He wept. Promised he’d never lose his temper again. Days went by, and one night when Rebecca couldn’t hold her bladder until morning, she passed Charlie as he slept on the couch, the mountain lion in the painting watching him breathe. She didn’t want to think of the trouble that could be between Charlie and his wife, but after such an occurrence, it was likely. He’d probably been stuck out on the couch since that day. Carefully and quiet so she didn’t wake him, she made her way out to relieve herself and back inside before he’d turned over.

Although apologies continued to flow, the mood around the ranch was somber. Children didn’t chase. If conversation took place, it stopped when Charlie came around. Rebecca couldn’t help but feel bad for him, and she ached for the family that had lost trust. She didn’t get involved, but she offered smiles, continued to help manage her niece’s wounds with her sister-in-law and sketched from the scenes she found outside.

She’d started a new drawing of a big,bull elk she seen and heard bugling just down the draw. The picture came along nicely, although she’d been working on it for hours and her drawing hand cramped painfully. Setting her supplies aside, she changed for bed, and climbed beneath a thick cover of quilts.

Floorboards creaked on the other side of the door. Rebecca couldn’t remember anyone being up as late as she was, but discounted the footsteps, deciding someone must have needed to go to the outhouse. A wind kicked up, screaming through trees out back. She closed her eyes.

Moments later a shrill scream tore through the slumbering ranch house. Rebecca ran from her room, listening, trying to control her own panic as she attempted to discern which child the horrible noise came from. Others ran about in the house, and she ran toward the sounds they made. Two girls stood in their open doorway.

“Back to bed,” Rebecca commanded. The girls ran inside and closed their door. The boys’ room was lit by a hand lantern, one child standing upright on his bed, a finger held out toward the doorway Rebecca had just stepped through.

The moment she was inside the room, bile rose in her throat when she inhaled. The smell of death coated the air like tar over a hot fencepost. She placed a hand over her mouth and nose, trying not to gag.

Charlie stood next to his son, rubbing his back.

“It’s okay, we’re all here,” he said, with a calming tone. “It was just a nightmare.”

“There was a man,” the child said, voice shaking.

“Who?” Rebecca asked.

He jabbed a small finger at the dark hall. “He was a cat-man,” he said, breaking down. He hid his face, embarrassed at his show of emotion.

His mother picked him off the bed, cradling him against her chest and hip as if he was a toddler. The boy melted against her, crying like he’d been beaten.

“Charlie, please go look outside to see if the dogs drug something dead up by the house,” she said.

He nodded and left the room.

“Is there anything I can do?” Rebecca asked.

Her sister-in-law just shook her head, rocking her son. “I’ll get him settled in. Go on to sleep, Becca.”

Rebecca nodded and went to the door, grateful to get into some fresh air. Taking a turn down the hall, she stepped into the girls’ room. Moonlight shone through a window, showing the scared girls were all lumped into two beds together, bodies huddled under covers. They peeked out, wide-eyed and fearful, but tucked firmly in their bunks.

“All’s well. Just a bad dream.” She smiled and left.

  • * *

Thankfully, October brought peace to the Caleman ranch. Normalcy claimed its place, and Rebecca tried to get back to healing from her loss. Her children continued to do well on the ranch, and chores had expanded to include stacking wood for the winter and counting cattle before snow began to fly. Preserves were stored in the pantry. Lard was hauled into the kitchen in buckets, and the household waited out winter at the ready.

Days shortened and nights chilled at sundown. Out of need for something to do when it was dark just past afternoon, the children at the ranch fashioned a wind chime from the old birdcage their father had brought from the mine the day of the fatality. The dehydrated corpse of the yellow mining bird was discarded into the trees in back of the hen house.

Charlie hung the gift from a hook on the porch the next morning. The bars hung askew, creating an imbalanced tone, although the love with which it was created melded the notes into beautiful harmonies that charmed the wind on the lawn and gardens.

Rebecca was comfortable with letting her mind wander to better days and times when her heart was whole. She imagined her husband’s deep, soothing voice before bed, his words masking the way she was the only person in the house that slept in a room by herself. Charlie and his wife went back to sharing their marriage bed. All the boys slept in grand beds in a cozy room, as did the girls. Charlie had said she would need privacy. It was a nice gesture. She hated it.

Each night was long, and she would sketch and paint until her hand ached and back was stiff from standing or hunching, depending on the size of the canvas. Working deep into each night, she tried to exhaust herself, because that was the only way she could fall asleep. She’d get changed, climb into bed, and think good, warm thoughts about her husband. Her mind relaxed as she thought of him, her body slackened, and she entered the comfort of sleep.

The sound of her bedroom door should have fully awakened her, but instead of being awake and alarmed when Charlie stepped in, she was confused and half asleep. He closed the door behind him and knelt beside her bed, peering into her face with a tender gaze. The potent smell of decay followed on his heels. One hand moved to her cheek, tracing the line of her jaw with a gentle touch. He lowered his face to barely an inch above hers, and just when she was about to say something— she didn’t know what, exactly— but certainly something in protest, he clamped a big hand tightly over her mouth.

A man could do a lot with one hand. He tugged his belt loose from his britches. Tears contorted her vision in the low light as she searched his face for reason. Just a year apart, Charlie shared many features with her husband, Paul. They were the same height, and just as strong as one another, as well. He bared her quickly, and she continued to watch him as he worked to free their bodies for access. She tore at his skin, determined to leave marks, attempting to hurt him if even a little. His muscular chest hovered, touching her nose, and since she was forced to breathe only through one nostril that wasn’t crushed closed, her senses filled with the scent of death. Eyes, black as hell itself, neared her own as he entered her. She wept, thinking how she knew she’d weep silently, even if his hand wasn’t over her mouth. He moved slowly, iris-less eyes on hers, one free hand caressing parts of her like they were lovers. He kissed tears from her cheeks, closing her eyes with his lips.

“You’ve got my heart, girl,” he whispered.

“Why?” she cried out, the wail smothered against his palm.

He stilled. “Because I love you. You wouldn’t accept me if I didn’t come to you with this man.” He let his gaze take in the curve of her jaw, the deep pools of tears in her eyes. “I regard you as you wander. You call me forth.”

Rebecca searched Charlie’s eyes but found only blackness, the likes of a deep, light-forbidding cave. Whatever crept above her then wasn’t her brother-in-law, or her beloved Paul. Lord God, why? Heavenly Father … please help me ….

But he touched her like her husband, felt just like him everywhere. He moved as her Paul did, touching the places she loved to be touched, relentlessly. Rebecca wondered if it was her mind doing it all, masking him, giving her a sickening parody of intimacy she knew she would never have again.

Exhaustion from straining and fighting won out and her grip relaxed on his forearm, fingernails sliding from the bloodied grooves in the flesh there. Charlie removed his hand and replaced it with his lips, her husband’s lips, quickening his pace with frantic thrusts.

When Charlie left Rebecca, she pulled her quilts up to her chin, closed her eyes, and prayed to continue to dream.

***

 

#

Chapter 2

May Day, 1923

Jim Witcher was a man of passions, and above all others that drove him was the deep, Christian love he had for his wife, Marybelle. Sickly from childhood, Marybelle never bore children, which, contrary to most couples of the times, made them closer. It was just the two of them, her tuberculosis, and plenty of old Witcher money to get them close to Pikes Peak in the arid, high altitudes of Colorado in America.

“We’ll beat the odds,” Marybelle stated through her mask.

“Yes, love.” The body of his frail wife held a heart worthy of ten lions.

Jim was amazed at how easily British society moved on after news struck of the sinking of the mammoth ship, the Titanic, over a decade ago. There was no blame to place, for he, himself again lent faith in steamship travel when he put his mate aboard a passenger liner for America. The three week jaunt was emotionally draining, for although unspoken, the fact that the gamble was Marybelle’s last hope of beating the infection in her lungs weighed heavy. Anticipation and dread warred in heart, but hope and love won out, keeping them in check.

The ship’s physician stayed close and delivered reports on the hour. Being paid handsomely, the doctor kept news of her condition unknown to the other passengers. Twice during the trip, the doctor woke Jim, insisting Marybelle’s lungs would fail at any moment. Despite crimson-soaked bed sheets, she hung on.

They landed at Boston and wasted no time making way across the Midwest, high into the rocky, treed mountains of Victor, Colorado.

Marybelle squinted into the pale sky. “Oh, James do you see? We’re so very close to heaven.” She squeezed his hand best she could in her weakened state. Jim kissed her forehead and carried her toward their new house.

Jim’s confidence grew, knowing he had made the right decision. The dry air worked wonders for Marybelle, and she made a decent but slow-coming recovery. The new Witcher Estate claimed land far into the outlying district, southeast of Victor. His wife needed peace to heal, and Jim made it life’s purpose to provide all Marybelle needed. His heart soared each time he noted another way she became herself again. Her spirits lifted, and she removed her mask each morning with a smile that fueled his very soul.

Merely providing the best environment known for his wife’s recovery wasn’t the only step it would take to ensure Marybelle would live. Jim took great care in choosing the services of a highly-recommended physician in Cripple Creek. Keeping a second office in Victor, the doctor stopped by twice weekly unless the weather was bad, which was not a common occurrence for the bespectacled, mousy man who talked too much. The doctor was older, not a widower, and remained unmarried. Jim didn’t trust a gentleman when a wife couldn’t, either. He worked hard to keep his distaste for the man’s appearance from creating doubt in his abilities as a physician. Handsome or not, the doctor came with the best recommendations, which spoke clearly enough to earn Jim’s trust.

Jim held Marybelle’s tiny hand tight, walking around the yard. She loved the aspen trees and wildflowers of the region. Shaking loose of his grip, she paced ahead while he leaned in the shade. His heart swelled, watching the tiny chipmunks that skittered to the hem of her gown to collect scattered bits of dry bread she dropped for them. She glanced over a shoulder, blue eyes sparkling.

“Thank you, love.” Wind swept a wave of hair beneath her chin, which she cheated away behind an ear.

He need not ask for what. She was thankful for her extended life, as was he. “I love you, Mary.”

She remained too weak to bind her hair, leaving twisting tresses to fall in youthful, blonde lengths about her shoulders. Jim rested easier. His beautiful wife was right. They’d beaten the odds. She leaned against a large, mica-speckled boulder, smiling. “Let’s begin living once more. God graces me with breath. I want to go to Sunday service.”

“Mary, I—”

“Please, James. What good is this new life without the Lord?”

He sighed, scrubbing his chin. “That will cause you pain, Mary. The lesions are healing, but you’re not steady—”

“I grow strong again. You worry for naught.”

“We’ll ask what the doctor thinks best.” He shook his head, not surprised at all by her defiance in the face of certain agony. Mary was a good woman, and those of such heart sacrificed for the Heavenly Father. “Certainly, the Lord knows the risk is great.”

She stepped close, pulling one of his hands free from where he’d clenched his arms across his chest. “As is the reward of being back in His house.”

He nodded, pulling her in. “We have much to thank Him for.” Jim’s ability to deny his wife wasn’t on the list.

  • * *

Midsummer brought chill, and just as the wives at the congregation predicted, hemmed, and hawed, the snow flew on Hall-o-ween. Jim bundled Mary tightly for their trips into town. Despite his assertions that the cold air could cause a relapse, the physician continued to insist Marybelle had made a respectable recovery and was well enough to travel to church on Sundays.

Jim watched closely, finally warming to the idea that the sparkle had returned to her eyes, and she laughed easily, the way she had before the sickness took her. The ladies took her in, drawn by her charm and purity of soul.

She reclaimed the position as lady of the house, sewing beside her favorite window and tatting new lace curtains for their home. She sang like an angel. Jim’s heart mended and he relaxed his protective grip, allowing her to take on life as she wished.

Mary boiled a rich, fatty stew for supper one night, and she carried the small boiling pot to the dining table, letting go a bit too soon. The cast iron clacked down hard and thick broth exploded upward, spraying the table.

Jim shot from his chair, pulling her into view. Her cheeks were flushed. “Mary?”

She dropped a potholder to the table, leaning for support. “It’s terribly hot in here.” She took a corner seat at their huge table, breath coming too fast.

“Perhaps you shouldn’t do so much, Mary. It is likely too soon for these mundane tasks.”

“If I’m not able to do things for you, to show I adore you in the ways a wife wants, what good is life at all?” Her lower lip trembled. She looked away.

“You should have told me you weren’t feeling well. Your smile is all I need.”

She sighed, gathered herself, and ladled their bowls full.

  • * *

Marybelle didn’t eat again after that night. Scarred lungs again filled and she began to suffocate, her tiny body racked with croup that produced growing spatters of bloody phlegm. Frost-laced wind howled, beating against the windows as she struggled for air.

Jim held her Bible and one fevered hand, praying for God’s mercy. Mary went unresponsive. He removed his own mask, bowing his head.

She didn’t make it through another storm. Jim tucked her into bed, placing a kiss on her forehead. Her fever had finally broken, for good this time. His heart shattered, shards stabbing deep. He wept, rocking, grieving for uncounted hours.

“Such a shame,” a man said softly, in the doorway.

Jim spun, startled to his feet. “Who are you? What business do you have in my house, and with my wife?” His voice rose to a scream. “How did you get in? Get out!”

“You’ve every right to be angry,” the gentleman intoned, obviously not a very recent arrival from Britain, but not droll in tongue like an American. “Please, allow me to help.” The man straightened his finely tailored jacket.

Jim took a shaky breath, a little embarrassed at his outburst. “My apologies. Are you from the doctor’s office? What is your name, sir?”

“Titles are such trifling cordialities.” The man shook his head with pity. “She was beautiful, and was taken from you.” He waved a hand slowly, gesturing to Marybelle. “Wrath is nothing, if not appropriately placed,” he stated, with a nod. Not a black hair moved, impeccably parted, combed and oiled. His gaze moved to the discarded Bible.

“Wrath?” Jim balled a fist. “What do you know? Have you shared my position in this?” He paced close, eye level. Scowling, he swallowed hard. The man smelled as if he’d wallowed with the dead, despite a clean, pressed suit of clothes. “By all that’s Holy, you’ve come to the wrong house. Now, leave, or you shall know of my wrath first hand.”

“Is the fault mine, then?” the stranger replied, not shaken by the advance. “Who is it that has failed? Not I, who has only seen from a distance … and not merely you, who has given everything to provide care for her. You’ve done what you believed to be best.”

Jim sobbed through gritted teeth, not bothering to fight shame.

“You sacrificed her health when you should have kept her home.” He tilted his head, gaze scrutinizing. “I find faith fascinating. Entertaining. Is God worth this?” He glanced at the bloodied bed. “Marybelle was let down by a being who put no stock in her existence. One who would lose nothing if she passed. One who was merely inconvenienced by every breath she managed.”

“How dare you blaspheme the Holy Father?”

The man laughed. “Well let’s have an all-powerful cure then.” He leaned against the doorway. “Go on. Pray for God to save your good wife.”

Scowling, Jim wiped tears and snot away with a sleeve. He glanced to the Bible and back at the stranger.

“Please, go ahead.” Scorn softened to pity in the man’s voice.

After a moment, Jim responded, trembling. He examined the intruder. “The Angel of Death assumes to enlighten me, then?”

“Dear James Lee Witcher, I am not the Angel of Death.”

Jim glanced at Mary, her thin, pale features lax, no longer strained for shallow breath. “She was everything. I’ll follow my beloved as surely as the sun follows the moon. Certainly the Heavenly Father can make exception for his broken child.”

“He has His rules. Follow that path and your soul shall perish. There is still life to be lived. I will show you.”

“Leave me! There is no life here.”

“You would take your own life? The worst of sins against Him?”

Jim didn’t answer, just looked away.

“As you will.” The stranger pulled the door closed behind him.

“If you’re a thief, be my guest!” Jim screamed at the door. “I’ll see you in hell!”

Marybelle’s eyes remained fixed where he’d knelt beside the bed, blue gaze clouding by the moment, life stolen away. It was true. He’d done everything he could, but gave in, granting his wife what killed her.

  • * *

Stepping from his Tin Lizzie and into the sights of Jim’s rifle, the doctor met his fate, Jim taking the place of judge, jury and executioner. Jim Witcher couldn’t put a bullet in the breast of God, but by God it felt damned fine to let the good doctor take the hit. The shallow click of the cartridge snapping into place resounded from low clouds. No other would lose a loved one because of negligence from the uncaring bastard.

Any unlikely passers-by would know of the dead man’s failing. Jim hung the doctor’s slim body neatly from the lofty, wrought-iron headgate leading onto the estate, perfectly centered beneath the name “Witcher.” There was no way to punish the Almighty for the death of Marybelle, but the good doctor had also let her down.

There was no reason to wait out spring. Jim looked to the sky. Indeed, the sun followed the moon.

The hanging corpse froze in the mountain chill, remaining a fixture for the best part of the month of November.

  • * *

Pierce Allan preferred the assuring gait of a horse over that of an automobile, any day. He’d been the sheriff of Teller County for nineteen months and twenty-six days the day he rode out to investigate the claim of a dead man hanging above a residential gate on the outskirts of town. Surely the call was hokum, but it was a dandy excuse for a ride.

The fresh-shod horse beneath him eased into a smooth lope once the busier streets of town were behind him. Older, burned and abandoned buildings and homes mingled on the outer blocks of Victor, some families or business owners having the ability to rebuild after the Great Fire a couple decades back, and others victimized and cashed out by the combination of the loss of their homes and the falling price of gold. They’d left a boneyard of foundations in memory. Pierce didn’t dismay. He huffed and spit a long stream of tobacco colored saliva from the seasoned groove in his bottom lip. Hell, Victor had the sort of spirit that didn’t die out during the iciest of winters. The flames of hell wouldn’t keep her down forever.

He pulled back with slight, gentle pressure on the reins of the hackamore. The big mare snorted and tossed her head just a bit to testify her disapproval of his decision to slow down. She kept up a high-tailed prancing trot, proud ears pricked forward. Pierce removed a glove and leaned across the pommel, patting the damp fur of her neck. That sort of spirit couldn’t be found sitting on his ass driving a motor car.

“Ho, now. We gotta a ways to go today, Lady.” They’d head about seven miles down Phantom Canyon, and the horse would need her energy to carry his weight and also to keep warm throughout the day. He slid his fingers inside the glove, pulled his hat lower, and popped the collar on his lined, riding duster, settling in against the chill. The storm had crept up quick and uninvited. Maybe he should just let the mare do like she wanted and run herself stupid, just to get there, check out the claim, which was likely a big pile of horse shit. Then again, maybe he should have just rode bareback to share warmth with his horse. He’d talked himself out of that, preferring to ride with a scabbard mounted to his saddle, rather than hanging across his shoulder or back all day. It was a toss-up. He huffed and spit again. Either way, he wouldn’t let Lady hurt herself, even if it was only a couple hours walk each way.

True to form, the Colorado weather shifted from clear morning frost to sunshine, then to sleet halfway through the trip. Fog barreled at him from ahead, heavily laden with icy snow. By the time they made the headgate to the old Witcher Place, where sure as hell hung a corpse, a layer of powder dry snow covered the road.

“I’ll be damned.” The corpse’s blackened face was about eye level with his own.

“Poor son-of-a-bitch,” Peirce muttered as he swung down. Reins in one hand, he approached and grabbed one of the cadaver’s legs. “Correction. Poor, frozen son-of-a-bitch.”

Lady snorted and danced in place. Wind drove blasts of snow to form drifts next to a Model T on the roadside.

“He ain’t gonna bite ya, girl,” he said, and secured the mare a few feet away by wrapping the reins around the top rail of property fence. Pierce locked both arms around the corpse’s knees, lifted to free the dead man’s coat from the top of the “T” in “Witcher,” then lowered the small, rigid man to the snow. Soft tissue was either removed by animals or withdrawn, revealing empty, pecked out sockets and bared, but impeccable white teeth. Crow and magpie droppings hung thick across the man’s coat and the tips of his fancy shoes. His linen shirt was shredded from beak marks, flesh removed to show ribs gleaming from darkened skin and muscle. A slug was embedded in the man’s sternum, but that wasn’t what killed him. He’d been shot far more than one time, and the wounds were stripped clean down to bone. He only found the one bullet and decided that was enough evidence to let the poor man rest.

Frisking the corpse to make short-work of the job and get back to town before the storm hit hard, Pierce pulled several things from the pockets of the jacket, including an envelope containing an invoice sheet from a Physician Robert McKinley for one “James Witcher” for the “Care of wife Marybelle (tuber).” A neatly rolled and bound stethoscope in a wooden case, a pouch containing dried apple slices, and a pen were all placed inside Peirce’s saddle bags to take back as evidence to identify the dead man. No mystery there. Shoulda brought a damned motor car to haul the stiff.

The sheriff sighed, turning toward the house where no smoke came from the chimney and snow continued to fall across an untraveled path. Now for the fun part. Although the murderer likely fled, he still had to investigate the house. And just because it looked empty didn’t mean it was. He led Lady to the porch, where he fastened her lead.

“Sheriff,” he called, banging on the door. He repeated himself. Lady bobbed her head, nickering.

“Well, if you say so.” Pierce tried the door handle, which opened easily into a mudroom with a main entry hanging wide open into a richly furnished home. “Hello? Sheriff Allan here,” he yelled, fingering the straps loose for his forty-five. He inhaled to call out again, filling his lungs with rancid air tainted by decaying flesh.

“Dammit.” The house was cold, and if not for the impressive amount of glass windows it would have been dark, too. Grey light coated the interior. Pierce thanked all that was good he wasn’t the type to spook easy and trudged through the kitchen and den. Finding no source of the smell, he started upstairs to search the bedrooms.

A dead gal, a lady, was in a bed in the first room he came to. He covered his mouth with a gloved hand and bent to get a look at who had to have been “Marybelle”, according to the doctor’s note. Black streaks and splattered drops coated her lacy bedding.

Tuber. Pierce fought his gag reflex. He’d seen them before and all the poor folks ended up emaciated and bloody.

Knobby cheekbones seemed to make up the majority of what time had left of her face. Blonde hair twisted into feverish piles around her head like a frayed halo. A gold cross on a chain rested against a protruding sternum, barely disguised by a blouse of finely crafted lace and rich linen. Frail, boney fingers were adorned with gold. An overwhelming sadness gripped Pierce from the inside. She had been someone’s everything, this Marybelle Witcher. He raised up and removed his hat in respect. “God bless ya, sweet lady.”

A Bible lie on the floor, probably cast from a hand of whoever sat in a chair by the head of the bed. He couldn’t place blame. Watching the poor woman suffocate, feeling helpless … those were the kinds of thing that could make a God-fearing man lose faith. He reached for the Bible and placed it beneath the lady’s hand.

Outside the bedroom, he took a grounding breath and got to the business of searching the place for James Witcher. Insane from the death of his wife or not, the man had the law to reckon with. He’d go easy on him, but he had a job to do. The doctor wasn’t to blame for the condition of his wife. Pierce descended the steps quickly, putting his hat on.

“James Witcher?” he called.

Continuing the search, Pierce nearly gave up until he went back to the kitchen and looked out a window. The house was empty. Peering outside, he groaned. A huge barn and a couple of other small outbuildings would have to be searched, as well. Had he put any stock into the report of the corpse hanging outside, he would have brought along some help. Hell, maybe he should have sent out a couple deputies and kept himself and Lady inside, where it was warm and there were no poor, dead women layin’ around.

“Dammit.”

A door led to the backyard, so he stepped outside and walked toward the barn. The damned storm was socked in good, the snow growing heavier and wetter by the minute. A breeze kicked up, twisting the fall of the flakes before they found the ground. Wind hissed quietly through a grove of aspens behind the barn. Above the soft huff of the wind, a dull creaking sound beat, drum-steady.

Pierce turned his good ear to the noise, taking a tentative step toward it. “Sheriff, here. Hello?” The wind blew harder, upgrading from a breeze to a slight, gusting gale. The creaking grew louder and faster with the wind as he plodded against a growing barrage of pine needles and dried leaves. He looked up to the treetops that protruded above the top of the barn. Stark, white-skinned aspens rocked with the wind, their black eyes watching him from marks where deer and elk had knocked off small, lower limbs. Step by step, he got closer and the noise got louder. Snow gathered in his mustache, melting quickly, so he couldn’t tell if his nose was running from the cold or if he’d soon be a snowman.

The wind wasn’t pounding as hard, partially blocked by the barn wall. The howling was just as loud though, and it was darker behind the building, the ground sheltered from most of the snow where the trees blocked out the sky. The creaking came from overhead, just inside the barn. A gilt clasp held the barn closed with unexpected stability for something seeming to be mainly for decoration.

“Damned British,” Pierce grumbled. “Everything’s gotta be all fancy and made o’ pure gold.” The snow turned to pelting ice balls while he worked at getting the barn door open. Finally, cold hinges squealed when both doors flung open with a mean gust from the storm.

“Thank ya, Jesus.” He stumbled inside, squinting to see through dust clouds as thick as stew. The creaking grew to a scream. He tipped back, one hand on the top of his hat, peering into the rafters. He spun, searching, stepping in a ways, blinking snow out of his eyes. The back of his head, shoulders, and his hand smacked hard against an upright post. He pulled his arm down, shaking the sting out of it when wood snapped overhead, sounding a lot like a blast from a rifle. Pierce glanced up as a black figure plummeted from above.

A dead man crumbled to the ground like a gunny sack full of frozen cord wood. A heavy logging rope trailed down behind him, striking Pierce hard on one shoulder and then on top the head, knocking him to the ground. He rolled over to face what came down from the rafters. The force of the fall had snapped the man’s jaw loose from where it faced him, just inches from his nose. Blackened flesh was torn and pulled, half eaten in places. The corpse’s neck wasn’t broke, the noose pulled tight to a suffocating choker around his throat. Leathered skin coated a boney skull, sunken against a fractured eye socket. The torn up face was an inch over the line of too close for comfort.

“Sumbitch!”

Scrambling from beneath a spaghetti plate of fallen rope, Pierce found his frozen feet, then the path to the house and didn’t stop running until he freed his mare’s reins from the porch rail and launched into the saddle. Enough was enough. He’d send around deputies to clean up the mess.

Lady bobbed her head, fighting the reins as she trotted out of the Witchers’ front yard, and Sheriff Pierce Allan acquiesced, giving the mare her head to run all the way back to Victor, if she pleased.

“Damned, dumb son-of-a-bitch didn’t even know how to hang himself!”

  • * *

The next day Pierce alerted the Federal Marshal’s office to take the case and research the Witchers’ next of kin. The task wasn’t simple, and ran on for weeks. Relatives across the Atlantic were hard to find, and those that did reply to correspondence weren’t interested in a tuberculosis-ridden estate in the mountains of rural America, gold or none. The property was signed over to a land trust and Pierce closed the case and stayed a good, safe distance from the Witcher Place for the rest of his days.

Except for a nice flat of fertile meadow beyond the south garden where Timothy hay and thin, high-country wheat grew to be baled each fall, the property was left standing vacant for over seventy years. Tales of frost-ridden corpses dangling in a fall breeze circulated the district, becoming legend and fodder for kids’ stories around campfires. Some believed. Most didn’t put stock in such stories, yet kept well clear of the house of death.

  • * *

Rebecca Caleman fought the confinement of her quilts, as she’d done for nearly two weeks at the ranch on the Shelf Road. Some nights Charlie would stand death-still, staring at her cat painting and then come to her with his eyes black as night while the others slept. When he left her she’d lie awake, waiting, wondering how his children would fare if she gutted him when he came for her next time. Sleep didn’t come amidst the flood of tears that lasted until dawn most nights.

She kicked free of her sheets, panting. The smell of bacon frying next to a strong brew of coffee drifted into her room. The façade of normalcy was too much to bear any longer. She choked back a scream, but for only a moment.

“Take it down!” She ran into the kitchen, hitting Charlie with her fists. He grabbed one flailing arm.

“Take him out of here,” she begged, pointing to the fireplace with her free hand. “Burn it!” she cried.

“What, Becca?” he asked.

“My picture, please,” she wailed. “The cat … he comes from there. It’s all my fault. Don’t you see?”

Charlie pulled the painting from above the hearth and set it aside while his wife tried to calm Rebecca.

“Burn it!” Rebecca screamed.

Charlie consoled her gently. “I’m not going to do that, Becca. You’ll hate it if I do. I’ll just put it away and when you feel better you’ll be wantin’ me to hang it again.”

“No, no,” she cried, watching him leave the room. Her sister-in-law pulled her back toward her bedroom. “I drew it. I brought it here. It’s my fault, please … burn it.”

***

 

#

Chapter 3

Independence, Colorado

March, 1988

Family life at the old ranch on the Shelf Road was a test for Jack and Caroline Caleman. Jack’s great aunt, Rebecca, who had twice attempted to burn the Caleman Ranch to the ground, required a babysitter that was strong enough to hold the old girl back from sharp objects and hunting rifles. Rebecca whispered to herself about deserving to die, and when suicide failed, she openly admitted she’d take them all with her when she “went”.

Caroline could handle Rebecca, although the couple didn’t leave their great aunt alone with the children and locked her in her room at night. Jack replaced Rebecca’s window with softly sanded pine boards after she’d broken out the glass in a fit. Her room was dark and empty, lacking the likes of a closet rod to hang herself, but the couple deemed it safe enough. If she wanted to find a way badly enough, she’d do it, regardless of their efforts.

People in a small town talked amongst themselves about the crazy lady at the Caleman Ranch. Some even made comments about the treatment of the old woman, exaggerating and spinning tales about Jack and his wife chaining the poor, frail lady to the floor, or locking her inside a closet all the time. In truth, Jack didn’t have the heart to have Rebecca admitted to the crazy house, and she’d calmed down a lot since Caroline gave her some art supplies. Caroline had removed all the paint brush handles, despite Jack’s debate that if his aunt wanted to do herself in, she could do it with her own two hands.

Rebecca used the brushes gratefully, grasping them in gnarled fingers, finding an amount of peace through her art, the way she said she used to. Peace was granted to all when Rebecca started routinely putting herself to bed at night, tired after days of painting and singing to herself.

The day was done and Jack settled on the couch beside Caroline. The kids were in bed and so was Great Aunt Rebecca, the dinner mess cleaned up, and the house fell blessedly silent except for a lively little fire crackling in the fireplace.

“This is nice,” Caroline said with a content sigh. She cuddled closer to Jack, curling beneath a multihued, crocheted afghan. Jack pulled her closer still and placed a quick kiss on her forehead. Bright sparks rose up with ribbons of smoke, warmth relaxing them as they reflected on their day.

The kitchen faucet opened, followed by the rising hum of a glass being filled.

“Who do you suppose is thirsty this time?” Caroline tested.

“Well, it’s not Chaz. He’s asleep the moment his head hits the pillow.” “My bet’s on Molly this time,” she said, pulling the blanket aside so she could get up.

“You don’t need to check up on them constantly, Care. They’re getting big.” He made a grab for her hand.

She considered for a second, watching him.

He changed his mind as she thought it over. Maybe he was right, but with their nutty aunt, one couldn’t be too careful.

“You locked Rebecca’s door, right?” she asked.

“Damn. I thought you did,” Jack said, jetting off the couch. They sped toward the kitchen together. “I’ll get the lock and you check the kids.”

“Deal.”

A gentle hissing sound grew from the kitchen and they both stopped in the hall. Caroline shot Jack a concerned look. They took off at a run, rounding the corner, Caroline in the lead. Inside the kitchen, they both slid to a stop. Rebecca stood with her back to them, frail body wavering in front of the sink. Soft light flowed down, illuminating the woman’s silver hair like a frizzy halo. Her head tipped back as the dredges from a water glass emptied down her throat. The hissing sound stopped and the room became silent. She dropped the glass onto the counter with a crash as a vicious cough wracked her body.

“Aunt Becca?” Jack said, carefully. “Let’s get you back to bed.”

Caroline padded to the pantry, retrieving a wisk broom and the trash can for the broken glass. An empty box of lye granules lay in the bottom of the bin. “Ah, shit.”

Rebecca fell forward over the sink, hacking. Jack reached for her shoulder but she jerked away from his grasp.

“Aunt Rebecca, what’s wrong?”

A scream strangled in her throat. She clamped both withered hands over her mouth. Caroline dropped the broom, running to help.

“Mom? What’s going on?” Savannah asked from the doorway.

“Back to bed. Now!” Jack yelled, watching as she ran from the room.

Rebecca’s coughing grew ragged, blowing past her grip. White foam spewed from her nose. One hand fell away, streaked with pink and red froth.

“Jesus, no,” he looked to Caroline, franticly. His aunt went rigid, retching. A gurgling scream escaped and she collapsed, flopping over the sink.

“It’s lye! She ate the whole box!” Caroline turned on the water, pulling Rebecca back from the faucet. “We have to get water down her.” She grabbed a tumbler and let it fill.

“The water’s what’s activating it,” he said, steadying his aunt. She continued to vomit, the fluid growing deeper crimson. “Call an ambulance!”

He grabbed the water cup and tipped Rebecca’s head back, at a loss for any other way to help. “It’s going to be okay.”

She quit screaming, her jaw lax. He poured water into her mouth, cringing when the fizzing and hissing intensified.

Caroline yelled into the phone, reciting their address around a sob. She gave an account, describing Rebecca’s actions as her innards boiled apart like overripe tomatoes in a blanching bath.

“She’s not breathing,” he called. “Aunt Becca?”

There was no response, just a belch of acidic air followed by a new geyser of bloodied soap that nearly sprayed him straight in the face. He turned away as the warm fluid gushed against his neck and shoulder, chemicals stinging and biting into his skin.

“They’re on the way,” Caroline said. She wiped away tears and helped Jack lower Rebecca to the floor.

Age-blued eyes gazed beyond them both, through the ceiling, as Rebecca searched for an angel.

  • * *

Jack suffered a fair amount of conflict in knowing the lives of his family were improved due to the loss of the old woman. Except for her children, most of which were dead themselves, she was the last of his family and that made him feel pretty isolated from his relatives. At the same time, the burden was lifted. He didn’t want his kids to have to deal with the rumors about possible abuse, or about them living with a “crazy”.

The next morning over breakfast both his daughters were quiet, although they’d surely seen the event through a crack in a door, let alone heard the horrors. He gave each a loving pat on a hand or shoulder. Jack could only hope his family would have relief now that Rebecca was gone. He would handle it gently, talk if they wanted to, and share in their sadness if need be.

“Can we contact any of her children?” Caroline asked.

“The only one I knew an address for is locked up in the state asylum in Pueblo.”

“Well, we’ll set up a service for her in Victor.” Caroline placed two strips of crispy bacon on a plate where their son, Chaz, would sit.

“Chaz!” she called over her shoulder. “It’s getting cold.”

Footsteps grew louder until he ran into the kitchen and slid into his chair. “I was feeding Hornet,” he said, referring to his beloved dog.

Jack smiled at Chaz and turned back to his wife. “She has a plot next to her husband there.” He gulped the dregs of his coffee and stood to gather hugs and kisses before heading to work. At the door, he gave Hornet a scratch and left for the day.

Jack settled into his bulldozer at work, knowing he’d be rattled all shift long. Rebecca’s timing was crazy. Maybe she’d overheard them talking about the rumors in town so she’d resorted back to the idea of suicide. He saw her bent over the sink, dying each time he entered the kitchen, and he’d bet it was the same for Caroline and Savannah.

Remembering the hiss of chemicals eating away soft tissue—a sound that didn’t stop for screams, let alone death, made it easy to set aside any guilt he had at the idea of selling the family ranch after generations. It was time for a change.

Most of the family was gone anyway, and his in-laws visited more than any living relatives, who, for the most part were unreachable. He hadn’t been close with his great aunt, and the rest of the women in his family were known to be completely nuts. From childhood, she’d always looked at him in an odd way, and called him “Paul” like she talked to someone else. Tragedy had torn her sanity to shreds.

Three of Rebecca’s girls were committed to mental hospitals when they were younger, but only one survived suicide. He didn’t know why his Great Aunt Rebecca hadn’t been locked up with the rest of them when she obviously had claim to a nice, padded room of her own.

When the remaining family vacated, it was no wonder they left the old girl behind, inherited like the furniture. For the most part she’d stopped talking, graciously, and not started up again except for random whispers about suicide and hating herself. The stain of suicide would mark their house on the Shelf Road forever. The change he’d sought for his family wouldn’t come too soon.

Jack was content in thinking his decision to stop off at a land auction that day was the best move he’d made in decades. The Witcher Place, a span of fertile ground and a good house with plenty of potential, was auctioned off for next to nothing. Spring would bring a fresh start for his family on top of a mountain in the sunshine. Grinning, he placed the winning bid.

The next night, Jack gave his notice to quit at the mine to devote all of his time to the new property.

Anxious to get off the old family ranch, the remaining members of the Caleman family packed up everything that wasn’t tacked down and moved to the new house on the outskirts of Victor without delay. The old ranch sold quickly like he suspected, and for a worthy price for the acreage. The kids would attend the same school, which was the only one in the district. There was room for a dozen chickens, a few horses, and upward of a hundred head of cattle on the pasture down a draw. Weather cooperating, there would be plenty of hay put up each summer from the south meadow. A school bus would stop on the county road to take the children school each day, which was a luxury the Caleman household hadn’t had the pleasure of enjoying. They left the Caleman Ranch on the Shelf Road without a backward glance, looking forward to a new life atop a mountain outside of Victor, Colorado.

Jack grinned inwardly as he drove his beat up, extra-cab farm truck to a rumbling stop at the headgate to their new home. Life would be simple and good. No relatives would burn the house down or commit suicide in the kitchen.

Caroline beamed on the bench seat, over the top of Chaz’s head. Reaching, Jack cupped her face with an excited smile of his own. They locked eyes for just a moment.

“Just a coat of fresh paint.”

She nodded, still smiling.

Jack threw the truck in park and jumped out to open the gate.

Savannah, the oldest of the kids, took her cue, and moved into the front seat. She put the truck in gear and let it idle through the gate slowly, tossed it back in park and hopped out again, searching their new property with fresh eyes.

***

 

#

Chapter 4

Savannah continued to look around as her dad took the wheel and drove up to the house. Even the driveway was better than their old house. She shielded her eyes from the sun, taking in the look of her new home and giant yard. The terrain was a lot like that of the ranch, with aspens, blue spruce, dog brush, current bushes, and gooseberry brambles hugging outcroppings of mica-laced, pink granite. By the end of the month, all the trees and brush would bud out, and green would coat the yard and hillsides in numerous shades. Yellowed mountain grass tufted sporadically through breaks in rock and gravel, sprouting thicker along the half-circle drive. Where they used to live inside a canyon that allowed about six hours of direct sunlight each day, less in the winter, the new place took the top off the mountain, providing long views of mountain ranges from each angle.

Savannah turned to close the gate, stopping dead when she read the name above the driveway.

“No way,” she drawled, reading the name “Witcher” slowly to herself, trying to make it easier to believe. That’s coming down by morning. There was nothing more to say on the subject. She’d get her dad, his Sawzall, and a step-ladder, and creepy would no longer greet her upon arrival at home. Case closed. Without a second glance, she followed the truck past a tall wooden barn to get a better look at what her parents called a “Victorian” home.

Two rounded rooms on each side and a sprawling veranda added some personality to the ancient house. Windows peered down the nose of the porch roof, making the second floor completely unfriendly. The peak of the roof was like a third story, but there weren’t any windows, and the pitch likely made it too tiny for a room to be up there.

A patron of finding something good about every situation, Savannah decided she liked the size of their new home. At least it was big. Her little brother and his stinky beast of a dog would have their own room, as would her little sister.

The porch was the best part of the house. A swing hung to the right side of the front door, and if a person started at one end of the veranda and kept walking all the way around the other side it would take a while. Spring sun cut angles onto the painted plank floor, and a faint breeze reminded her that such a wonderful set up begged for the addition of the old heirloom wind chime from back at their old house.

Chaz and his mutt bailed out of the truck as she approached, the dog woofing and stomping up the front stairs behind him. The screen door smacked loudly after them, clapping out an echo that rattled Savannah’s nerves. She caught the door as it swung out for another run at slapping shut, shaking her head. Loud noises always set her on edge, not that her bratty brother cared.

She would be eighteen in just under two weeks, so dealing with his carelessness would soon be a thing of her past. She’d graduate and then be off to college.

Mother stood inside the doorway, taking in the dusty, forlorn look of the foyer. More of what Savannah would call a mud-room, the walls held a smattering of coat hooks screwed to the walls in unreasonable places, and a grand, wooden door announced the true entryway just a couple of yards farther in.

Canine feet shuffled above and Chaz claimed his bedroom, screaming “This one’s mine!” and slamming his new door.

Mother shook her head, blinking. “Well, here we are.” She slung her mammoth, faux leather purse onto a plush sitting bench. “We could play cards on the porch, huh?

“Mm hm,” agreed Savannah although, of all the children, it was no secret Savannah would be the last chosen to play games with. There was an amount of awkwardness between them, and it grew at the same rate Savannah did.

“The place seems to need a little something, though. And that name over the gate out there?” Savannah asked, gesturing with a nod. “Can we take it down?”

“I’ll talk to Dad about the gate. Judging from the looks of this little room, the house needs a woman’s touch.” Caroline pulled out a pack of Pall Malls and lit one, dropping a lighter back into her bag. She blew a gust of thick smoke above her head and smiled, studying Savannah for an idea of her thoughts.

After a moment watching her mom puff away, she admitted, “It’s going to be good. We can make it home.”

Caroline pulled her into a smoky embrace as Savannah held her breath. “We’ll get it livable.”

Savannah waited as long as she could stand it, then leaned away so she could walk inside to see the rest of the house. The smoke had the tendency to bother her eyes when she wore her contact lenses.

No one had mentioned the house remained fully furnished with grand, Victorian style furniture, right down to the dishes in the buffet. Their old bedsteads and couch looked cumbersome and old compared to the plush, velvet and overstuffed armchairs in the den and living room. Dark wooden chests of drawers and armoires stood empty in each bedroom.

Dropping an overstuffed backpack onto the hardwood floor, Savannah claimed one of the round bedrooms upstairs for herself, content with the large amount of ambient light from a horizontal row of thickly-paned windows. The bedroom set was cloaked in drop sheeting that held an impressive amount of settled dust, so she carefully rolled each long piece of fabric to keep the room clean. Soon, she beheld a four poster bed, a vanity with an ornate, round looking-glass type mirror, and a tall dresser.

“Not bad.”

The gate to the horse trailer squealed, announcing someone was outside beginning the long process of unloading boxes. Savannah left her new sanctuary and headed downstairs. Dad was at the bottom of the staircase, one hand on his chin, surveying something on a wall beyond view, so she hurried down to see. He’d hung a giant painting of a mountain lion just above the couch in the den.

“It’s straight, if that’s what you’re contemplating,” she told him, squishing close.

He put a warm arm across her shoulders, pulling her in. “What do you think? Is that a good place for it?”

“I guess,” she said, squinting at the lion’s face. “What’s wrong with its eyes?”

“What do you mean?” He furrowed his brow, glancing between her and the picture.

“There’s nothing wrong with it, I mean, it’s real pretty. It’s just that mountain lions’ eyes aren’t like that.” She stepped across the room, getting a better look. “Where did this come from?”

“It was stashed in the canning cellar out at the ranch,” he said, joining her in front of the painting. “A shame. Such a nice piece of art, stuck down there so no one could enjoy it.”

“Yeah, as if,” Molly said as she joined them. “That thing’s creepy as heck.”

“Yeah,” Savannah said. She looked deeper into a dark swirl of fog below the cat’s perch. The darkness there was undefined, lending a rather ominous sense of depth. The artist had penned their name in the corner, but it was just a little too far above her head to be able to read. She shrugged. “Well, I’m going to go find my clothes. Bye, Daddy.”

“I’ll be right out to help with the trailer,” he said, still admiring the art.

She turned for the front door with Molly just behind her.

“I so love my room,” Molly said. “It’s so bright in there. I’m going to make a sun-catcher out of tissue paper. It’ll look just like stained glass. Want one?”

Savannah held the door open for her sister. Molly was the artist in their family. She was always cooking up some sort of craft in her room and the older she got, the better the finished products became.

“I don’t think so. Thanks though. I don’t know what I’m going to do with my room yet. I might change my mind when I see yours.”

They stopped at the mouth of the trailer, surveying the stacks of boxes squeezed and tucked all the way to the roof. The rest of the day would be a long trek of unpacking, but at least the sun shone on the top of the mountain.

***

 

#

Chapter 5

Molly and Chaz Caleman rated “decent” on Savannah’s scale, as siblings went, and the majority of the high marks went to Molly. Close to two years separated the girls in age, and just over seven years separated Chaz from Molly. Complain as they would about Chaz and his acts of torment, the girls looked out for their little brother with ferocity, just as Savannah did for Molly.

The family remained close as ever, with lengthy sessions of talking to Mother about school and friends as she took turns brushing the girl’s hair before bed at night. Savannah still looked forward to that alone time with her mom the way she did when she was a little girl. Sometimes, Mother would lean forward and whisper in her ear, “Don’t tell your brother or sister, but you know you’re my favorite, right?” When Savannah was younger that was the secret to take with her to the grave. Now that she was older, she was certain Mom told Molly the same thing while she brushed her hair, and that she said it to Chaz when she tucked him in at night.

There was no denying relation. Caleman genes dictated coffee brown hair and dark hazel eyes. The girls teased Chaz, saying that if he grew his hair to his butt, too, which was Daddy’s rule for the females in the family, he’d look like their sister. Mother had long hair, too, but where her children had dark hair, brows and fans of black lashes around their eyes, Caroline was fair, honey blonde, and blue-eyed. Her children looked nothing like her side of the family. Not even her mother’s nose, or her chin made it into play when her babies’ alleles aligned. Caleman traits were strong.

Strength of heredity was a mystery when Savannah considered why she was the only one in the family with poor vision. She was given her first pair of prescription glasses at the age of three, and had needed them to see as myopia blurred her vision worse and worse each year. When she was eleven, the family optometrist suggest hard contact lenses to give her clearer sight than the pop-bottle bottom lenses and thick, plastic frames she wore in order to function. She gratefully wore the contacts daily to avoid being referred to as “Four-Eyes.” Her new look stumped some of the boys at school, the shocked, one-time teasing bullies staring at her with appreciation. The damage was done, though.

Jesse Freeman, the small high school’s star quarterback was the first to act during their Junior year. The Homecoming dance was an event that Savannah learned to ignore after realizing she never had the chance to go. The dance came and went each year and she wouldn’t have noticed except for the pep rallies and all the posters student council made to decorate the hallways. That all changed abruptly when Jesse waited for her after French class and insisted on picking up her notebook when she dropped it.

“Here ya go,” he said, handing the doodle-laden book out for her to take.

Savannah took it, not knowing whether to smile and thank him or grab the notebook and run before the other boys, or even some girls, started making fun of her.

Too much anxiety over a freaking dropped book. She looked from his eyes, which were pretty amazing, back to her books and pencil case. The cutest boy in school stood closer to her than he had since the second grade, but it was just because there was a line of people coming out of the classroom, so he had to wait a second before he could leave. She didn’t bother making eye contact again.

“Thanks,” she said, and turned to go to her locker.

“Hold on,” he said. “So, you coming to the game Saturday?”

“Not likely,” she replied, wondering why he cared. She arranged her books in the order of size, fidgeting. The French book was the biggest, then her notebook, then her planner. Her pen case rested neatly beside the spiral wires. She might’ve been awkward but her books were neat as heck.

“Do you need help with French or something?” He was a jock, and there had to be a reason for him to talk to her with other people around.

“Nope.” He smiled at her, shaking his head.

Savannah couldn’t help but look at him when that happened. Confusion, nervousness, and awe. They got together and made her turn beet red. She held her ground, cheating a huge strand of long hair behind an ear.

“I just wanted to tell you, I mean now that you ditched the glasses, you have really pretty eyes.” His smile remained. “You didn’t tell anyone else you’d go to the dance with them already, did you?”

“No,” she stammered. “But you know, so many guys asking, I just don’t know what to do,” she joked.

“Oh,” he said, grin fading. “That’s what I get for waiting until it’s only a week away.”

“Yep. You know, the early bird … and stuff.”

“Guess so.” Jesse started walking in the direction of her locker, not his, which was so, completely weird for her.

“I was kidding. No one else has asked.” She watched the pattern of the carpet scoot by under each foot step.

“Really? That’s great. I mean,” he looked over at her, slowing his pace. “So, will you go with me?”

Savannah stopped walking, a little pissed at his gall to take sarcasm to a new level. There was no need. They’d made it to the hall by the library. There was no one to impress with his not-so-sly mockery.

“Look. I’m really not impressed. Ha ha. Great job teasing me.” She bent down in front of the row of lockers and started thumbing her combination into the round lock. Jesse remained beside her, probably basking in bully glory, taking in the rewards of getting a girl like her all twitterpated. She ignored his presence and started exchanging her text books, waiting for a comment about “Crazy Caleman Girls” to fall out of his face.

“Hey, I’m serious. I’m asking you to Homecoming,” he said.

She looked up at him, skeptically. He seemed pretty sincere. “Really?”

“Yeah. Really.”

“That would be great.” The words came out seemingly all on their own. She forced herself to exhale after realizing she wasn’t breathing.

“Great. So, I gotta get to class. Think about coming to the game first, okay?”

“I’ll think about it,” she said, watching him jog down the hall the way only a confident, cute, starting football player could. Her whole body tingled like she dipped herself in a tank of Pop Rocks. It was real. Jesse actually liked her enough to be seen with her at Homecoming.

That weekend Molly went to Cripple Creek with her to watch the football game. Savannah had never sat through one before and she kept it low key so she didn’t applaud the wrong team or something dumb to embarrass Jesse.

Afterward, their mom took an hour to curl all of Savannah’s hip-length hair into a flowing mass of curls that was pinned up at the sides with rhinestone barrettes. Savannah wouldn’t need to polish her nails because she ate every one of them to the quick while her hair was being done. Jesse picked her up in his black Chevy truck, taking the time to open the door for her after her parents made them stand for about five minutes worth of Polaroid photos. Jesse was practiced, apparently, because he knew when to stand just behind her. He didn’t seem to feel awkward at all, but Savannah felt like a jack-o-lantern at an Easter egg hunt. He’d bought her a wrist corsage with a pink rose in it, which made her completely giddy. She retained a firm foothold on Cloud 9, wondering how long she’d be graced with the feeling before reality set in.

The dance was a blast even though she didn’t really know how to. They left a little early and Savannah didn’t know why, but she consented to “parking” by not asking why Jesse pulled his truck over when she thought he was taking her home. The night had nearly ended far to early.

He told her everyone was doing it. She tried to relax but as things happened, as much as she wanted to think she enjoyed her first time, it was clear that neither she nor Jesse knew what the heck they were doing. The next day she wished she would have thought it through.

The deed was done, she was completely infatuated, and Jesse racked up another notch on his tailgate, which he bragged about. Savannah was no longer just rumored to be a Crazy Caleman, she was then an Easy Nutjob.

At school on Monday she found out they weren’t going steady, even after what they’d done. Jesse avoided her after French, walking right by, and instead of at least saying “hi”, he just engaged in some raucous shoving with some other guys. Savannah wiped her smile away and ducked into the line of kids, trying to become as invisible as she was pre-dance and pre-deflowering.

From that point on and through her senior year, she fell right back into the old groove. Savannah didn’t trust boys. They were cruel to her and that would never be forgotten, and it still hurt some. Savannah did her best to overcome shyness and gain some confidence, even beginning to manage the debilitating fear of loud noises. An unexpected clap of thunder could still put her on her knees, though.

The singular district school was a kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade facility in Cripple Creek, and instead of being driven out of the canyon to school every morning, the Caleman children caught the bus exactly two curves up the dirt road at a Y in the gravel. Homework was done on the long bus rides because chores greeted them before school and waited at the gate when they got home. A few short weeks remained in the school year. After that, Savannah would be free of bus rides to high school forever. The days grew longer and the upcoming summer was going to be the best, since they weren’t stuck down in the canyon any more.

On horseback, Savannah, Molly, and Dad drove the cattle up a draw that cut like a big ditch between the hills. With a direct route three mountains away, the new house was half a day’s ride from their old ranch on the Shelf Road, and the girls were excited when their dad told them to saddle up before sunrise to bring in the cows. They’d always been told they were too little or too young before.

Savannah’s horse, Mabeline, a stocky Quarter Horse who’s name always inspired a smile, pawed and nipped at the lazy steers’ flanks with determination lacking in the other, not-as-cool nag Molly rode. After that, the remaining horses were trailered in, chickens hauled over in gunny sacks, and the tractors parked neatly behind the barn.

Ranch life hiccuped over the relocation and continued with gusto at the Witcher Place. The new property was huge as it turned out, taking up the top of their mountain and a sprawling meadow at the base of hillside where an enthusiastic little creek surged.

One of Savannah’s new responsibilities was to count cows, and after she rode for the count, she spent time familiarizing herself. Raspberry bushes coated the gravel at the base of the next mountain over. Feisty brook trout popped at flies in the creek. Pale blue mayflowers exploded into bloom despite chill, beckoning summer to oust the remnants of winter. The days warmed quickly and impending summer infused the air with excitement.

Mabeline enjoyed each outing and relished being released into her stall for post-ride rubdowns. Savannah loved how the mare’s dapples gleamed in her coat of soft grey and charcoal fur. She kissed her muzzle and latched the gate, securing the mare for the night.

The new barn was smaller than the one on the Shelf Road, but it hosted a full tack shed, a med room and birthing area, electric lighting, and individual runs that opened at the back of each stall. Fresh hay bales would insulate the far end after the first cutting down in the bottom meadow. Savannah saw that each saddle rested straight on the racks and each shovel and pitchfork hung clean by sixteen-penny nails in even rows.

The evenings chilled quickly at sundown, an event always announced by a subtle breeze across the walk from the barn to the house. High pitched notes lilted from the porch as the round chime swayed from a cup-hook. It could have been because she’d grown up, or because she paid no attention before, but there was rarely a pleasant mix of tone from the old chime. Rather, the hollow bars were too small for good sound and rang with discord. Although, finishing touches were just that, and the chime made the house home.

The move was complete, right down to the last chicken in the coop and antique lace sheer over a window. Old furniture was donated to the church for needy families since the Witcher Place offered a full set. Astonishingly enough, Mother’s décor blended well, making the house feel new, except for the curtains. Sunlight prevailed since they lived on a mountain top instead of deep in the canyon at the old ranch. Mother’s curtains weren’t just yellowed from age, as it turned out. Ambient light showed dingy stains from her cigarette smoke.

The new cat painting had been moved to hang regally over the fireplace in the den, the mountain lion’s darkened eyes scrutinizing each move from above. Savannah had seen paintings with that quality before; the way a person’s gaze could make eye contact from any angle, and the cat mastered that ability to the point of being downright scary. Being lured to curl up and read by a warm fire was short-lived. Her concentration was broken soon after when the thing’s stare burned into the top of her head.

Worse was the way her dad began to stand in front of the painting sipping coffee. His movements proceeded slowly, measured with care, so his eyes didn’t leave the art while he got a swig from his cup. There was a study that Dad had taken for his office and he spent his evenings in there. Between the study and the time he spent staring at the picture, Savannah missed him a lot. Not a word was said while he just stood there, which was new between them.

Savannah leaned in the doorway watching one morning to see just how long he remained, but had to give up so she didn’t miss the bus, leaving her dad staring at a dark-eyed cat for God only knew how long. He ignored her goodbye.

“What’s up with Daddy lately?” Savannah kicked at gravel, waiting for the bus with her siblings. No one answered. She’d meant the question more for her sister, so it didn’t bother her that Chaz ignored the question, continuing to sweep rocks with a sprig from a pine tree.

“Hello?” She waved a hand in front of her sister’s face.

“Nothing. Why?” Molly snapped. Her green-brown eyes searched the road as she hugged textbooks to her chest.

“No need to get snippy.”

“I’m not being snippy. You just need to quit interrogating me.” Molly tossed an uncombed mass of hair over her shoulder.

“Are you feeling okay?” Savannah gave her little sister a once over. One shoe was untied but her clothes were clean. White knuckles gripped her books so hard the rest of her hands were bright pink and there was a flat spot at the back of her head that Molly hadn’t bothered to fix that morning. A little blob of sleepy goo hung in the corner of her left eye.

Molly slammed her books to the ground and whirled on Savannah. “I said to leave me alone!” Tears welled, but she didn’t cry, just clamped her jaw tight and bent to get her things. Rumbling sounded up the road, signaling the impending arrival of the school bus. Chaz stared at them, watching Molly retrieve the books from the gravel. Savannah was stunned to silence.

When the double doors swished open, Chaz ran on first and plunked into a seat. Molly tossed her books onto the bench right behind the bus driver and turned toward the window with her arms locked over her chest.

Choosing a seat close to her sister, Savannah tried to avoid thinking about what happened, but an uneasy knot pulled together in her stomach. They were too close to have something unexplained between them. She counted Molly as her friend, more than just her little sister. Molly’s actions were unlike her, and a combination of hurt and dread clutched deep in her chest. When they arrived at school, Molly dove off the bus and disappeared into the cluster of kids pushing through the doors.

  • * *

Playing cards wasn’t something Caroline Caleman did often any more, so when Savannah found Chaz and her mother enthusiastically telling each other to “go fish,” she was both impressed and intrigued.

Chaz was in the lead, with his matched pairs displayed like a neat column of trophies on the carpet next to him. Mother sat cross legged opposite and drew a card.

“Wanna play?” Chaz perked, obviously enjoying the game. He grinned, pointing to his winnings.

“Sure,” Savannah said. She pulled up next to them to wait for the current game to end so she could be dealt in.

“I’ve probably wasted enough time already.” Mother dropped her cards in a mess and stood.

“Aw, c’mon. I was winning,” Chaz protested, but Mother left the room without a backward glance. Chaz sighed, his enthusiasm dashed.

“I’ll play her hand.” Picking up the cards their mother dropped, Savannah moved into place, facing her little brother. “What’s the story with Mom?”

“I don’t know. She wanted to play cards and then didn’t want to finish the game.” He shrugged. “Maybe she didn’t want to lose,” he said, with a little grin. “So now you can lose for her.”

Despite the little pang of hurt at her mom’s abrupt way of leaving the room, Savannah smiled. “Don’t count your chickens, mister.” She winked and dropped a set of threes. Chaz asked for a ten, to which she replied, “Do go fish, sir.”

Chaz drew from the deck, dropped his group of tens, and shoved both skinny arms into the air.

“I win!” he chirped.

“Great. I’ve been beat by an eight-year-old,” she teased.

“Deal ‘em,” he replied down an upturned nose.

“Chaz, come help me set the table for dinner. Your sister has homework,” called Mother. Savannah stopped, mid-shuffle, turning her head toward the kitchen.

“One more quick game,” she tested. “I did my homework on the bus.”

Their mom appeared in the doorway. “Now.” Her eyes rested on Savannah briefly, before she retreated.

“Wow.” Savannah helped Chaz gather the cards and snapped a rubber band around the pack. “You’d better get in there.”

“She’s in a bad mood now,” Chaz said. He took the deck when she offered it and left to do what he was told. Savannah headed outside to find someone who might be more hospitable, like Mabeline. She found her father crouched beside a tractor, watching used oil drain from the motor.

“Hi, Daddy,” she called.

“Hey there, sunshine.” He smiled.

Craving having her “old dad” back, Savannah headed over to him.

“The hay’s looking good already. Figured I’d better change the oil in Old Green here,” he said, patting the machine’s metallic flank as if the tractor was his favorite milk cow.

“Will we get as much hay as we got from the ranch?” she asked, looking toward the field.

The aspens were leafed out, making it impossible to see past the side yard.

“No, but we’ll have enough for our stock. We won’t sell any from now on, and we don’t need money from that anymore.” He held out the used oil filter, oblivious of the grease streaking the canister. “Toss that for me, would ya?” he asked, turning to a neat stack of oil cans. A new oil filter rested inside a carton with the replacement oil. He picked it up, opened the box and handed her the empty. “This too?”

“Sure. I’m gonna go see Mabeline for a while.” She smiled. The conversation went well enough. Dad seemed to be back to his normal, busy self. His words were warm and mannerism upbeat, like he used to be.

“It’s too late to take off riding tonight,” he warned.

“I know. I just want to say hi.”

Mabeline nickered as she trashed the filter and box just inside the barn. The horse craned her neck gracefully over the stall gate, kind eyes gleaming. She stamped a hoof with eager anticipation, watching Savannah’s approach.

“You’re just what the doctor ordered, girly.” She scrubbed the flat of the mare’s face, smiling as the horse closed her eyes and nodded her head in rhythm to the scratching. “How about some grain?”

Other horses showed up inside their stalls when Savannah opened the grain drum, signaling the evening round of four-way grain. The mix of rolled corn, oats, wheat, and barley was coated with molasses, and the horses viewed the feed as a treat. She measured the grain, filled five pans, stacked them up and delivered one to each horse, taking time to pet and scratch them all. When they all munched greedily, she grabbed a brush and began giving Mabeline her daily grooming. Shedding season was full-on, and where the thicker hair came away, a thin coat of dappled grey velvet shone like dark ribbons under stars.

A horse snorted, two stalls away. Mabeline stopped chewing, picking her head up as her ears twitched. She stepped toward the stall gate, abandoning most of her treat. The gelding down the row snorted again louder, followed by hoof-beats as the horses moved about. Mabeline stuck her head over the gate, peering toward the barn door.

Savannah joined the big mare to look just as her father pulled the door open and stepped inside, rubbing his hands with a red grease rag. He smiled when he saw her and started over. Wood cracked in the stall next to her, and the horse squealed. A solid smack sounded, the undeniable beat of a hoof meeting thick wood.

“Whoa,” he said, holding out a hand.

Savannah moved to the other side of her horse, looking around a post to see. The gelding next to her backed away as her dad neared the stall.

“Easy boy,” he said, low and calm, hand still extended. The horse spun, backed close and sent both rear hooves smashing through the wall separating him from her dad. Savannah jumped back as wood splintered into the air. Sorrel hair stuck to blood when the horse withdrew one of his legs. The gelding barreled outside to his pen.

“Oh my God,” she said, dropping the brush and squeezing through the rungs of Mabeline’s stall. Jack stared at the busted up wood and listing gate.

“What happened to him?”

“I don’t know. Something spooked the hell out of him,” he said.

The commotion continued for the other horses. They threw their heads and paced with agitated stomps in and out of their stalls. Mabeline snorted, pawing. Her dad turned his head to look at the mare, who laid her ears flat back against her head. He stepped closer to Savannah and the mare reared high, striking out with churning front hooves that came down hard on the gate holding her in. Savannah jumped back as the mare screamed with bared teeth, going up again for another strike. The gate seemed unsubstantial next to the horse when she was up on her hind legs, striking the air.

“Crazy bitch,” Jack yelled.

Savannah grabbed his arm, tugging him away. “Back up, Daddy!” she yelled. “She’s gonna come over that gate at you!”

Mabeline’s fit threw the other horses into full blown panic. They called to each other, crying in screams and alarmed squeals. The noise was nearly too much for Savannah. She clamped her hands hard over her ears. Hooves split wood and turned over water troughs.

“Get out!” she screamed at Jack. “Leave so they’ll stop.” The sounds grew louder still with banging like gunfire. Savannah went to her knees, slamming her eyes shut in terror.

Abrupt silence coaxed her hands from her ears. She opened her eyes to see her father had gone. Five equine faces stared at her. Mabeline nickered softly. Savannah rose slowly, wondering what in the world caused the horses to be spooked by her dad. They’d been with him for years, and he hadn’t done anything strange or made any noises that would have startled them.

She headed for the tack room to get Bag Balm and bandages. At least one horse had injured itself, but she needed to check them all. She couldn’t explain the incident, but at least she could clean up the mess.

  • * *

Dinner was quiet, except for the occasional, “Please pass the salt,” or the scraping of silverware. Molly didn’t look up from her plate one time. Their seats at the table had been rearranged so that Chaz now ate next to Mother, where Savannah’s seat used to be. The two girls sat on either side of Jack at the other end of the table, picking at their food, more moving things around than eating.

When Mother rose to start clearing, everyone else took the cue and scattered. Dishes were scraped and washed, the table wiped down, and Savannah headed upstairs with Molly right on her heels. She left her bedroom door open, expecting Molly to follow her inside, but she never came.

Instead, Molly’s door clicked shut across the hall. Savannah went over and knocked.

“Mol? You okay?” she said through the thick wood.

“Leave me alone, Savannah. I’m fine.”

“Okay. I love you.”

After a moment of silence, Molly answered. “Love you, too.”

  • * *

Of all things that Savannah had awakened to in the middle of the night, none had ever been a smell. She bolted upright in bed. The scent was familiar. She’d ridden after two missing heifers once and found one of them had fallen over an overhang into a creek. After plunging around twenty feet onto smoothed river rocks, the cow had rolled into the water and drowned due to splintered leg bones and begun to rot. She’d followed the smell of decay to find the carcass. That smell hung in her room like that poor cow was on the floor next to her bed.

Molly whimpered from her room across the hall, so Savannah got up and headed over to comfort her. It was probably just a bad dream, but since she was already awake, she’d go make sure. The door handle turned, so Savannah went inside.

Moonlight shone through the window, illuminating the pale flesh of Molly’s legs on the bed. She’d kicked off the blankets again while she slept and the sheet was bunched around her feet. The stench was much stronger on that side of the house. Chaz’s dumb dog must have found a dead deer and brought part of it into the yard. From the strength of the smell, it must have been a juicy one. Molly sat up rubbing her eyes.

“You okay?” Savannah asked through the hand over her nose.

“Yeah, but that smell is grodule,” Molly said, using one of their fun words for “gross.” Molly reached to her feet to retrieve the cast-off blankets. She grasped the sheet and pulled. The fabric didn’t budge, like it was caught around the bedpost. Using both hands, she tugged hard, but still, nothing. Savannah took a step closer, bending to see what the sheet was hooked on.

“Dang it,” Molly complained, dropping her hands in her lap. “I have to get up.” Twisting to put her feet on the floor, she jerked back to sitting when her feet didn’t move from the foot of the bed. “Savannah? I can’t move!”

“What’s going on?” Savannah reached for her sister but an electrical shock blasted her hand back.

“Get out of bed, Molly, now!” She went at the bed again, but just when she’d almost touched Molly’s hand, something sparked and she was flung back against Molly’s dresser in a heap.

Molly trembled, watching as her breath began to steam in white puffs of air. Gooseflesh raised along her skin in rashes large enough Savannah could see it clearly from the floor.

Molly bent her knees, yanking hard with her hips, panicking as the sheet constricted around her ankles, like concrete setting up fast. The bed squeaked under her labor for freedom. She shrieked as she was grasped from behind and forced flat on her back. Molly’s bedroom door slammed shut with a thunderous bang.

Savannah was on her feet, but stopped short of the bed. “Molly!” she screamed, afraid to reach and get thrown down again.

“Help me,” Molly tried. All that came out was a strangled whisper. Something moved at her feet. “Help me,” she managed to cry. Fabric tumbled heavily, creeping up her shins. She reached for the sheet, attempting to free herself, but it wouldn’t come off her legs.

“Molly!” Fists pounded against wood. “Let me in!” yelled Daddy. “Why the hell is your door locked? Savannah?”

“It’s freezing me!” Molly shrilled. She flung a hand out, grasped her reading lamp from the bedside table and swung it like a club, just as the sheet pulled back, baring a place for the weapon to strike. Skin split away from her knee, but Molly kept swinging until she lost hold and the lamp landed on the floor. Filling her lungs full with freezing, putrid air, she screamed again just as Daddy shouldered through the entryway.

Savannah huddled by the bed, helpless and crying. She got to her feet and went to her sister.

Eyeing Molly’s bloodied knee, Jack ran into the room and pulled her up from the mattress to hold her against his chest. “What’s happening? Why didn’t you come to the door? Are you okay?” He searched her face, eyes drawn back to the gash in her kneecap.

Molly clung to him, finally able to move her legs. “No. Not okay,” she said around a sob.

“Bad dream?” he asked, looking at Savannah.

Savannah smoothed long strands of brunette hair from Molly’s damp cheeks. At a loss, she just nodded her answer.

Molly didn’t respond, just dug her fingers into her big sister’s nightgown and trembled.

***

 

#

Chapter 6

“We’re going to church tomorrow morning,” Dad announced. He set his fork on his empty dinner plate and looked around the table at his family’s reactions.

“Why now?” asked Savannah. “Seems a little overdue.”

“Um, maybe because this stupid house is haunted?” Molly snorted, shaking her head as she moved peas around on her dinner plate. She’d been quiet all week and still limped a little from the cuts on her knee.

Caroline glared between the girls and their father.

“Boring,” Chaz mumbled. “It’s almost summer and now we gotta go to Sunday School.”

“We’re closer now, so the drive isn’t as long. There’s a nice congregation at the Baptist Church in Victor.” He turned to Savannah. “And it’s never too late. We used to go with your grandmother, before she died.”

“I remember that.” The experiences at church weren’t good ones. Savannah had asked too many questions, which apparently wasn’t what a nine-year-old female child should do. They were typical questions, really. “If God loves us, why does he let babies die? He can do anything, right?” That had been the doozy of them all. She didn’t have faith, according to Mrs. Kearney, that day after Sunday school. Savannah shrugged.

“Speaking of closer and drives and all,” he said, “somebody turns eighteen tomorrow.”

Savannah grinned. Things had been so hectic, and with Molly’s turmoil, she didn’t want to bring it up.

“Who could that be?” asked Mother, smiling, which was the first time Savannah witnessed the woman do something other than scowl in weeks. “Shall we head outside to give the birthday girl her present?”

Relief mixed with excitement as they walked to the front door. She’d been afraid everyone forgot. Daddy held the door open to reveal a midnight blue Toyota truck in the driveway.

“Happy birthday, Savannah,” said Mother.

“It’s a four-wheel-drive,” added Chaz.

“Wow! You guys got me a truck?” She looked at her parents, who stood across the doorway from one another, the space spanning a comfortable mile. It made sense that her mother smiled. She probably hoped Savannah would get in the truck, drive away, and never be heard from again.

“Do you like it?” asked her father.

“I love it,” she said, hugging him. She mussed Chaz’s hair. “And you knew about this?”

“If I would have told you what you were getting for your birthday, I couldn’t go for a ride with you. But I didn’t tell, so you can take me.” He grinned.

“Thanks, Mom.” Savannah embraced her mother. Genuine warmth met with cool appeasement as her mom patted her back twice and broke away.

Savannah looked for Molly, but she was nowhere to be seen. A frown pulled at the corners of her lips, and she immediately forced a smile so she didn’t ruin the moment, which would have been even better if her sister was there.

A set of silver keys dangled in front of her. She snatched them and ran down the porch steps to check out her gift, Chaz and his dog right behind her.

“Can I put Hornet in back?”

“Sure,” Savannah said with an excited laugh.

“Clutch in, Savannah,” Dad called. “Look at the shifter and start with first,” he teased.

Chaz put his grinning mutt in the back, closed the tailgate, and climbed into the passenger side.

“Ready?” she asked. He nodded with a huge smile and she turned the key.

  • * *

Gunshots cracked through the night, shattering the peace in the meadow down the draw from the house. Savannah slammed her bare feet into her boots and met Molly at the front door as they burst through onto the grass. Moonglow lit the yard as the two searched the night, shivering in their thin, summer nightgowns.

“Is that a car down there?” Molly asked.

Another blast sounded and the girls startled, covering their ears from the report. Savannah drug her sister to a crouch beside the house, where they peered out at the dark hillsides, listening hard as an engine revved in the distance.

“Get outta here, you son-of-a-bitch,” yelled Jack, just ahead in the trees. Headlights glinted on a dust cloud that crept up from the meadow.

The girls ran in the direction of their father’s voice.

“Dad! Are you okay?” Savannah called. She stopped suddenly, grabbing her sister by the shoulders. “Get inside, Molly,” she whispered. “I don’t want you getting hurt.”

“What’re you going to do?” Molly shivered with an even mix of fear and chill.

“Dad’s down there, and I’m going to make sure he’s okay. Get back in there and keep Mom and Chaz inside.”

Molly scrambled back toward the house. After the wedge of light closed off the front porch, signaling she was safely behind the door, Savannah continued toward the commotion, keeping an eye on the silhouette of her dad and his shotgun.

Another crack rent the night, but still, the car spun in circles, tearing a mid-spring cutting of hay from moist earth, digging troughs into the field. The driver apparently didn’t care if he might get filled with buckshot. The lines of the coupe came into view, reminding Savannah of the old classic James Bond speeding around in. The car threw patches of grass and dirt, spinning dust free in spiraling gusts, coming to a halt after each revolution with her dad dead on in the headlights. The gun clicked and snapped in his hands, he leveled it again, and fired into the classic’s windshield. Fractures spider-webbed along the glass, etching the window with crackled white lines.

“The hay!” Savannah cried. “He’s ruining it,” she said, chest heaving with adrenaline. “Who is that?”

“I don’t know anyone who owns an old car like that, Savannah,” Jack shouted. “Get back in the house. Now,” he commanded.

“What about you?” she called, over the engine noise. The car spun closer, buffeting them both with a spray of dirt and small clump of grass roots. They twisted away, covering their faces from the blast.

“Get in there and tell your mother to call the law,” he gritted.

She stood her ground, eyes wide with fear, glancing from the car to her dad. “Mom’s probably already calling them. Or maybe Molly. I sent her back in.”

“C’mon, Vannie, I need you to do that for me,” he pleaded. “This field’s gonna be cashed. I’m not doin’ any good with just this,” he said, holding up the firearm. “I need help.”

The car’s engine idled down as dust settled. The coupe’s windows came into view, tinted darker than the moon-drenched night. The only thing visible through the windshield were two black-gloved hands grasping the wheel. The chassis squatted at once as the driver floored the accelerator. Gripping turf, the old car shot forth, headed straight at them.

“Get to the trees,” Jack yelled, pulling Savannah into motion. Glare from the headlights blinded them and threw the hillside into deep shadow, so they ran across untried ground, tripping and pulling one another along. Savannah had to keep hold over her heavy glasses with one hand at a temple. Jack went down hard when a boot caught an outcropping of rocks.

“Dad!” Savannah screamed, pulling him by an arm while he regained footing. She coughed hard after inhaling the thick dust. They sprinted into a grove of aspens as the car sped toward them.

The engine idled down when it stopped at the trees. The driver threw it in reverse and then rolled through the yard between the house and barn, onto the county road. All sound faded as space grew between the car and the torn hayfield.

Savannah followed her dad into the clear. Savannah brushed gravel from her skinned knees.

Silently, they walked to the house, not looking back to see the destroyed ground that no longer held the hope of stored hay for the winter.

  • * *

The back door slammed with a bang. Savannah blinked as her scratchy, tired eyes adjusted to the light.

“Not a goddamn mark out there,” Dad called from downstairs.

New sunlight pushed through slatted blinds, casting white stripes onto her bed. She squinted and rubbed the sleep away, listening. Voices mumbled between her parents. Curiosity drove her from the warm comfort of her blankets as the soft fog of sleep lifted from her memory. Sliding into house shoes, she ran downstairs to see for herself.

Her parents stood just outside the back door, hands held over their brows to shade their sight.

“What’d I tell ya?” he asked.

Mother, of course, didn’t say anything. Just as expected, stoicism owned her response, just like each day for the last few weeks.

“How can this happen?” Savannah said, coming to stand beside her parents. Relief surged inside her, nearly strong enough to ward off the foreboding from the night before. Knee-high mountain grass waved in a morning breeze, seedy tops bouncing. There would be hay for the winter.

There probably wouldn’t be an explanation of the phenomenon from her father, however. It was just like the outburst in the barn when the horses got hurt. “Maybe it looked worse last night, because it was dark,” he offered. “I don’t understand it.”

“The car had wings on it. Like an emblem, I mean. It was silver, on the front of the hood. I saw when it went by.” It probably didn’t matter. The damage to the field had magically healed overnight.

“Go put some clothes on, Savannah,” her mother commanded with a scathing look. Savannah crossed her arms over her chest, suddenly ashamed of wearing only a nightgown. Her favorite sleep shirt fell mid-thigh, but it was far from being see-through.

Dad didn’t react to Mother’s animosity, just gazed at the pristine hay field in new sunshine.

***

 

#

Chapter 7

An angry handprint slanted across Molly’s tear-streaked face as she ran through the back door. Savannah’s eyes widened and she reached for her sister, but Molly ducked away, quickly beating feet upstairs. Savannah slowed down, listening for the sound of her bedroom door slamming. With her hands protecting her ears from the loud noise, she waited for it so the resulting pop of the door against the wooden jamb was much easier to handle. She started toward the backyard where Molly had come from moments before.

Mother was tapping dust from throw rugs on the clothesline. The door clicked shut behind Savannah, which caught Caroline’s attention.

“What?” she snapped.

“What’s wrong with Molly, Mom?”

Caroline turned back to the chore, swinging the broom a little harder.

Savannah approached. “She has a mark on her face.”

The beating of the rugs turned brutal, with her slender mother gripping the handle like it was a Louisville Slugger.

“Mom!”

Caroline shoved the broom to the ground, wheeling on Savannah. Using a stiff index finger, she jabbed hard at Savannah’s chest. “You two girls and your nasty minds,” she said with a jaw locked like it was wired in place. “Maybe you’ll end up in a nuthouse like the rest of the crazies in his family. You’re nothing but a couple of shameful, little sluts.”

Speechless, Savannah withdrew a step, rubbing her chest where she got stabbed with a finger.

“Hmph,” Mother snorted. “Daydreaming about things good girls wouldn’t.” She bent for the broom and let the rugs have it anew. “Shame on you.”

“What the heck are you talking about?” Tears welled. Mother had never talked to her in such a tone. Distance had grown further between them since they moved to the Witcher Place, and she didn’t know why. Mother had been quiet, unapproachable. At night she’d started taking pills to sleep, and there was no waking her. Questions went unanswered, and it seemed she made herself scarce as much as possible.

“What’s been going on with you, Mom?”

“You’re father’s a good man,” she said between swats. Caroline turned to face her, broomstick cocked over a shoulder. “And you’d better watch it if you have anything different on your mind.”

“You hit Molly.” Mother used to be a gentle soul. The shock of the event was worse than the little spot on her breastbone, where she could still feel the angry stabs that punctuated her mother’s warning.

“She’s lucky I didn’t beat her ass with a belt. That’s what my mother would have done.”

An afternoon breeze whipped Caroline’s hair across her bare shoulders, long tresses hanging in waves against her tank top, creating a conflicted vision. How could beautiful, sensible, gentle Mother say such things? Blue eyes that should have regarded her with only patience, telling of a kind heart, stared cold. They’d grown apart very slowly as Savannah grew up, but since the move, Mother made every attempt to treat her like nothing more than a roommate she put up with in passing.

“I should have washed her mouth out with soap for lying.”

“What did she lie about?” Savannah held her breath, letting the words out slowly to keep her voice from cracking.

“Oh, now you’re going to play stupid?” Her voice raised in ferocity, just below an all-out yell.

“I … I don’t—”

“Get the hell out of my sight,” Mother growled, stepping close. She leveled a finger toward the house.

Savannah backed away, shaking her head and ran inside. In the den on the way to the staircase, she slowed. Dad had come inside and stood before his cat painting, the usual, morning fire crackling in the fireplace even though there was no chill to burn off.

“Hey, Dad?” she called to his back with a trembling voice. He didn’t turn to respond. The mountain lion watched her over Dad’s shoulder, from the painted rock ledge above the fog. She went closer.

“Dad? What’s wrong with Mom?”

“Nothing. I was just out there and she’s fine,” he said, still gazing at the art.

“She hit Molly.” Of her parents, he was always the one she could count on. She didn’t like to admit that she usually felt closer to him than to Mother, but it was what it was.

“Now that’s probably not the case, honey,” he said, still not looking.

“She did. She told me.”

“You probably misunderstood.”

“No, I—”

“Savannah, I’m sure it’s a figment of your imagination, baby.” For the first time since she entered the room, he pulled his eyes away to glance at her. The look wasn’t friendly, not at all what she expected. He wore the expression of someone who’d been disturbed.

“Just like Molly’s nightmares,” he said.

“Have you seen Molly?”

“No.” He turned away.

“She has a handprint on her face,” she offered. Surely that would get his attention. Perhaps convince him to worry some.

“Your mother would never hit anyone. You know that. She’s just not the type to act on her feelings that way.” He huffed with a half-smile. “She doesn’t care much about anything, anyway.”

Savannah blinked. He’d completely ignored the fact that Molly was hurt. “Don’t you want to know what happened?”

“You’re making a mountain out of a molehill, Vannie,” he answered.

“Molly’s hurt. Don’t you care?” Her voice trembled.

He spun to face her. “Let’s get something straight,” he said. “I love Molly. I’d never want anything to happen to her.” Savannah took an instinctive step away. Her father watched her closely, then followed her. His eyes fixed on his own hand as he caressed the skin of her forearm, then ran it up her jaw and along her cheek with the backs of his fingers. “I love both you girls.”

Words she loved to hear before sunk in the pit of her stomach like a damp wad of sour bread dough. Something about the delivery wasn’t right. Keeping momentum, she continued to back away, turning toward the stairs when his gaze returned to the painting. The big cat stared at her, the little ridges and texture in the paint dancing with firelight. Dad didn’t move or blink as she left.

Tapping with her fingertips, Savannah beckoned through Molly’s thick, bedroom door. “Molly, open up.”

Nothing.

“Mol?” She tapped a little harder. “Are you okay?”

Hornet barked from Chaz’s room at the end of the hall.

There was still nothing from her sister. Defeated, Savannah started outside for the night’s chores. The broom lie on the grass, abandoned as the throw rugs swayed from pins on the line. She walked toward the barn and let herself into the yard next to the outer stalls. A horse nickered when she latched the gate.

The barn was dim inside with the exception of a few stray, dust-riddled beams of sunlight at the back by the haystack. There was no sound of the horses in their stalls, so she guessed they were all outside in the sun. Taking it slow, she walked toward the tack area to switch on the overhead fluorescents. Just before she got there, the unmistakable sound of a rake handle sliding loose startled her. She spun in the direction of the sound just as the rake fell to the floor against the wall to her left, about fifteen feet away. A dark object recoiled, melding with the shadows in the corner.

Steadily, Savannah bent without taking her eyes away. She grabbed a handful of gravel and dirt from the floor, leaned back and let the small rocks fly into the corner like scattered buckshot. Whatever it was, likely a coyote or a raccoon, hit the wooden wall with a scratching thud. She reached for more ammunition. Wild animals in the barn equaled nothing but trouble, and if it was big enough, it could spook the horses through the fence.

Her grasp claimed only a flat stone about the size of a golf ball so she whipped it as hard as she could, dead center into the corner. The rock struck something solid and bounced to the ground.

“Yah! Out!” she yelled.

Nothing moved.

Savannah took the remaining steps and switched on the lights. There was nothing in the corner. She turned back toward the door in time to see an enormous brown cat pacing away with careful steps. There was no fear in the animal, or at least not enough to make it run away.

Not good. Adrenaline brought her senses to life, coursing through her veins like liquid electricity with each heartbeat. A beast that size could drag her off and stash her in a tree for a week of meals.

The lion stopped and looked back at her. The cat’s face was beautiful, with white marking its chin and tufts behind its ears. Dark eyes regarded her as she reached for the rake, knowing it would not stop the cougar from killing her. The rake head clanged against a shovel with a broken off handle. Quickly, she grabbed the busted spade head and hurled it at the doorway, intending to hit the gravel in front of the mountain lion and startle it out of the barn and away from her horses. She was so amped up that she whipped the shovel head with enough strength that it hit the wooden door, just above the cat’s head, falling down on its shoulders as it jumped to the side.

Again, it stared at her with huge, black eyes.

Savannah trembled so hard the legs of her jeans shook.

Panting, the mountain lion cocked its head like a listening dog, but much slower.

Savannah matched eye contact, despite fear. Seconds pounded by with her heartbeat.

Finally, the cat walked outside. When she was able to breathe again, she closed the barn door and quickly inspected the horses; all of which were fine. Apparently the lion hadn’t been there for long. From that point on, she’d bring Daddy’s shotgun out with her.

***

 

#

Chapter 8

“Rebecca Caleman,” Savannah read aloud. The same crazy great aunt that committed suicide in the kitchen a year ago at their old house had been an artist in her younger, more sane years. The cat painting was done on a thick canvas with heavy layers of oil paint. Together with the wooden frame, the piece of art was so big and weighed so much she had to use Mother’s six-foot painting ladder to reach the top of the frame, then slide it against the wall to get it down. Resting on the floor, it was nearly as tall as she was.

Very well done. Fine lines added texture to the animal’s coat, mixing bits of white in with a range of browns, just like the mountain lion that was in the barn. Detail was lost when the painting hung so far above the eye, and since she held it closer, the slightest changes in color arced and rippled. Heavier strokes of the brush spread tone perfectly, in lifelike hues. The creature’s eyes popped, shadows and reflections of light causing the effect that the cat watched all angles of the room, its gaze tracing a path as anyone walked through, sat on the couch, or stared back.

More riveting was the cloud of fog that churned below the rock shelf where the mountain lion reclined. Vivid blues blended with pouting grey and charcoal, swirling as if the mass tumbled on an undying gale of fresh wind. Lighter fog rested around the edges of the mass, which grew darker like a rain-filled cloud. Blackness lurked near the center, split like dual orbs, or eyes. Rebecca was talented. The painting oozed to life with each shift of the eye.

Intricate as it was, there was still no excuse for her dad to stand in front of the thing for hours, ignoring life for the past weeks since they moved. The house could burn down around him and he wouldn’t bat an eye.

“Put it back,” Dad whispered, so near her hair gusted away from her cheek.

The frame slid from her grasp and fell back against the mantle, cracking hard.

“Fuck,” he said, reaching for it.

“I didn’t mean to. I mean— I was going to dust it off.” She bit her lip. Her father didn’t cuss like that. The word “dammit” was heard so much from both of her parents, it really didn’t count, but the “F” word never happened.

The frame had popped loose at the corner, but he tapped it back together, shaking his head.

“You scared me.” She swallowed hard and backed off a step. “Did Great Aunt Rebecca paint this?”

“Yes.”

“Did she do any more painting? This is really beautiful.”

“How many times do I have to tell you not to touch my things?”

Savannah gaped. He’d never said anything like that. She shook her head.

“She was just as crazy as her mother and her daughters. They’re all Looney Tunes. Always have been,” he muttered, not caring if she could hear him or not.

“Your aunt?” The women in the Caleman clan hadn’t cornered the market for the “crazy” gene, by any means, it seemed. Her dad hadn’t been a picture of sanity lately. “Where does that side of the family live?”

“Never mind. Just go check the horses.” He stood back, looking at the bare spot on the wall and back at the picture, absently rubbing a hand along the wood frame.

“All right,” she said, turning for the back door. “Sorry about your picture.” She waited a couple seconds to see if he would surprise her with a reply. He didn’t act like he’d heard her so she headed upstairs to her room, instead. The horses didn’t need to be checked up on. He just didn’t want to be bothered with her questions. That was a “New Dad” thing. “Old Dad” would still be chatting her leg off, maybe even teach her to fix the frame, since she’d been the one who’d dropped it. He would have said it with kindness, the way he always did. Her throat ached a little. Old Dad would have a lot to say to New Dad. She missed him terribly.

Savannah took her contacts out and lay down, staring at the ceiling above her bed. Blurry spots of light and color tumbled as her eyes attempted to focus. There had to be a sane Caleman woman out there someplace. Thinking back, all the big family to-do’s were always put together by Mother’s family, not the Caleman clan. And there was the hush-hush thing with Dad’s great aunt back on the ranch. They’d all called her “Auntie”, and Savannah couldn’t remember having a conversation with her. Her art suggested prodigy. Could it really be that there was something inherently wrong with only the females on Dad’s side? That seemed pretty short-sighted considering the way he’d acted since the move.

  • * *

Hornet was the best dog ever, no matter what anyone else had to say. Chaz had said it a hundred times. Savannah peeked into his room, spying a little, but mostly to see what the only “normal” family member was up to.

Chaz scrubbed the yellow fur behind an ear as Hornet made scratchy movements with his hind leg. He laughed, making her smile. Sure, Hornet was a stinky mutt. But weren’t most dogs smelly? And the dog made her baby brother really happy, so it was a good trade off.

Now that they’d moved to the new house, Hornet stuck even closer to Chaz, which she would have considered an impossibility since they’d always seemed inseparable. The dog never had liked the girls as much, but that was because they never did any cool “dog” stuff. There was plenty for Chaz to do, while Molly complained about being bored. The quakies outside the yard made shade, and there were always tons of fat jackrabbits to chase. Turning over big rocks always seemed to be great fun for them because of all the different bugs underneath. Hornet always wanted to roll rocks around and dig up ant hills. He even liked to take big naps with his tongue hanging out while Chaz did his homework or read at night.

With White Fang propped on two pillows, Chaz used one elbow as a chin rest while he scratched Hornet, sometimes forgetting to keep scratching until the dog reminded him with a loud snort or a forlorn groan of forgottenness. The duo was a portrait of lazy comfort, Chaz in shorts and a tee shirt and Hornet on his back with all fours in the air.

Hornet gave a fake sneeze, so Chaz worked his fingers faster, but instead of closing his eyes and getting lost in puppy dreams, the dog skittered quickly to all fours, tail lowered and one ear pricked. The other busted ear hung half-limp. He stepped toward the door, looking beyond where Savannah leaned. A low rumble pronounced in the quiet room.

She hadn’t heard the dog growl in a long time. The door was mostly shut so Chaz could read without being interrupted.

Chaz looked through the crack at her then to his ruffled dog. He shut the book and sat cross-legged. Hornet sniffed loudly, tilting his head so he could pull in the scent from the hall. He snorted, shaking his head, then backed away. Savannah looked behind her, but there was nothing to snort at. She shrugged at Chaz.

“Aw, do you need to go out?” Chaz asked, getting to his feet.

A rotten smell built around them like rising sewer water. Savannah chilled, remembering the scent from the night Molly had her “nightmare.” Chaz plugged his nose with a thumb and forefinger.

“That wasn’t him,” he said, saving his dog from the inevitable finger pointing from his sister. “Hornet, c’mon boy.” He walked toward the door.

“Hold on, Chaz,” Savannah held out a hand. There was nothing in the hall. She opened his door the rest of the way, searching his room. Still nothing. “That smell isn’t good,” she said.

“It wasn’t him, Vannie,” Chaz said. “Now move. C’mon, boy.” Chaz started around Savannah, but Hornet barked twice and backed away. Ears lowered, the dog stared out the door, hackles up.

The floor creaked behind her. Savannah turned, scanning the brightly lit hallway.

“It’s probably just Molly,” Chaz reasoned.

Sunshine poured inside from the tall window at the end of the hall. The smell was so strong her stomach rolled over.

“I feel like I’m getting carsick,” said Chaz. Hornet gave in to an all-out barking, snarling fit.

“Let’s go.” Savannah moved aside so Chaz could come out.

“Outside, Hornet,” Chaz said, with a hand over his mouth and nose. Hornet whined and stepped into the hall like he’d done something wrong, tail between his legs.

“We should tell Momma about the smell.”

Savannah didn’t respond, just nodded, more to comfort Chaz than anything. He stepped into the bright hallway, looping a finger into his dog’s collar to pull him along. It was nearly impossible because Hornet dug his feet into the floor and cried.

“Come on, Hornet,” Savannah cooed, patting a knee. Chaz’s eyes watered from the smell and he used his free hand to wipe at his face. The dog wouldn’t budge in the direction of the stairs. Instead, Hornet put his head down and ran straight toward the window. The collar popped from Chaz’s grip.

“Ow,” he complained, shaking his stinging fingers. “Hornet, no!”

The dog didn’t stop, just barreled ahead and smashed through the glass. Shards flew as Chaz’s bedroom door slammed shut behind them. Mother’s big pictures rattled against the walls. The door opened and slammed again, harder than before. Savannah grabbed Chaz by a hand and pulled him toward the stairs.

“No! Hornet’s out there!” he yelled over the din, ripping his hand from her grasp.

“We’ll get him down. Come this way!” She grabbed his other hand and yanked him along.

Chaz jerked free and backed toward the broken window. The rug at the opposite end of the hall rolled and blew toward him as if a strong wind came inside the house. He squinted as his hair whipped against his forehead. His hands flew from his ears and back to his nose and mouth against the scent of something dead.

“Momma!” Chaz yelled.

Hornet howled from outside the window, where the porch roof met the house. Chaz ran as fast as he could and squeezed through the busted up glass pane.

“No, Chaz!” Savannah yelled. She ran from the stairs, reaching for him but he was too fast. His shorts caught, and a jagged point cut the inside of his leg. His forearm was bleeding too, but he jerked loose and landed outside the broken window. Beyond the top of Chaz’s head, Hornet came into view at the edge of the roof, looking over his shoulder. Everything quieted as he took two steps toward his dog.

Savannah peered through jagged shards, but the hole wasn’t nearly big enough for her, too. And once she was out there, what then? There was no way down, and she couldn’t drag Chaz and his dog back through without cutting them up more.

“Come back inside, Chaz, please? You could fall.”

“Hornet won’t come back in. I’m scared, Vannie.” He squatted against the side of the house.

“I’m getting a ladder, Chaz. Stay right there and don’t get close to the edge.” She ran downstairs and straight out the back. Her heart pounded in her throat. The latch to the shed wouldn’t open fast enough.

“Come on!” she yelled. The latch clicked the second time and she scrambled inside, retrieving a tall ladder. Balancing the length at her waist, she ran best she could for the front of the house.

What was left of the window glass erupted, flying like shrapnel as she rounded the corner. She dropped the ladder. Sharp debris burst out, blasting into Chaz. Hornet took three running steps and dove from the roof. Chaz ran to the edge, bleeding and teetering, eyes only on his dog.

Hornet hit the grass, bounced, and ran down the driveway without a glance behind him.

“Hornet!” Chaz shook, looking at the ground.

“Don’t you do it!” Savannah yelled. She could tell he was thinking, if the dog could jump without getting hurt, maybe he could, too. Wind screamed from inside the house, and a door slammed as the tirade began anew.

A black silhouette stood in the opening, the large frame of a man Dad’s size. Two gloved hands planted on the wooden window sill, and when the man leaned out, the large head of a mountain lion protruded.

“Chaz!” Savannah screamed. She grabbed the awkward ladder and started across the yard, keeping her eyes on him as best she could. “I’m right here. I’m coming. Look at me!”

He’d already turned toward the window. Forgetting where he stood, Chaz placed a foot behind him to step back but there was no more roof to stand on. He jerked his weight forward but his leg slid down the soffit, scraping hard enough to draw blood. He got his balance, but started to cry.

The front door opened. “What are you doing, Savannah?” Mother asked. “What’s all this noise and screaming about?”

Savannah looked from her to the roof. She was almost there. She ran to the side of the porch and propped the ladder up where she could still see the window and the monster hanging out of it.

“Stop!” Caroline approached slowly, but stayed on the porch where she had no view of Chaz on the roof.

The cat snarled, then screamed loud. The thing burst from the ruined window and slammed into Chaz’s chest, knocking him from the porch roof. Savannah let go of the ladder and ran. Air grunted free of her little brother’s chest as his body slammed, back flat, to the ground in front of the porch. She ran hard but time seemed to slow as she sprinted.

Mother came down the porch steps. “Chaz! Oh, my baby!” She ran toward him.

One of Chaz’s arms jerked straight up, pointing at the sky. “Momma, make it stop!” He wailed, shrill like a doe stuck in a fence, as his elbow snapped in the wrong direction. Wet bone grated as the arm doubled over, Chaz’s hand landing next to his shoulder as if the limb was released from above. His elbow followed, pulled only by skin holding it close.

“Chaz!” Savannah neared, but Caroline beat her there.

“Oh my God!” Caroline reached to pull Chaz into her arms. Electricity popped and she was thrown free onto her side. She jumped up just as Savannah reached Chaz.

“Chaz?” Savannah knelt beside her little brother, gingerly extending a hand to test for an electrical shock. There wasn’t one so she brushed shards of glass from his cheek.

He didn’t answer, eyes wide as he stared into the sky.

“Don’t touch him!” Mother yanked Savannah backward by her hair. She scooped Chaz up and ran with him toward the truck.

Savannah sat up, watching through tears as Dad’s old Dodge tore out of the yard. Once the sound of the truck’s motor was just a purr from the distance, she rose to her feet, brushing grass, dirt, and a loose clump of her hair from her shirt.

The house was dark. Curtains from the second-story window puffed free, hanging out onto the porch roof, snagged in glass.

“Daddy!” Savannah cried, going to her knees. “Daddy!”

No one answered.

***

 

#

Chapter 9

“Hornet,” Molly called down the hillside. They’d never give up looking for their brother’s dog. Somewhere deep down, Savannah knew Chaz was okay because their mother would have taken him to the hospital. Caroline might hate her daughters, but she loved Chaz like a mother should.

“Here boy,” Savannah yelled, then let out a long whistle. She scanned the trees and brush, waiting and hoping to see a patch of yellow fur appear as the dog bounded up the hill toward them. She missed Chaz with all her heart, and the next best thing she could think of would be to find his mangy beast of a dog.

“It’s no use, Savannah. That dog hit the road running and ain’t coming back.” Molly stared down the driveway for a moment longer, then turned toward the house.

Savannah peered up at the headgate, the letters spelling out “Witcher” dark against an intensely blue sky. She’d once planned to insist their father remove the name so it didn’t loom above the new family home. Looking from the black wrought iron to the dark windows of the house, it all seemed to fit. The property would always be The Witcher Place. The freakish things that had happened would never fade from her memory, and she would see that the name above the driveway would remain as a warning to anyone who made the mistake of knocking on the front door.

“Maybe they picked him up on the road. Hornet ran toward town.”

Molly shook her head. “Do you think we’ll ever see either of them again?”

“I don’t know,” Savannah kicked a rock off the drive.

“She hates me,” Molly said, looking down. She picked up a stick and picked the bark off. “I guess I can’t blame her.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong, Molly. None of this is your fault.” Savannah waited for an answer but didn’t pry when Molly remained quiet. After a few minutes, she took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“I’m scared of our house,” Molly said, but didn’t make eye contact. “It’s the first time in my life I want to go to school.”

“I’ve been thinking about that, too. It’s the only thing that’s normal now.”

Molly didn’t respond. They watched the wind blow around the trees in silence.

“I miss Chaz,” Molly said, with a tight jaw. She lost the fight against a wall of emotions and dropped her face in her hands, sobbing.

Savannah pulled her close and hugged her hard. “So do I.” She let her own tears fall. “But I’m here with you. Please don’t shut me out, because you’re all I’ve got, too.”

Molly nodded against her shoulder, wiping her face on the sleeve of her oversized sweatshirt. She stood straight, gaining control. “I won’t.”

Savannah wiped her own tears away. With a final look around, they headed back to the house.

  • * *

Savannah never thought of their tiny school in Cripple Creek as sanctuary before. It was the last week of May, nearly three weeks since they’d seen their mother. Dad seemed to be back to himself most times, but didn’t want to talk about Chaz and Caroline. The plan to go back to church dissolved after one awkward Sunday. He got the girls up for school each morning like nothing was wrong. He dodged questions and obviously lied to the school about Chaz because the assistant principal asked how her mom and Chaz were doing on their trip. Savannah was so frustrated she wanted to slap her dad, but found herself lying, telling the staff at school the trip was going great. After no help or honesty from their dad, Savannah announced she and Molly were going to look for Chaz and Mother. Their father stated he’d have Savannah picked up for harboring a minor runaway, and did she want to start her life off with a criminal record? The issue wasn’t closed, however. It would require finesse and planning, but they were leaving as soon as she covered all the bases.

Minutes ticked and tocked as she sat in a desk, dreading the bell announcing the end of the day and the finale of the school year. In under an hour, seniors would be released for the summer, but underclassmen, like her sister, had two more days of school. Soon it would be time to get on the bus. Each stroke of the second hand chimed through her, but she fought off tears.

“Hey Savannah.” Metal squawked as her friend Tina slid up a chair.

“Hi.” Savannah did her best to switch gears and smile. “What’s up?”

“You look like the world’s on your shoulders.” Tina snugged a thick strand of red hair behind an ear. “I know we don’t talk much anymore, but you just look so sad and if you want to talk …”

“Thanks,” she said, twirling a Bic on the desktop. “Just got a couple rough situations at home. It’ll work out.”

Tina wore her patented, wide-eyed look of stoicism to let Savannah know she didn’t believe the brush off. After a second, she shook her head and smirked. “See, this is the problem with who you are now, Vannie. You’re pretty much unapproachable, and when someone tries to talk or help, this is what they get.”

“I’m sorry, Tina,” Savannah locked her friend’s green-blue gaze in hopes of gathering suitable words. “You’re right. I do want to talk, but it’s crazy and you’re not going to believe any of it.”

Tina glanced at the mere four other bodies in the room with them, then up at the remaining time before school let out. “Try me.” A genuinely warm smile followed her words, the same kindness they’d shared as far back as elementary school.

Savannah wondered briefly why she’d let the friendship go. With a breath to steel her nerves, she began to talk just above a whisper, slowly at first, but before she knew it the story was out there between them. All the weirdness, the unbelievability, the strangeness and horror, hearing it come out of her made the last weeks surreal, so crazy she knew Tina didn’t buy a syllable.

Tina didn’t utter a word until Savannah quieted and bit into her lip to make it stop quivering. “Where’s Molly?” she asked, quietly.

“She’s here,” Savannah croaked.

“We need to get you some help, Savannah.” Tina rubbed her forearm.

Savannah’s heart dropped and she pulled away. Of course, it was all too far-fetched. She shook her head.

“There are people you can talk to, Vannie. They can help,” Tina pleaded, being careful to keep her voice down.

“Forget it,” she said, gathered her things. “Thanks for listening, at least.”

“I didn’t say I don’t believe you—”

“It’s okay. Really.”

The seconds ran out and the school echoed with woops as students pounced into the hall with yells and high fives. Savannah stood, sighed so deeply she had to fight tears, then rose to face the evening. She didn’t look back at her friend. Her sister would need her. She trudged to her locker to clear out her things.

Molly already had a seat on the bus, so Savannah dropped onto the bench beside her. Neither spoke. Savannah contemplated whether it had been a good idea to share so much with Tina. Odds dictated no one would ever believe her life had taken such a turn, but it had felt good letting it out. Tina wasn’t the type to blab, so her secret was fairly safe. Still, she knew in her gut it had been a mistake.

Buildings passed from sight, then trees and brush when they were out of town. Washboards on the dirt road shook the seat, chafing her frazzled nerves and Savannah held her breath to keep from freaking out. In the seat behind them, somebody’s books vibrated off the seat and landed in the aisle with two loud bangs on the floorboard.

Savannah came off the bench and shielded Molly, who tucked up in a ball with her back to the windows. All conversation stopped and the other kids stared.

Two girls who sat a couple seats back covered their sniggers, but not before some of the words they whispered carried for the others to hear. “Crazy Caleman girls ….”

“That’s right, bitches,” Molly shouted. “Don’t give me a reason, Michelle,” she warned, picking out the larger of the two older girls. Savannah lowered herself back to the seat but didn’t turn back around until the two girls moved their hands from their mouths and looked away, likely out of fear that she and Molly would indeed snap and pound the crap out of them both. Molly put her feet back on the floor and turned to stare out the window.

Too soon, air hissed from hydraulics as the exit popped open like French doors to hell.

Molly followed Savannah as they stepped to the gravel, watching the driver guide the bus to the Y in the road, turn around, and head back toward Cripple Creek. Dust settled. The sun dipped behind mountains to the west, and the temperature dropped considerably. Savannah sighed and turned to walk the remaining quarter mile to their driveway.

“Let’s go to the Williams’ house.” Molly waited for Savannah to acknowledge, not moving.

“They’re out east for their son’s wedding. Kim wasn’t at school, remember?”

“Can’t we just go see if maybe they got home early?”

“And say what?” Savannah snapped.

“That our dad has lost it, our little brother had his arm broken by … something—”

“And the dish ran away with the spoon.”

“We have to try to get help, Savannah. I’m scared.”

“So am I, but they’ll never believe us. We have to get a plan together before we just stop going home.” She approached her sister, hands on the shoulder straps of her back pack. “We’ll stick together. You can sleep in my room. We’ll talk to Dad—”

“A fat lot of good that’ll do!” Molly pulled away.

Savannah jerked her around by an arm. “Have a better idea?”

“I’m not going anywhere near him.”

“Why not? Why won’t you tell me what’s going on?”

Hurt and fear swam in the unshed tears in Molly’s eyes. Savannah searched her face and finally realized she had to let it go. If Molly started to cry, she might never be able to stop. Savannah’s heart ached for Molly. Whatever was wrong was bone deep.

Savannah dropped her arm. “Okay. We’ll check to see if their car’s back.”

Earlier in the day, the walk would have been draped in golden rays, aspen bark glimmering white at the roadside. Since the afternoon sun had already set behind a tall mountain, the pines were blackened triangles jetting into a lavender sky, and it kept getting colder. Thunderheads built, ashen puffs streaked with flashing webs of lightning. Crisp rain tainted the air with the threat of a good soaking.

The sensation that they were being watched battled with courage, and Savannah held it together so she didn’t burst into a sprint and frighten Molly. No one was out there. She was just nervous and upset about everything, and worried about Chaz and Mother.

They came to the turn off for the Williams’ house. Molly peered through the barred gate at the empty driveway. Without a word, they stepped back out onto the gravel and continued toward their house. Savannah had to admit she was pretty disappointed, too, but they didn’t need to say it. They’d be home soon and would make a plan from there. Molly was right, and Savannah couldn’t deny any longer that they needed to get out.

“What’s that?” Molly slowed, looking behind them as she walked backward.

“I can’t tell from here.” Squinting, Savannah matched pace, waiting for the dark spot in the road to take form. Their driveway wasn’t far off. If they kept up a good stride, whatever it was wouldn’t matter. They’d be inside with the door locked. Maybe they could call the police to have a look around.

“It’s coming toward us,” Molly whispered.

She was right. The thing in the road was just far enough away that it was black in the shadowed lane. The real problem was, it wasn’t small. Tiny hairs pricked hard along her nape and down her arms, pulling so tight it hurt. The storm built to black atop the trees.

“Shit.” Savannah stopped.

“What?” Molly’s voice sounded small, like a child’s. “What is it, Vannie?”

“Keep walking backward,” Savannah whispered.

“What is it?” Panic was barely kept in check, but Molly started walking backward.

“It’s a mountain lion.”

They took the biggest steps they could, keeping their eyes locked on the approaching cat. It didn’t appear to be running, but it closed in on them.

“We have to run.” Molly spun and grabbed Savannah’s sleeve. “Now, Vannie!”

“Go!” Savannah jerked her arm free. “Get to the house and get Dad’s shotgun. I’ll be right behind you.” Keeping her gaze on the animal, she began to run backward. Molly’s footsteps pounded away.

Lightning drew near, making the sky appear even darker. The mountain lion’s shoulders rolled under a tan hide as it followed, much closer now, and gaining. Black eyes locked on her. Lightning shot overhead and the cat appeared in the white flash, walking upright on two feet, tall as a man, swinging its arms with each stride.

Another flickering streak of light and a man strode where the cat had been, wearing an old fashioned suit. Thunder pounded. He smiled, fangs splitting the skin of his bottom lip. Blood dripped down his chin. The man tossed his head back and let loose a shrieking roar.

“Jesus!” Savannah yelled.

“Ha!” he laughed. “Who?”

Savannah turned and bolted. Adrenaline burned in her chest. She stole a glance over a shoulder to see the thing was back in cat form and trotting behind her, again on all fours. I’ll never make it. She put every ounce of energy she could into pumping her arms and sprinted hard around a curve. The next bend was the last of the road before their driveway. Her lungs burned and tears streaked away from the outer corners of her eyes. Wind roared in her ears. She ran on, waiting to feel the talon-like grasp of the lion’s claws take her down. A few fat raindrops pelted the road, warning of the impending, angry mountain storm.

The headgate came into view, the name “Witcher” becoming clear in her bouncing line of sight. Scared she’d doom herself by looking behind her, Savannah didn’t glance back. Instead, she devoted the last of her energy to the sprint up the driveway. She leapt up the three wooden steps as one knee buckled, but managed to stay upright, stopping just before smacking into the wooden door. With a trembling grip, she grasped the door handle and slammed into the door with a shoulder, too fast to allow the entry to swing wide open. Finally inside, her hands flew as she locked the door and dropped to her knees to peer out the bottom of a window.

The man in the suit leaned against one of the uprights back at the gate. His hands were stuck in the front pockets of his trousers, jacket unbuttoned, one foot crossed over the other. He inclined his head in a sort of bow of acknowledgment that he saw her watching.

“I can’t find Dad, or his shotgun,” Molly said as she ran in from the den. “Is it out there?”

Thunder cracked hard, and Molly dropped to her knees on the hardwood beside her. Savannah cringed, covering her head with her arms. As soon as the booming from above ceased, she opened her eyes.

“You okay?” Savannah said, putting a hand on her sister’s back.

“Yeah.” Molly peeked over the sill. “Savannah?”

“What?”

“It’s gone.”

Savannah looked outside. “Good.” There was nothing beside the gate. The storm lightened up some, but clouds still darkened the sky.

  • * *

Molly’s exhausted body twitched as she drifted off, finally giving in to sleep. Savannah fought drowsiness, intent on guarding her little sister so she could rest. Their dad tromped up the stairs, so Savannah went to the door, intercepting him before he knocked.

“What are you doing in Molly’s room?” he asked.

“Slumber party.” Savannah held onto the door, which was cracked just wide enough so she could see him. His eyes went from hers to the door handle and back up, like he contemplated kicking it in so he could come past her. She tightened her grip on the handle and silently braced a shoe against the door. He backed off and she breathed in.

“I’ll see you two in the morning, then. Good night.”

“Night.”

Savannah closed the door and turned the lock as quietly as she could. Dad’s footsteps went downstairs, and finally she was able to relax on the bed with her sister.

Molly hadn’t seen the mountain lion change into a man, and Savannah had no plans to tell her. She didn’t tell her about the beast shoving its cat head out the window the day Chaz broke his arm. Molly was traumatized enough without knowing about the monster. She would pack everything they owned into her truck and disappear with her sister on Molly’s last day of school. It was the only way. After the response she got from Tina, there was no way the police or anyone at the school would believe her if she told them about everything. She’d leave all the gates open for the horses and hens and move her sister far away.

Savannah slept in small amounts of time, startling awake when each sound in the night ignited fear with new intensity. Molly never woke. Finally, pink streaked the sky outside and Savannah crept out of bed and to her room as quietly as possible. Her bladder ached ferociously because she had to go even as she crawled into bed that night, but didn’t want to walk through the house. That helped to make for a really long night. It was odd how exhaustion could create a buzzing sensation in her body. She was worn out, but not sleepy. After a trip to the bathroom, and with clean clothes and a hair tie in place, she went over to Molly’s room and rousted her for school. She didn’t want to be apart from her sister, but being away from home and around other people seemed safer than spending an hour at their house. Once Molly was at school, she’d begin secretly packing.

Speechless and groggy, Molly wandered into the bathroom for a shower. Savannah made her sister’s bed and then went to the kitchen to round up breakfast. There was a row of fresh milk jars in the refrigerator that hadn’t been there the day before, so it appeared their dad was still handling a few things right.

Although Molly was initially resistant to the idea of school, Savannah got her seated on the school bus and on her way. Savannah walked back to the house to find their father. She dreaded it, but needed desperately to see if he was still in there somewhere, if it was worth trying or if he was just crazy. If he kept trying to dodge any questions, she wouldn’t let him do it.

She wandered around looking for him. He wasn’t in the kitchen, so she grabbed an apple and bit into it while she headed out to the stalls to do the morning feeding. A chicken screamed out back, so she stopped chewing to listen on her way to the hen house. Bright sunshine lit the yard, and the sky was so blue it matched the May flowers.

Savannah dropped her apple at the gate, stunned. There was no reason for Dad to butcher their remaining laying hens. The hatchet came down sharp, separating the chicken’s heads from bodies left writhing in the dirt.

Father hadn’t made any noise if he’d come upstairs the night before, or headed outside that morning. Quietly, she approached, dreading what she would see.

His back was to her. A pile of headless chickens lay beside a squawking gunny sack. Jack buried the blade into a stump that was a makeshift butcher block and reached for another. More screams narrowed to one. Steel flashed, and the head fell over the side of the wood. The body dropped, legs kicking. It righted itself, found feet and came right at Savannah.

An embarrassing little scream shook loose as Savannah realized the bleeding body wasn’t stopping. Skin, ruined feathers and a drooping neck bone that bobbed with the chicken’s steps were all that sat atop its shoulders, but it still barreled in her direction. There was nothing left to do but run.

“Daddy!” she screamed.

Jack glanced up, black eyes squinted to lines in his face. He stood, crimson speckling his plaid work shirt.

Savannah stopped running and turned. The bloodied hen ran to her legs, flailing its wings across her shins. Streaks of blood and fluid marred her jeans. She dropped back one step and kicked out hard, connecting with the corpse like a football. The body flew away, dropping to the ground with a thud and a dust cloud. She glared at her father, shaking.

“Why are you butchering the egg hens?” The gunny sack bubbled with movement, catching her attention. She stomped toward what was left alive and picked up the bag. From the weight she guessed he’d killed all but three or four. She carried them back toward the gate.

He said nothing, but started toward her. As he neared, his features became clearer, but his eyes remained blacked out, deep and liquid, like an oil-filled well. Blood spatter streaked his neck and jaws.

“Dad?”

No answer.

Savannah began to cry. Just as he grew near enough to reach her, she found instinct and ran outside the gate and locked it between them. The wood was hardly a barrier or any defense really, just symbolic. She watched him over the top of the gate, the bag of terrified hens outside the fence with her.

He stared over the wood rail with a look like he was getting ready to say something. No smile, and no frown, but his lips twitched and he blinked. The hatchet shook in his grip.

Savannah bent and opened the sack, releasing the frightened chickens. She dropped the burlap, looking once more at her unmoving father. His eyes were so fluid and dark she expected greasy tears to pour down his cheeks the next time he blinked.

His lips parted and he gasped like he hadn’t breathed in a full five minutes, still watching her. Savannah backed toward the house, not dropping her gaze until he was out of view. Once inside, she ran through the house locking doors and windows. Dad’s shotgun was under the parents’ bed. She grabbed it and all the shells in a steel box and headed upstairs.

After a day and a night of wearing contacts, it felt like they’d been cemented to her eyes with Super Glue when she popped them loose from her corneas. She slipped out of her muck-crusted jeans and boots and lost her balance, falling onto her knees before her dresser. She had to get some rest before she passed out cold. Not sleep, but just try to calm down and think. She had to get some help from someone who might know what was going on and how to make it stop.

She got up and sat on the bed, eyeing the shotgun on the floor. It would take a careful long shot to stop a mountain lion, or a man for that matter, but she’d darned sure give either something to think about if she could get close enough. Whatever the case, it was broad daylight out, there was no sign of the cat-man that chased them home, and she had to believe their dad could be saved.

***

 

#

Chapter 10

Savannah pulled open a drawer, grabbed jeans and jerked them on, refusing to sit still too long. Cold air puffed against her face. Her window hung open, the long sheers flowing on the breeze like foam rippling over rocks. She went back to the bed to find her glasses. If she didn’t get moving right then, she’d fall asleep and waste the day away. Waking up shaking made for a rough morning already, but at least her eyes didn’t burn anymore. Coffee was a must.

A floorboard creaked as the man in the old suit leaned in the doorway, just like he’d done at the gate. He smiled beautifully. She should have been horrified but all she could do was stare. Dimples creased his cheeks and little crinkles pulled around his eyes. The buttons on his suit reflected, glossy black, just like the toes of his shoes. A starched line ran the length of his pressed pants. A satin vest gleamed on his chest, with a lacy handkerchief folded in the pocket.

Finding some sense, Savannah ran toward the bed. The curtain caught the wind, flowing out nearly to the foot rail in an unfocused ball of linen. The dead smell was back, the familiar stench of a bloated, rotting rabbit on the roadside. One hand quested around on the covers as she felt for her glasses, intent on finding a way to see clearly. She stopped, looking back at the intruder, who was the only part of her world she could see with perfect vision.

“It’s good to rest a while,” he said. His voice was smooth and calm, with a bit of an old accent she didn’t recognize. The words he spoke were soothing and so nice to hear, which was very confusing considering the hair on her arms rose and pulled tight. A sense of ease found her, but she wouldn’t let her guard down. She drew breath in steady, preparing to scream for help.

His smile became that of one who knew her question before she asked. “Ah ah,” he warned, shaking an index finger. His straight, white teeth became fangs between grinning lips.

She closed her mouth, staring at his vivid appearance against the rest of the splotchy, out-of-focus room.

“You’re not really here.” The attempt at sounding sure of herself reminded her of a puppy teasing a rattler. “I’m so exhausted, I’m seeing things.”

“You can’t keep telling yourself that.” He stepped closer and sat on the foot of her bed, placing a hand on her knee. “Am I here now?” he asked, with the softest grown man’s voice she could remember hearing. His smile returned, fangs gone. He blinked slowly with soft, gentle eyes.

Savannah didn’t move, but he pulled his hand away to fold it together with his right, neatly on his lap. Everything was neat; his hair was perfectly combed and there was no outgrowth of whiskers on his face. She imagined running her fingertips against his cheek, how soft the skin would be to her touch. His irises were the darkest she’d ever seen. She couldn’t help but think of the guy from 21 Jump Street, except for the horrible smell and niggling sense of dread. She needed to sleep. It was the only explanation she had as to why she found him anything other than terrifying.

“I’m sorry, Savannah. That was a bit forward. I don’t mean to cause alarm.” He rose and walked to the window. The breeze dropped the curtain, stagnant, a fan that had lost power.

The rigid frames of her glasses lie just beneath the sheet. Relieved, she snatched them and slid the lenses into place, blinking. The room went twenty-twenty, just as he was. She started for the door, but he spun, pointing to the bed.

“Sit, please,” he asked, but she knew it wasn’t a request.

Savannah sat again, keeping her eyes on him. She couldn’t make it past him but if he sat down on the bed again, she might make it to the door, or better yet, to the shotgun.

“Who are you?”

“It’s a secret.” He clasped his hands behind his back.

“How did you know my name?”

He laughed. “Well, that’s not a secret.”

She frowned. “Why are you here?”

“This isn’t Twenty Questions.” He grinned.

“Leave or I’ll scream for my dad.” She sat up straight. They’d taught her in Physical Education, and in that “So, You Got Your Period?” class pamphlet, to try not to show fear when confronted by a threatening man. The case was the same. A predator was a predator.

He shook his head, then bowed, chin to chest. Righting his face slowly, he stepped close wearing the face of Jack Caleman. “But I’ve been here all along, Vannie.”

“You’re not my dad!” she screamed.

“No,” he said, withdrawing. His smile remained as his features contorted, melting and wet until his former countenance returned. “Although, he is me.” The grin faded.

Savannah’s heart lurched. Was her father still inside his body, or had he been taken, physical form hijacked like a stolen car? It wasn’t fair, and hardly believable. “What do you want?”

“I was hoping to talk for a while.” “Talk?” She shook her head, eyes wide. “No. Get out of our house!”

“But you talk with others,” he baited.

Savannah’s blood chilled, but she didn’t bite.

He went to the window, holding back the sheers and looking out. “I’ve been to this house before, and now you’ve led me back. It’s meant to be this way.” He faced her. “This is my house, too,” he said. “Along with everything in it.” He turned, regarding her with a slightly cocked head. “Don’t be misled. This encounter could go differently. You’ve no idea how much energy it takes to maintain a façade you’re human mind will comprehend.” He turned, releasing the curtain. “Do you understand?”

Savannah felt her bottom lip begin to tremble, so she looked down. “You’re a monster. You hurt my little brother.”

“I am no monster. I had no use for him here, and the case is the same for Caroline. This way, they are safe.”

She watched him approach, repulsed by the silk in his tone and the way each step was carefully placed and graceful.

“Do you see that this is an offering to you? I could have done away with them in another fashion, but for you, I made them leave, themselves.” He sat on the bed again. With a gentle touch, he reached for her glasses and pulled them away.

She flinched, despite the effort to show she wasn’t easily cowed. “Are you Witcher?” She peered at him.

He smiled, showing the deep set of dimples, then laughed, shaking his head. “Why do you need a title?” He folded the spectacles and placed them on her nightstand, regarding her closely.

“I’ve known the others, the ones kindred to your father from the house over the mountain. I apologize.” He paused, apparently trying to find the right words. “The females, I speak of. You have the look of them, but you are far different. I admire that in you.”

She snatched her glasses and put them back on, intent on getting his identity, especially since he admitted to knowing her family. “You said this is your house and Witcher’s the name on the gate.” She pulled her legs to her chest, wrapping her arms around her knees. “Whoever you are, I want you to leave.”

He frowned. “That’s not what I’d hoped to accomplish.”

“Then why do you do mean things? Like chase us? I want my dad back.”

“Your father is still here.” He stood. “I chased you because you wanted to leave. Each time you see me or think of me, you bring me closer to your likeness. I can’t have you leaving me.”

“We didn’t want to come back because we were scared.” She studied him. He stepped back. “Leave my dad alone.”

He shook his head.

“Please?”

“I make him happy,” he dictated.

Tears welled and the muscles in her face tightened as she tried not to cry. She covered her face when a sob erupted like steam from beneath a manhole cover. “Get out!”

“I’m sorry—”

“I want my little brother. I hate you!” she screamed, crying openly.

He approached, bending toward her. “Don’t cry, please. I made them leave and he is safer there.”

“Get out of here!” She grabbed her reading lamp and flung it hard. The shade glanced off his shoulder, crumpling. The cord came loose from the outlet behind her nightstand with a loud pop, dragging the stand forth, legs squealing as it scraped the hardwood floor. She clamped her hands over her ears.

Standing straight, he stared at her, snarling, a silhouette against morning light outside the window. He threw his head back, screaming with a mountain lion’s voice. His shape went quadruped, long, feline tail lashing with agitation. The cat took a long step and leapt at her, fangs bared, obsidian eyes gleaming.

Savannah skittered back onto the bed, recoiled against the headboard, and tucked her face against her knees with her arms locked over her head. The mountain lion smashed into her, crushing air from her lungs with a grunt. The smell of death filled her senses and the temperature dipped to the feel of ice water. The last thing she heard was her voice crying out.

  • * *

A dying fire smoldered, one last crackle popping a soft farewell. Savannah lifted her head and straightened her glasses with one hand. She sat on the couch downstairs in the den, curled under one of Mother’s afghans. The stranger wasn’t around. She rolled her neck to try to get it to loosen up, but pain throbbed from her ear to her shoulder blades. Dried blood caught her eye, darkening her shirt around the upper arm. Pulling the short sleeve back revealed a deep bite mark puncturing the flesh of her biceps and shoulder. Thankfully, puncture wounds didn’t bleed much. Two deep fang marks were separated by a neat row of indentations from smaller teeth. She looked down her collar. Aggravated bruising coated her shoulder and chest with hues ranging from deep navy blue to violet and pink. The wounds looked like she’d been strung up with a meat hook.

Daylight from the twin, eastern windows faded in and out, twisting with the shadow from wind in the trees outside, illuminating the painting above the mantle. The mountain lion watched her, stoically and all-knowing. The foggy mass beneath the cat’s rock perch churned with each flicker from outside.

Holding the injured arm close to her torso, Savannah came to her feet slowly, experiencing a head rush that nearly took her back to the couch. She breathed in a big breath, steadied, and paced toward the kitchen for a glass of water.

The rest of the house was silent, deserted. She downed one glass and filled it up again. A soft tapping sound came from the den. Nothing seemed out of order when she poked her head inside. The fire was too low to make the sort of sound she’d heard. The gentle knocking came again, so she walked in the direction of the sound, ending up back at the couch. The picture frame rattled against the wall.

Without taking her eyes from the cat painting, she bent and slid the water glass onto the coffee table. Two solid beats hit the canvas from the back, as if someone was knocking on a window behind it. She placed a hand on the bottom of the frame, pushing it against the wall. Vibrations pulsed against the painting, creating the effect that the foggy mass below the rock shelf churned, the clouds shifting and rolling against each other. They sped up, the tapping growing more intense. The center of the mass separated into two dark areas that spiraled with charcoal, black, and silver, becoming a liquid flow across the surface of the art. The canvas began to bulge, an obvious hand questing forth, scratching and pushing, feeling for a way out. Or a way in.

Savannah took a half-step backward. The mountain lion’s gaze followed her movements in the dim light. She backed to the window drapes and fumbled for the draw cord to open them up the rest of the way, the cat gloating, reclining on its perch above the thing trying to burst through.

The string fell into her grasp and she jerked the curtains open. Blinking, she stared, examining the painting. The lion still regarded her with the same stalker-like stare, but the mass beneath the ledge was just fog, the same as any other day. The oil paint wasn’t cracked or damaged. Nothing had been stretching it out.

The sun was still high so she hadn’t been out long, although she didn’t feel as exhausted as before. It was just past midmorning of the longest damned day ever. Her shoulder was killing her and she was woozy, but couldn’t afford to waste the rest of the day.

***

 

#

Chapter 11

Hooray for a full tank of Birthday Gas.

Driving out of town by herself was the last thing Savannah wanted to do, but necessity called. She had the timing down and the trip mapped out so she’d be back before Molly got off the bus. Her arm screamed each time she shifted gears, but soon pain fell away to throbbing numbness she could ignore. A war of wills between the manual transmission and her fear resulted in several stalls coming out of the driveway, but since she’d made it to Highway 50 the pickup kicked right along in fifth gear. The driver’s side window didn’t seal up top, so wind moaned low, creating a monotone backdrop for Tammy Wynette on the stereo. A country station was all that came in on the FM radio, which beat silence. Barely.

Despite the lyrical whining about broken marriages and ruckus about tough bulls and long highways, questions continued to form and Savannah made mental notes. In less than an hour she would arrive at her destination, the Colorado State Mental Hospital. Caleman wasn’t a common name. It was worth a chance and the drive to see who might reside there. Even if no one was left, being family, she might be able to show her ID and get some information on any family member who lived there. She’d be careful. The place was a lot like a jail, and the patients were held under security. Not only were they a danger to themselves, most had likely done something to break the law. Hopefully, Rebecca’s one remaining daughter would know how to help, although she’d have to look into the face of a deranged relative.

The “what ifs” were ugly. What if there really was someone there and the staff said she could not talk with them? What if she was allowed to and that person looked like her or her sister? Dad only mentioned females, but what if there was a man there, an uncle or cousin, who had some condition that made them scary and psycho? Would a crazy man be easier to deal with than a woman? What if she learned there was a sickness that ran in the blood and her father was right; it only affected the women in the Caleman family? Suicide Rebecca whispered to the walls, house plants, her art, rocks … and finally killed herself. At least that’s what she and Molly thought happened. Their parents told them to stay in their rooms that night. The screeching and yelling coming from the kitchen pretty much let everybody in the house know the nutty old hag finally stepped off the deep end. Then there was a funeral. Then they moved to the Witcher Place. Then Dad turned into a monster. Deep down, she didn’t want to think he’d never be back.

There would be answers because their parents said there was a relative locked up at the hospital. She would ask doctors about her father’s behavior and tell them about what he’d said about Caleman women. Before, growing up with a crazy old lady living with them wasn’t abnormal, it was just life. Just family, despite what some people in town had to say. Everything that happened since Suicide Rebecca died was the weird stuff. Surely the doctors would have information or advice.

The engine idled low at a hill on the highway, so Savannah downshifted. When she pushed the clutch pedal to the floor, her knee popped loudly. She cringed, remember the sick popping sound Chaz’s elbow made when it hyperextended. He cried so hard, her heart still ached. Mother might lack a lot in the love department for her daughters, but there was no doubt she would look out for Chaz. She was certain he’d been taken to the hospital in Colorado Springs for the best of emergency care. Still, seeing him hurt and confused by … whatever had happened, was the worst ever. At least he was gone, taken away from the Witcher Place, along with Mother. She hadn’t looked back, just floored it and hauled ass out of the driveway.

Savannah caught herself absently rubbing the spot on her scalp where a chunk of her hair was missing. Like it or not, Mother had it in her head that she and Molly had done something wrong, maybe even something to cause what happened to Chaz. She probably also thought they were the cause of the way Daddy had basically checked out. It wouldn’t have done any good to confront her about the way Daddy acted when she and her sister were to blame, in their mom’s mind. The most frustrating part about the whole mess was that no one had done anything to cause any of the craziness.

She scrubbed away a tear, gritted her teeth and gave the Toyota more gas. Molly would be out of school in a few short hours. She had less than an hour to spend at the hospital before the drive home to meet the school bus.

  • * *

“I’m here to see my great aunt, please.” She was screwed if the plump, bespectacled secretary asked for a first name, but she had to try something. The antiseptic “hospital” smell flooded into her lungs like muddy water.

“Name?” the lady asked. She set the phone receiver on her shoulder and the coiled cord bounced with the jiggle of her office chair. She smiled from her desk.

“Caleman.” We’re all nuts, haven’t ya heard?

“Ah, for Stella. It’s nice to see she has living relatives, besides her nephew. Must be your cousin? What’s his name again?”

Savannah froze, trying to think of what to say. She had no friggin’ idea who’d been coming to see her “aunt.” Her mouth opened and then closed again.

“Charlie. There it is,” the woman said, fingering a line on the inside of a yellow folder.

“Oh, yeah. I have a few cousins scattered around the state. Didn’t know which one had been in. Thank you. I’m Savannah.”

“The young people in your family are so polite, dear. You and Charlie both, with your ‘please and thank you’. And Stella herself is so sweet. She’s really made a turn-around this last couple of months. She just sings and sings. No more outbursts. A real joy to have here.” She slid a clipboard forward, indicating a sheet of paper and a blank line beside “Caleman”.

Despite a stab of pain in her shoulder, Savannah took the proffered pen and signed and dated like the other person before her, under the “Visitors” column. The paper was clipped onto the back flap of a folder, the sheet below showing a typed medical form. Savannah sped through the fields, looking for any long medical descriptions, but didn’t see anything enlightening. She handed the clipboard back to avoid looking suspicious.

“Thank you, dear,” the woman said. She pulled a huge ring of keys from some unseen place beneath the desk and hustled around to the office door to step into the hall. “Stella’s room is just right down the main hall, here,” she said, gesturing.

Savannah eyed the square passage of big doors with tiny windows. The secretary walked at a fast rate, so she kept her eyes in front and didn’t give in to peeking in any of the rooms. “Just down the hall” turned into a five-minute jaunt along a meandering corridor of echoes and odd smells. The ring of keys jingled in rhythm as they walked. White-clad staff, men mostly, smiled and nodded as they passed with the secretary greeting them with hellos and respective names. There was hustle and bustle, but everyone seemed friendly and good-natured. Security was handled well in the number of staff, but as she passed, she couldn’t help but notice the small windows and aggressive locks on each room. Everything was so sterile, so white-on-white, it made the place very cold.

“Now don’t you worry about all the paint and brushes she has in there,” the woman said, huffing a little from the fast pace. “She insists that artistic talent runs in the family. It’s very important to her. We started her out with finger paints and finally gave in to the begging after about a year of that. We don’t give her pencils or anything too pointy. Besides, she loves her art supplies too much to use them to do anything harmful to the staff or to herself. She loves oil pastels and crayons.”

They slowed and the secretary knocked on the next door to their left. One of the men, who Savannah guessed was a nurse, stopped at the door with them.

“Do come in!” called a lilting voice from beyond.

“Stella?” the secretary asked, opening the door. “Your great niece is here to see you.”

“Where’s Charlie?” the old woman asked, coming up from a chair. “I don’t want a niece.”

Savannah stepped inside sucking in a long breath as she looked from the woman’s lengthy, thin feet all the long way up to her face. Stella preened, big hands twisting her silver and grey hair behind a shoulder, then smoothing her nightgown and house coat. She stopped when she noticed Savannah by the door.

“No, ma’am, not today, but thank you.” She turned back to the secretary. “Be a dear and go find Charlie. We shall read today and waiting makes me terribly impatient.”

Savannah stepped forward. “Hi, Aunt Stella. I’m Savannah, Jack Caleman’s daughter. I was hoping we could talk for a little while.” She punctuated the introduction with a smile she hoped seemed friendly.

The old lady cocked her head, eyes roving around Savannah’s face and down to her shoes, finally coming to rest on the top of her head.

Savannah stilled while the ginormous woman gave her a once-over. Great Aunt Stella was easily the tallest woman she’d ever seen, standing at what she guessed to be far over seven feet. Even her hands and feet were big, but not out of proportion.

She continued to wait for her aunt to say something, checking out the various pieces of paper stuck to walls like kids’ art on a refrigerator. Rudimentary depictions of sunshine and flowers and angels in the sky hung in clusters. One of the papers had a brown cat sitting on a rock. Savannah’s blood chilled.

“Mother told me art is in our blood,” Stella said, tentatively.

Savannah nodded encouragingly and pulled her eyes away, not wanting to alert the old woman in any way. It was like getting a new horse comfortable and used to her. Savannah didn’t want to make any sudden movements that might startle her away.

“Your mom’s name is Rebecca, right?”

Stella nodded, but didn’t say anything.

Stella held her ground, her big form rigid as her lips, which had been slathered heavily with deep red lipstick. The same shade coated her fingernails. Pink house shoes peeked from beneath her floor length, frocked gown and housecoat. She looked at the smiling secretary.

“I’ll be just out in the hall.” The woman stepped out, but left the door open, which Savannah appreciated. Stella sat down again, so Savannah took a seat opposite her at a card table that was bolted to the wall. Although her aunt was seated, she still had to look up slightly to make eye contact. Stella stared at her across the top of a toy make-up mirror that had a reflective foil square rather than glass. Bottles of fingernail polish and various tubes of lipstick were arranged in neat rows.

“I’m sorry I’m not Charlie,” Savannah offered, again with a soft smile. “That is an old family name, right?” The woman didn’t respond, just watched her. “I won’t take up much of your time, so when he shows up, you two can read.”

“You’re not Charlie,” she said, then sighed. “You most certainly are a Caleman.”

“That, I am.”

“So, what would you like to talk about?” Stella asked, without returning the smile.

“Our family, mostly. Maybe get a little family history, if you don’t mind.” She folded her hands on the table.

“Is there no one left to ask? You’ve made quite a long trip from the ranch.”

“Actually, we don’t live there anymore. We moved to Victor, up to the old Witcher Place. Do you know where that is?”

Stella blinked, then shook her head slowly. “Of course, I know where Victor is, but not your Witcher Place.” She shook her head again and looked away. “What of the ranch, then?”

“Daddy sold it when we moved.” She regretted the statement the second it was out there. The woman likely grew up on the ranch. She might have been born there.

The old woman snorted her distaste for the news. “The best of the Caleman men died at the bottom of the mine.” She looked straight at Savannah, bleached gaze boring deep.

Savannah ignored the jab at her father. The old chick’s opinion about Jack Caleman was a side note. He would be okay just as soon as she found out how to make the cat-man go away. She decided to get to the point.

“Some odd things have been happening at our house, now that we moved. My parents have completely changed.” She sighed, wondering how much of the story to divulge. Considering the two hour drive, she went for broke. “My little brother had sort of an accident and my mother took him, and they left.” She searched the old woman’s face for anything but stoicism, but found nothing. “It’s been a few days and she hasn’t called. I mean, I’m sure she took him to the hospital. Our mother’s brother lives in Alabama, so that’s probably where she went. We don’t have a huge family. My sister locks herself in her room and won’t talk much. It’s hit and miss with Dad. Sometimes he looks and acts like himself, and other times he just stares at the art in our living room.”

Stella smirked.

Savannah stood, still looking at her great aunt. It was all she could do not to cry. “This probably doesn’t mean a thing to you,” she said, grabbing the back of her chair to push it in. The trip would have yielded more information if she wasn’t so thin skinned, but that’s where life had left her. She’d confirmed what Dad said about having a crazy aunt. Or two. At least she knew how to drive a stick, finally. She had to regroup by the time she got home.

“The cougar is beautiful, isn’t he?” The words came softly. Stella’s gaze dropped to her lap.

“You mean the mountain lion? The one in the painting?”

The old giant nodded. Obviously, the woman was never chased down a dirt road by a live one. Beautiful, it wasn’t.

“How did you know that was the painting I was talking about?”

“Of course, I know, silly peahen. All a mountain lion is, is a cougar.”

Savannah shook her head, staring. “I know that. I meant the painting.”

“Rebecca was gifted. Very talented.”

“She captured the cat perfectly.”

Stella gave a bark of laughter, shocking Savannah. “She captured more than that,” she said, amidst laughter that erupted in a series of guffaws.

Holy shit. “She was still there when I was little.”

“Yes, the poor dear.” Stella shook her head. “She was tormented. They took everything away from her, you know. They even took her canvases. Her paintings were all she had after the tragedy.”

“Um,” Savannah said, then stopped talking. There was likely some protocol in the hospital about telling people about a death in the family.

“Momma’s with the angels.”

“Yes.” Savannah breathed easier, taking her seat again.

Stella looked at her deeply. “You’ve the look of your father,” she said, and sat back. “I think you likely know more than I do, by now.”

“No, I’m sure I don’t. I just need to know what’s happening to my family. It’s horrible.” Despite her efforts, it still came out sounding like a plea of desperation.

“Weren’t ya raised goin’ to church?”

“Yes, when I was little.”

“So you’re Christian, then.”

“I—”

“Don’t you remember your Bible studies, child?”

“I haven’t been to church in years. We just sort of … stopped going.”

“Well, well.” Stella regarded Savannah with apparently renewed opinion. “Most would turn to faith at such a horrible time.”

“This is getting a little off track. I didn’t come here to talk about my religious beliefs.”

“Or lack thereof,” Stella said, with another smirk.

“You don’t have to be so judgmental. I came here for some help. I didn’t know who else to ask.” What a big, old hag.

“Mommy didn’t care to take you and your sister?”

Savannah felt her mouth fall open a little. It came out as a statement, more than a question. “Hag” quickly upgraded to straight up “Bitch.” Like the old woman meant there was a message there and Savannah hadn’t quite picked up on it. She flashed back to the accusing tone of her mother’s words. She’d called them both sluts ….

“She was pretty hateful the last time I saw her.”

Stella leaned in, putting both long arms on the table. She rolled her hands over, palms to the ceiling displaying jagged, lumpy scars at the base of each hand. It looked like she’d tried to cut each wrist with a chainsaw. Savannah slid back in her chair.

Stella grinned. “Forgive me, child, but I’m no longer miserable here. He’s come back, and that’s all that matters to me. He’s all that I’ve cared about since I was younger than you are now.” The corners of her mouth quirked upward. “Your horror is my salvation.”

“Who’s come back?” If Stella was talking about the “cousin” who’d been visiting, she was even more lost than before. The amount of dread in her stomach told her the old woman was talking about the stranger she’d called “Witcher”.

“Don’t play stupid with me,” she whispered. The look on her face matched the one Mother had worn the day she hit Molly. “He thrives on the play between husband and wife. No wife, he’s thrivin’ on somethin’ else.” She bit back a snide giggle.

“Look, I don’t know nearly as much as you think. If you don’t want to talk to me, just say so.”

Stella didn’t respond, just held the same, accusing expression.

“He makes you happy?” Savannah asked, changing from the subject to the interrogator.

Stella’s facial features relaxed. “Yes.” She looked up, seeing something that lie beyond the tiled ceiling. “He’s all things, and everyone. We dance at night. We laugh at the sunrise.” She brought her gaze level once more. “He has many names.”

“Okay,” Savannah drawled. “I think I’ve had enough.” She rose from her seat.

“Don’t you want to know my favorite?”

“I’d say that’s Charlie.” She pushed the chair in.

Stella smiled up at her, teeth streaked red and pink from the overdose of lipstick, obviously delighting in completely confusing her. “Ancient as the heavens and the earth. The good that comes from blackness. Beautiful angel of Genesis. He walks from the cave on four legs and takes the men of two. You’ll not find that in the Bible.” She winked, then closed her eyes, looking like she savored the last of her favorite meal.

“I don’t understand. You mean the mountain lion?”

Stella smiled. “Think of him and he’ll think of you.”

“What do you mean?”

Stella opened her eyes, smiled fading. “It’s time for you to be going. Charlie won’t come if you’re here.” She stood. “Run along, now.” She nodded toward the door.

“Take care.” Savannah really wanted to argue for more time, just a few more answers but the grave look on the large woman’s craggy face changed her mind. Savannah walked toward the door. She couldn’t complain about ending up talking to a crazy person when she’d come to a nuthouse. No need to ask about a diagnosis. Schizophrenia was obvious, religious nut, a close second contender.

“Dance to the chime, child,” Stella called. She put her hands above her head to rest on imaginary shoulders, stepping in circles to a tune only she could hear. Her sliver-streaked hair swung with her movements, brushing her hips.

For the first time, Savannah considered her own mental stability. The old woman knew too much. Her mention of the chime was scary. Stella might babble, but there was clarity hidden in her words. The trip was far from a loss. She had confirmation that whatever evil was at work was linked to the creation of the cat picture. She couldn’t expect to find sanity when she’d come to a looney lock up to pick her crazy great aunt’s brain for answers. She got some. The evil started up back at the ranch and followed them to Victor.

Outside the door, the secretary and male nurse leaned against the opposite wall, talking. When they saw Savannah, they smiled. Savannah hoped she didn’t look as rattled as she felt.

“Good afternoon, Stella,” the man called.

“Good as any. Charlie’s coming so we can read!” she answered, still dancing.

“Okay then.” He closed the door.

Once back at the front desk, Savannah asked, “May I use your phone before I take off?”

“Of course. There’s one back here,” the receptionist said. The two stepped behind the counter into an additional office. “Just dial a nine, and then the number.”

“Thanks. I’ll be right out.”

“Take your time, sweetie,” she said, and pulled the door closed, all but a sliver.

Savannah quickly dialed 9-911.

“Nine one one, what’s your emergency?” a man’s voice said on the line.

Keeping her voice low, Savannah continued. “My address is ten, six twenty-one Phantom Canyon Road, in Victor. A strange man in a suit and tie has been coming inside the house. My little sister is locked in her room and we need help.” That was a lie, but Molly would be home by four and if Savannah didn’t make it back before the bus dropped her off, that’s exactly where Molly would be. The phone call was insurance.

She ended the call as soon as she could and left. By the time she made it home the place would be full of cops. Certainly, they’d know what to do. If not, she’d wait for them to leave, toss Molly in the truck, and simply leave. They’d figure out where to go on the road.

***

 

#

Chapter 12

There wasn’t a single emergency vehicle in the driveway. Savannah walked inside, intent on heading straight upstairs to see if she’d beat Molly home. Once she closed the front door, she was abruptly jerked to the floor by her arm.

Her dad flattened her, face down on the hardwood and placed a knee in the middle of her back. Savannah yelped, expecting Dad’s hatchet to come slicing down on the back of her neck. The keys to the truck were ripped from her grasp. She struggled to turn over and get up, but he leaned his all his weight on her, making it hard to draw breath. The sound of his belt sliding free of his work jeans ripped through the room.

“You know better than to lie, Savannah,” he growled. The first smack of the belt came down with a forceful sting. She cried out. “I had every cop in the county out here—” Smack “looking for an intruder—” Smack “wearing a goddamn business suit!” Smack. He moved his knee and let free with a full on whipping session across her back, butt, and thighs before she managed to get to her knees. It was the first time she’d seen her father’s true face in days. His brown eyes sparkled with fury and resentment.

“And what’s worse? You have your little sister so screwed up she won’t even come out of her bedroom!”

Savannah backed away. The tender skin of her back tingled with pain where her shirt touched. Between that and her torn up, bruised arm and chest, she wanted to double over and curl up in a ball. Instead, she matched his gaze.

He looked surprised that she wasn’t crying, but still pissed off.

“Where are the police?” she asked.

“They came, looked around, tried to talk to Molly just minutes ago. You should have seen how scared she was. I told them you’d taken off without permission,” he replied, breathing hard. “You’re lucky they didn’t hang around to write you a ticket for calling them for no reason.”

“No reason? Are you kidding me? Where’s Mom? Where’s Chaz? Who the hell are you today? I wish they would have stuck around,” she yelled back. “How could you send them away, with everything that’s been going on here?” Nausea rumbled in her gut. If she threw up, it would be par for the course.

He shook his head, squinting. “This lying has to stop, Savannah. You’ve already driven your mother and Chaz away. Who’s next?” The belt buckle clinked as he threaded leather through the loops on his jeans.

Words wouldn’t come. How could he say such things with conviction? “You didn’t answer me.” She shook her head, staring at him. If he managed to convince the police everything was fine, and that she’d made the whole thing up, it would be hard to get them to come back. Why would they listen to a teenage girl that they believe to be liar? The officers might even buy into the rumors about her family being nuts. Finally, she managed to speak. “Haven’t you been here for the last week?” Witcher’s voice sounded in her mind. “Although, he is me …”

“I’ve been here, all right. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“You’re crazy!”

Molly’s bedroom door slammed shut. Savannah glared an accusation at her father and turned to run upstairs, but Jack grabbed her arm again.

“You leave her alone,” he warned. “She came home to find every cop in the county out here looking for her. Get outside and—”

“I know. Check the horses, right?” She jerked her arm free.

“Muck stalls while you’re at it. And you think long and hard about what you’ve done.”

“You can count on that,” she said and stomped outside. Life, apparently, would go on without a hitch in Jack Caleman’s world.

  • * *

“Molly?” Savannah called as she came through the front door. Her neck and shoulders groaned with stiffness from the long drive home and the additional work in the stalls. She’d had enough. She’d rest, grab her sister, saddle two horses if she couldn’t find her keys, and simply leave. If Dad stood in the way, they’d have it out again. He couldn’t outrun her mare across the hillside.

“Molly?” There was still no answer. No footsteps sounded anywhere in the house. She filled a tumbler with water and headed to her room, stopping to try Molly’s door. The handle didn’t turn.

“Molly, I’ll be in my room. Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” she said. It was great to hear her voice.

“Okay.” She turned to her room. Kicking free of her boots, Savannah sat back on her bed for just a second to rest and to gather her thoughts. She couldn’t remember the last thing she’d eaten. As much as her body screamed for a nap, she shook it off each time her lids threatened to close, staring at the colorful prism on her Pink Floyd poster. Her head had never felt so heavy and she gave up, hugging her pillow to her chest, resting her eyes for just a few moments.

  • * *

“Savannah?” Molly’s voice called from the hall.

Savannah got out of bed and opened her door into the hall.

Molly’s bedroom door was closed so she knocked. The handle twisted in her grip, letting the door swing open easily. Molly’s curtains were drawn. Savannah blinked as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. Molly huddled on her bed in the corner against the wall.

Savannah flipped on the light. “Hey, you thirsty?”

Molly didn’t reply. Her hair hung forward and her face was cradled against her folded knees. One hand rested palm side up on the bed.

“Molly?” Savannah placed the water on the bed stand and sat beside her sister. “You okay?” She reached, nudging Molly’s leg, which caused Molly to fall over onto the mattress. A rivulet of drying blood trailed beneath her jaw.

“Molly!” Savannah reached to clear hair from her little sister’s face. She climbed onto the bed, pulling hard to get Molly into her embrace. Her head lolled to the side. The pink eraser end of a pencil protruded from Molly’s right ear, driven flush with her cheekbone. Crimson laced the gold backing of a rhinestone stud on her earlobe. Her slender arms hung cold. Molly’s face was pale, but she looked like she would blink and start talking any second. That wouldn’t happen. She’d been pushed too far.

Savannah cradled her against a shoulder, resting her chin on Molly’s head. She rocked gently as a scream built, Molly’s bangs growing damp with tears.

“No, no,” she said, over and over. Minutes went by. The pain from teeth marks in her shoulder went from a dull throb to a stabbing dart of pain from the pressure, so she eased Molly back onto the bed. Emotion knotted inside her chest. She tucked her little sister in with shaking hands, grief giving way to white-hot rage.

“Witcher!” she screamed.

Everything went dark and her head toppled, her chin bounced against her chest.

Savannah’s whole body twitched and she jerked awake, reaching to catch her glasses when they slid to a cheekbone. Her vision cleared, her own bedroom coming into view. She bolted from the bed, fully awake.

“Molly?”

Her door creaked and swung closed, the doorknob latching by itself.

Witcher stood beside her window. “Molly is fine. Do you know the term ‘counting coup’?” He turned, awaiting her response.

Of course she knew the term. There was no way she was up for a conversation about history. “Get out of my room.”

“The people that lived here before you, some of which you share blood, used that tactic at war. A warrior would touch an opposing tribesman without causing harm, showing the other warrior that if he’d so chosen, he could have taken his life, but rather spared him.” He leaned against the window frame. “Thus, counting coup.”

His language had changed, the vocabulary becoming diverse. His accent had mellowed, but he still sounded stuffy.

“You’re no warrior,” she countered.

“I am that and much more, for I grow stronger each time you think of me. Stop being short-sighted, Savannah. I’ve been here as long as light.”

“What do you want?”

“Your love. Nothing has changed.”

Savannah bit back a foul-mouthed description of all the ways he could screw off. “You just threatened to kill my sister.”

“I love you so much. Don’t you see what I could have done when you left me?” He nodded toward the hall. “She was here, and she is not you.”

“So what, if I leave you’ll kill Molly?”

“I’ll merely let her find a pencil. Molly will do the rest herself.”

“She’s this way because of you,” Savannah said through grit teeth. Her lip trembled. “You did this. All of it. To my whole family.”

“Please know, Savannah, I never wanted to hurt you.”

“Then why did you do these things?”

He sighed, looking at his gleaming, black shoes. “I have never cared about the outcome before. You have changed me.” He gestured to his chest with a hand. “Even this image is what I have learned from you. You give me strength.”

Tears welled and cascaded, heat and moisture fogging her glasses. She pulled them away with a frustrated swipe. A clean spot on the side of her tee shirt worked to dry the lenses while she gulped breaths to get a grip. She adjusted the spectacles and glared at him. He stole from her imagination, using her thoughts to look and sound so perfect. He spoke more and more like a real guy, leaching off her perceptions since she’d first seen him chasing her, transforming from a mountain lion to a man— from one vicious predator into another.

“You hurt my sister, and I’ll find my own pencil.”

“That’s a bluff.”

“A bluff is a tactic any warrior can do.” She pulled the door open and stood aside. “Reading a bluff is something a monster like you will never be capable of.”

“You do not value your life?”

“The good parts of my life, the things that make it valuable to me, are disappearing a little too fast.”

“I do not believe you would do it.”

“Try me.”

“I love—”

“Shut up!” she screamed. “You don’t love anything. You don’t know how.”

“Please Savannah, you will know me. I do know love, as I love my Father. You will see this in me, in time,” he pleaded.

She dropped her gaze to the floor, realizing she had to protect what was left of her family from his games. On a whim, the monster could turn on her little sister out of vengeance. He begged her. They both wanted something from the other, and for her it was her sister’s safety. She had to make a deal.

“Molly will leave so she will be safe,” she stated.

“Your word?” His eyes bored into hers, searching.

“I’ll stay.”

He nodded. “Done.”

A cold knot bound her lungs, making it hard to get a full breath. This is how people end up losing their souls. Savannah swung the door wide and stepped back for him to leave, but Witcher had already gone.

She sprinted across the hall pounding wildly on Molly’s door.

“Molly! Open the door!”

“What’s wrong? Savannah? Is it just you? Where’s Dad?” Molly asked from inside.

“It’s me. Only me. Please open up. We need to leave.”

“We can’t. We don’t have a way to get out.”

“Just open up, Molly, please.” Savannah placed her cheek against the cool, wooden door. “I need to see you.”

Molly’s dresser slid across the wood planks inside. The door handle rattled. Molly peeked out.

“Hi,” Savannah whispered. “Either come out here, or let me in.”

“I heard you screaming at him,” she mouthed.

“He’s not here. I don’t know where he is right now.”

Molly backed up and opened the door just wide enough for Savannah to slip through.

Savannah hugged her sister hard, trying to hide the way her body trembled. “You’re leaving here. I’m taking you to the Williams’.” She grabbed Molly’s backpack and dumped it out. A pencil rolled forward, stopping at her feet.

Molly looked up from the pencil to Savannah.

Searching her little sister’s gaze revealed fear and a little bit of guilt. Savannah grabbed the pencil and snapped it in half. She looked away, opened a dresser drawer, and started stuffing Molly’s clothes into the bag.

“What about you?” Molly asked. Her voice was so small, sounding too young. “I’ll come too, but I have to finish up a couple things first.”

“Dad’s letting us go?”

The question stilled Savannah’s movements. Of course Molly would think their father had done it all. Maybe she’d written off the attack in her bedroom as a nightmare or a figment of her imagination. It had been Witcher in her room that night, before he’d gained enough strength to appear in physical form. Molly didn’t know about him. Without a second guess, Savannah decided to leave it that way.

“Yeah. Dad says we can leave. I can’t find the keys to the truck. I’m getting you out of here first, then I’ll come back for the rest of the horses and to get my stuff.”

Molly nodded and shook her pillow from the case. She crammed two stuffed bears and all the framed photos from the top of her dresser inside and met Savannah at the door.

“Where will we go?”

“We’ll figure that out when the time comes. Ready?”

“Yeah.” Molly nodded.

  • * *

The Williams’ house sat under a protective outcropping of pines, about two hundred feet away from the main road. From Savannah’s angle, the place looked a lot like she imagined Disneyland did from the window of a family car. She kicked free of a stirrup and slid to the gravel drive.

Molly got down and untied the pillow case from a leather concho strap on the saddle. Her mare danced a little as Savannah handed Molly her backpack.

Savannah unbuckled the saddle bag and handed her own wallet to Molly, which she’d filled with all the cash she could find. “Tell them Dad said it’s okay for you to stay the night. Don’t say anything about going home all day tomorrow. If Kim’s parents ask, just say it’s okay for you to go to hang out until Monday.”

“When are you coming?” Molly steadied her horse, waiting for an answer.

“I’ll be at school to get you. Take both of these bags with you Monday. Wait for me before you get on the bus after class, okay?”

Molly nodded, wide-eyed.

“Don’t get on the bus, Molly. It’s real important.”

“Okay.”

“All right. Head on over.” Savannah grabbed the reins and turned both horses toward home. Molly’s face paled and her chin quivered. She held her breath, the way she’d always done when she tried not to cry.

“It’s going to be okay, Molly. I’ll see you at school, I promise.”

“Just come now, please?”

“What about the animals? And I need my clothes. I’ll be fine. Go up there and play some games with Kim. I’ll see you before you know it.” She tried to smile but looked away to hide the fail. “Go on.”

“I love you, Vannie.”

“I know. I love you, too.”

She watched until the front door opened and Molly waved and went inside. The ride home went too fast, despite Savannah keeping Mabeline at a walk, pulling the other horse along. The mare worked herself into a lather, tossing her head and snorting the whole way. Their father had told her about how horses sensed their rider’s emotions, like fear or nervousness. Savannah shook her head. If that was the case, it was a wonder the horse didn’t keel over from a full blown heart attack.

Each hoof beat drew her closer to Witcher. Meeting Molly at school Monday was a fine fantasy. Reality set in once she made it back to the barn and their house loomed, rather than being a beacon of security. Savannah hung her saddle and brushed Mabeline down.

She wasn’t safe and neither was Molly.

Savannah secured the remaining horses for the night and walked through the house, finding no one. There was no sign of her dad. She looked through the screen door to the front yard.

“Witcher,” she yelled.

There was no response. A calf brayed for its mother down the draw. She called over and over, but heard nothing else. Outside the front door, dusk greeted the horizon with lavender streaks, and stars awakening in the sky. Shaky with exhaustion, Savannah went out, jumping when the screen door slammed behind her. She fell onto the porch swing, dazed with the realization that Molly was actually gone and she was alone, just there, waiting for a monster to appear.

Soon, full night claimed the day. It had been the longest in her young life.

“I believe we have a case of mistaken identity.” The voice poured softly from the darkness, followed by the smell of rotten flesh.

Savannah pushed off the porch decking with her toes, setting the swing in motion. The wind exhaled, rocking the chime into song. “I know what you are. You belong in hell.”

“Don’t be cruel, Savannah.”

“Oh, my God,” she shouted. “You have no idea what cruel is.”

“What’s my Father got to do with it?”

Who was she to judge where such a monster came from? Demons and angels might have been cast from the same of the Almighty’s molds. “You said you loved your Father, but apparently not enough to act as He does. Isn’t that in the Bible somewhere?” She didn’t look for him, just shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. You’re still the … thing responsible for all this.”

“Fault, like beauty, is in the eye.” He stepped onto the bottom stair. The suit was gone, but he wore dress pants and a black shirt.

“You did this,” she said, surprised at her ability to hold back tears. “You broke my family.”

“They aren’t strong, like you. For that I am sorry, Savannah.”

“Stop saying my name!” she screamed. “I never told you my name. Quit acting like you know me. You’re not even a person.”

“You’re upset, understandably.” He sat beside her.

Savannah fixed her gaze on the siding of the house and scooted to the far edge of the swing. He took the hint and stood again, but in front of her so she couldn’t avoid seeing him.

“I am not this ‘Witcher’ you think I am.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she replied through a locked jaw.

“I only state this because of your fixation with titles.”

Savannah huffed, shaking her head. “The angel Stella talked about.” She looked at her boots.

“I am he.”

“That,” she said, turning to face him, “you are a that, not a he. You’re an ‘it’. Not an angel anymore. You’re the opposite.”

“You’re wrong. I am many things, and many people. I feel hate and love, just as you do.”

“Why …?” She let the questions drift off, not knowing which to ask first. There was so much she didn’t understand. Questions ranged from why he’d come and went on from there.

“Why what?”

“Why haven’t you done anything to me? You’ve hurt everyone else.”

“I didn’t hurt your father.”

“You don’t think it tore him apart to do the things you made him do to Molly?”

“You don’t understand. We gave her pleasure many times. Jack found pleasure, as well.”

Savannah closed her eyes, unable to deal with the thought or visual of what he described. She looked past him, to the night sky. Finally, she was able to continue. “You’re the one who doesn’t understand. That’s wrong. You hurt them both,” she said and got to her feet. “Why didn’t you do it to me, instead of Molly?”

“With her, it wasn’t my choice.”

“Don’t you even blame that on my dad. He would never do something like this. He’s a good man.”

“It’s innate,” he snapped. “Don’t forget, your good father, you and your sister … you’re just animals no matter what credit you give yourselves at this point.” He approached. “I’ve witnessed eons of what you prefer to call refinement while humanity attempted to leave the trail of evolution behind.” He smiled, bringing his arms out to his sides like a span of wings. “I have always been here. Even when you were but fish.” He dropped his arms, grin fading.

“Except for you,” he said with a slow shake of his head. “You ask why I didn’t try with you. I did try.”

She huffed and shook her head.

“And you, beautiful girl, are untouchable. You’re special to me in ways you do not understand. You have a gift that I cannot live without.”

She eyed him doubtfully, unable to remember a single instance.

“Sounds more like a curse than a gift. You’ve done nothing but torture my family and I.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, so softly it was barely audible over the sound of the breeze in the wind chime. He extended his hand to touch her cheek.

“Don’t touch me,” she said, dodging his reach. “Leave me alone.”

He let his arm drop. “There were times I was made to return to darkness. There is always one here,” he said and gestured to the world around them with a sweep of an upturned palm, “who beckons and welcomes me back to the light.”

“It wasn’t my sister,” Savannah shouted. “And it’s damned sure not me.” She leaned back against the wall. “You made a mistake. No one wants you here.”

“You’re good father does,” he taunted. Savannah looked away, refusing his words.

He moved to stand in front of her, so she averted her gaze again. No matter the things her father had become capable of, the old Jack Caleman, her real dad, loved her better than anyone else could have.

“You made him do it.”

“Not quite,” he said, his breath smooth against her hair. “I allowed him these things. I simply gave him disregard for what held him back from finishing what he started.”

She shook her head, leaning away from him.

“Look at me,” he said.

She continued to look away. So what if he knocked her out and dragged her to the couch again? Think of him and he’ll think of you. Aunt Stella’s words made more and more sense all the time.

Averting her gaze was one thing, but being able to ignore him was completely different. Maybe he’d have to leave her alone if she refused to acknowledge him. He only said things to rattle her. He didn’t really know her dad. To him, Dad was just a tool to carry out his horrors.

“Look … at … me,” he commanded.

Savannah pulled away from the wall and walked into the house, letting the screen bounce and swing.

Inside, he waited by the stairs. “You shouldn’t have left Molly. You gave me this power over you. It is not I who deserves your scorn, but only yourself.”

She gritted her teeth but managed to keep her eyes off him on her way to her room. Upstairs, she closed her bedroom door out of habit. She turned the lock even though there was no keeping him—it—out. The other predator, that used to be her father, she could hide from, at least briefly. Whatever or whoever had come for Molly, Witcher, in whatever guise, would come for her. She’d never be able to trust, or even look at her father the same again.

She curled in bed, Witcher’s words ringing in her mind. He was right, she shouldn’t have left Molly alone. In that, she was at fault for what happened. Still, how could she have known? Molly saw the way their dad whipped her and heard the argument that followed. She’d likely heard Dad lie to the police. Maybe knowing they couldn’t get help from the law was more than she could handle, and so Molly had the thoughts of killing herself. Witcher picked up on that. Rather than being able to tell the police the whole story, Molly had been terrorized. Savannah had counted on Molly being there when the police showed up. Her sister would have told them everything in order to get help. Molly never had the chance.

The Caleman family was a memory. Their real dad was gone to her. She’d likely never see Chaz or Mother again. Another day and Molly would have been dead, unable to bear anymore. Her little brother’s cries had sounded horrified that day, the last time she saw him. And her poor little sister. She didn’t know the extent of what had been happening to Molly since they’d moved from the ranch, but it was coming through Dad. Why hadn’t he tried the same things with her? If he had, she would have gone to their mother with the truth, too. Maybe Witcher took advantage of Molly being smaller and younger. She wouldn’t be able to fight him off. Her sister’s heart had been crushed by what he’d done, and would continue to do to her.

Savannah hadn’t seen their father, in any form, for over a day. She had to wonder if he’d realized the horrible things he’d done and in turn, done away with himself. Considering that a good outcome made her hate herself on a deep level.

Angry tears worked differently than tears from being sad or hurt. Savannah wiped her face on the bed sheet. There was no shame in getting mad about what happened to her siblings. It fueled something inside her. She’d never let herself be a victim before. The oldest sibling had the responsibility to look out for the others. She couldn’t do that anymore, which was nothing more than a failure. All that was left was to get revenge for what had been done to her family and make sure it stopped, for good.

She turned her back to the doorway to quit staring at it, in expectation of something demonic and hellish walking through. When they were younger, she and Molly had always laughed at ghost stories and the people who believed in stuff like that. In Sunday school and church service, they’d learned about Lucifer being cast out of heaven by God to live in hell with his demons. She was dealing with one of them. Angel or demon, no matter what he called himself, he’d always simply be “Witcher”. She had a hard time picturing him as an angel. They were beautiful, light, and pure. Witcher was dark and so mean and wrong that oily, scaled things slithered inside him.

The air chilled slightly and the smell of death signaled she wasn’t alone. Her body stiffened.

“I love you, Savannah.” His voice came over her shoulder. A weight rested on the mattress at her back. Her bedding was pulled up over her curled form. She didn’t respond and refused to warm up despite the heavy layer of blankets. He rolled close, his chest against her back, hips against her bottom, and his breath in her ear.

“Get out.” She scooted away.

Minutes later the mattress bounded back where he’d been. Her body relaxed, but her mind refused to rest.

***

 

#

Chapter 13

When Jack Caleman stopped beating on the door and then shouldered through into Savannah’s bedroom, he snarled at the gun barrel pointed in his direction.

Savannah leveled the shotgun at his chest and squeezed the trigger. A hole the size of her fist stunned him. Smooth and with confidence, she pumped another round into the chamber, like he’d taught her when she was just big enough to heft the weapon. Savannah raised the barrel to eye the shot and squeezed the trigger with cool deliberation as she stepped toward him and fired another hole into his abdomen. Shreds of his shirt hung bloody. The animalistic snarl fell away and was replaced by confusion.

Savannah cried, hating herself. She had to do it though. His eyes were black as a nightmare. It wasn’t her dad she’d shot.

Jack hit the floor hard. He smiled, letting go of confusion in exchange for relief.

“I’m so proud of you,” he mouthed.

Savannah knelt beside him. “I’m so sorry, Daddy.” She sobbed hard. “I love you so much.”

“Don’t be,” he said, wheezing.

Savannah broke down hard. She set the gun down and huddled close to him.

“Don’t cry, Vannie. He exhaled heavily. “All I really want is some sleep.” The smile faded and he looked frantic suddenly. “There’s so much to do,” he said. His gaze moved from hers to the ceiling.

He didn’t breathe in again.

  • * *

Feeling like someone else, Savannah cleaned and scoured the floor some more, just for good measure, and her room was finally clean of blood stains. It was done. She’d waited until she was sure Witcher was inside her father, and ended the thing when it beat her door in. There was lots of blood, but no ethereal black cloud announcing the ousting of something evil. Angels hadn’t appeared to tell her that her dad would live on in heaven, like she’d hoped with what remained of childish expectations. She leaned Dad’s shotgun against the wall on her way out, being careful not to bump the sights. The sun was shining outside, and her soul needed warmth.

Savannah walked the hills of the Witcher Place for hours. A rough breeze gusted then died, smelling of dogbrush blossoms and loam from down by the creek. The sun was bright and warm. Two hummingbirds dove in a joust, quarreling over a cluster of bright red Indian paint brush flowers. Clouds huffed by slowly, sun rays parting and dodging where they could. If there was a time for angels to appear and tell her “Good job, kiddo,” it would be an afternoon like this one.

No heavenly voice came through the sky, but then, she didn’t really expect it. That was fine. She’d done what needed to be done, and God, or whatever force that be, would be her judge soon enough.

A call to the sheriff’s department to tell them she’d just shot her dad because he broke through her door with the worst of intentions would make them rethink things. They’d realize they should have stuck around.

She’d dragged Dad to his bedroom, although it took a couple trips to the bathroom to vomit. Perhaps she’d get a nice room in Pueblo next to Aunt Stella when she explained she’d actually cut a demon in half with her father’s shotgun, not Jack Caleman.

Taking a walk to get her head on straight before she called the police seemed to be a good idea. Tears flooded her vision. She hurled a rock as hard as she could, crying angrily. How could fate hold such a life for her? She was a good person. So was Molly, and the rest of the family for that matter. There was no measure of fairness. How could angels, or God be involved in something so horrible? That’s what made Witcher a demon. She leaned back, looking into the sky. Nothing good lived up there. If God could see and hear everything, even her thoughts, how could He allow her to hurt so much? Why would He allow her sister pain, at all?

“You’re not real,” she wailed. No wonder the lady at Sunday school couldn’t answer her questions. They didn’t know how to validate His existence, either. If He was up there watching, just standing by, when He could have prevented all the hurt and the loss of her family, then He was to blame, not one of his wayward angels who liked to play with people.

She wiped her face on her tee shirt. If God was the kind of guy who wouldn’t help when His children were being tortured, she didn’t want anything to do with Him, anyway. Pain and hate melded into a knot inside her. She’d never seen any proof that God even existed, and wasn’t one to follow blind faith. She never had been. The events of the last few months were exactly why.

She did, however, know bad things were real. Witcher was just as real as the cat picture. Dad and Witcher seemed to communicate through the painting. Maybe it was a doorway of some kind, so Witcher could come and go. Dad said he found the painting hidden away at their ranch and Stella knew all about it, which was probably why the thing had been stashed away.

Dread built when Savannah started walking back to the house. Behind closed doors lie the body of what had once been her favorite of her parents. She’d leave the doors closed, and do what must be done.

  • * *

“Sorry, Rebecca.” The painting would have to come down and be destroyed, just to be safe. If Witcher had been able use it, something else might, too. Once the art was gone, she would call the law and that would be the end. For now, she was in control. She’d finish the job.

She stuffed wadded newspaper and kindling in the hearth and built a pyramid with small logs. Soon, a lively fire crackled. Mother’s old ladder once again stood propped against the wall so she could reach the top of the frame, where Dad had secured the canvas with two extra hooks after the last time she’d taken it down to read the artist’s name. Grabbing on to the right side, she lifted up just enough to slide a nail free of a fastener. The heavy wood cracked down onto the fireplace mantle. Savannah put one foot out to feel for the step to start down the ladder.

“It’s a little warm out for a fire,” Witcher said, at her back. She screamed, startling so hard she grabbed the ladder, jerking it off the wall. The ladder tipped sideways and she braced for the fall. He caught her, cradling her body to his chest, shifting one arm under the crook of her knees and the other gently holding her back, just below the shoulder blades.

“Careful,” he whispered, and kissed her forehead.

“No, you’re dead!” she screamed.

“You’ve been thinking about me a lot.” He smiled.

Savannah struggled for a full breath, pushing against him. He shouldn’t be there. She hit him with the butts of her palms and locked her arms, thrusting him away. He was an impossibility, but as real as any other man, holding her so tight. His arms locked around her. She tried to yell “Put me down,” but all that came out was a squawk. Her boot heels beat against his side, but he just turned toward the couch, and set her down calm and slow. She put her face in her hands, crying.

“I killed you,” she said, without bothering to look up. “You’re not real.”

“Ask yourself. Would you kill your good father because of something that wasn’t real?”

“Don’t talk about my dad!”

“You don’t believe He is real either!” He shoved an index finger upward, toward the ceiling. “But He is.” Witcher paced to the fireplace, staring into the flame. “He created me just as sure as the sun and these prisons you call mountains.” He peered over a shoulder, flames illuminating the side of his face and a muscle flexing in his jaw. “And He saw that it was good.”

“You’re a coward, hiding the way you do. My dad was a good man before you came.” She wiped her hands on the knees of her jeans.

“I never hid!” he yelled. The house shuddered, furniture dancing with popcorn staccato atop the hardwoods.

His voice tore through her head. Savannah’s stomach locked up. She clamped her hands over her ears, using her forefingers to plug her ear canals the way she’d done since she was a small child.

“I was compelled down and then entombed, there,” he snarled, pointing below their feet. “In the damnable rock and the dark, by a single man wishing to meet death before his time.” He paused, closing his eyes, breathing so hard his nostrils flared each time he inhaled. “Hell isn’t what you think. No pitchforks or flames.” He paced around her in a half-circle, eyes locked on hers. “No eternal pain. One simply knows nothing during that time. But when you find a way out? That’s when you know you’ve missed something … missed everything.” After a moment he stopped before her, continuing softly. “You love your father the way I love mine, although neither of us is favored by either. My Father loves the others more, as did yours.”

Savannah crossed her arms against her chest, cradling an elbow in each palm. She shook her head, rocking. “My dad loved me.”

“You’re correct. He loved you, almost as much as your sister.” He turned toward her. “Think about it. Who did he choose first?”

She shook her head. “It wasn’t my dad who did that. It was you.”

“We’ve had this talk. I refuse to waste my time.”

“Feel free to leave.”

“Why must it be this way between us, Savannah?”

“You’re a bastard that should be burning in hell with others like you. If it wasn’t for you, my life would be a good one. Now my dad’s dead.”

“You shot your father all on your own, and I didn’t hurt Molly.” He looked into the flames again. “I was shocked when he chose her, I assure you. I like you better.”

A sob cut through her gritted teeth. Hearing him speak about Molly killed her inside. He shouldn’t be allowed the privilege. “I hate you.”

His expression was pained. “But I love you.”

“Stop saying that! You have no idea what the word means. You don’t hurt the people you love. You care about them, and make sure they don’t get hurt.”

“You don’t understand the things I’ve done for you.”

“You ruined my life!” There wasn’t reason to continue living without her family. Molly was her best friend. Chaz looked up to her. She’d killed their father to no avail. Tears tore down her cheeks at the thought of her father. She clamped her eyes shut as Jack staggered back in her mind’s eye, the blast from his own shotgun ripping through his chest and stomach.

“Stop shouting, Savannah. I’m standing right here.”

She glared. “That’s right, you are.” She got up, crossing the room with slow, determined strides. She stopped and faced him. “Too bad you’re not a real man. I would have shot you, instead.” Brazen. But what did she have to lose? He’d kill her and it would be over.

His mouth clapped shut, eyes squinting. “Not a real man.” He shook his head. “You’re right. Real men are a sad attempt at my likeness. Men are nothing more than curiosities—pliant and easily played. But you, the daughters of man, you are much more. Well worth dropping from heaven.”

A sick feeling spread through her blood. Bible studies from childhood niggled at the back of her mind. Daughters of man. “You’re not an angel. If you once were, you’re certainly not anymore,” she said. “You’re a killer, a corrupter of good men like my dad. All because you’re jealous.”

Witcher let his head loll back to gaze at the ceiling, then closed his eyes. “My Father didn’t think to offer us the same boon as He did His pets down here.”

When he opened his eyes they gleamed, the brown so deep it was nearly black. For the first time since he’d returned Savannah really looked at him. The old suit was gone, replaced by an Aerosmith tee shirt and faded jeans. He looked younger, possibly nineteen or twenty but still bore the same handsome face.

He stepped closer, reached and let a strand of her hair slip between his fingers. “We were given nothing like you. No beautiful things.”

“Don’t touch me.” She slapped his hand away.

“You’re so different from the others. Why can’t you see me as they did? I’ve changed for you. Do you not think I am beautiful, too?”

“You’ll never be anything more than the monster that tore apart my family and murdered my dad.” She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter what you look like.”

“Savannah, I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry?” Without thought, her hand shot out, slapping his left cheek with haymaker force.

“Ouch.” He lowered his chin, glaring. “You want to beat me down, Savannah? I can stand while you to strike me. Will hurting me make it all better?”

She didn’t answer, just watched him walk to the front door and let himself out. When the handle clicked shut, she ran to the ladder, climbed up, and reached for the painting, intent on finishing the job before he came back.

Something thumped against the floor in the hallway upstairs, then slid along the floor for a second. She held still, listening.

Thump … slide. Thump. The sounds continued, growing slightly louder and more defined at the top of the stairs. Something scratched into the floor above head, preceding each new thud and slide. Savannah let the heavy frame fall to the floor and stepped down beside the busted up painting.

“Witcher? I hear you up there.” She kicked at the frame to break it into pieces that would fit in the hearth.

Scrape. Thump … slide.

Savannah pulled a piece of splintered wood from the canvas and tossed it into the fireplace. Varnish hissed. She leaned a long piece of beveled wood on the pedestal and snapped it with her heel like a twig, then hastily tossed the pieces into the flames. The fire popped, green and blue flames brought to life by the chemicals in the wood finish. She’d have to cut the canvas apart to get it to fit in the hearth. That was next.

“Vannie?” a dry voice called from the top of the stairs.

Savannah dropped the canvas mid-yank.

“Savannah?” Daddy’s voice slithered downstairs, sinewy sounding and slow, but her father’s, nonetheless. “You know better than to try to burn my painting. Come here.”

She turned, hating that she had to look. Fingers grasped the edge of the top step. Thump … slide. Her father’s face, then shoulders appeared. One hand came forth, the palm slapping down on the step below, elbow locked, raising his torso from the landing. Frayed remains of his workshirt hung, but failed to conceal his buckshot organs and spine. Denim clung to one hip, strapped in place by his leather belt.

“This is gonna hurt me more than it will you,” he gurgled. Blackened blood showered from his lips with the articulation, a trickle running from the corner of his mouth and another dangling from his lower lip.

“No … Daddy,” she wailed. Pain surrounded her heart, the sorrow and terror so strong they could burst from her chest. “You’re dead. Up in heaven.”

He laughed, a sick, wet sound emitted from a smile that was too big for his bloodless face. Hands that she used to trust walked down the steps, pulling the rest of him along like a jackrabbit that was hit by a car, still living, but trying to run because that’s all shock would allow it to do, rather than just die.

Shock. She had that, standing traumatized, unwittingly screaming, and realizing her father’s corpse was picking up speed as it came to the bottom of the staircase. Lots of speed. She turned to run, too late.

One hand caught an ankle and she slammed down hard. Air left her lungs. The thing crawled up her body as she struggled to inhale. It propped a locked arm on either side of her head, Daddy’s clouded eyes staring down at her. She twisted, trying to get her face away of steamers of bloodied drool. He grinned and sunk his teeth into her shoulder.

Pain and adrenaline kicked in and Savannah screamed, kicking hard and shoving the torso into the air above her. One of her feet struck against a hip, causing a loud snap as his spinal cord gave out. The release caused the top half of him to shoot forward. He growled, screamed and laughed as they fought. One of his hands caught in her hair and the other around her neck. Her grasp was slick with fluid leaking from the open chest cavity, so each time she grabbed a part of him to try to push it off, it slipped away like a fresh-caught trout. Using her feet, she shoved herself backward, twisting, looking for anything she could use to save herself.

Warm, wrought iron met her grasp as she knocked over Mother’s neat rack of fireplace implements. A handle of one of the tools fell into her grasp. She balled her knees to her chest, pushing him away. His severed spinal cord twisted, beating against the couch. The familiar weight of the fire poker was in her free hand, the other pulling at slick fingers around her throat. With every bit of energy she could muster, she lifted the poker and slid it beneath her father’s chin, pushed up with her feet, and bucked him off to the side. While he was off balance, she tore free of the hand in her hair, feeling strands snap off in his grip.

Coming to a knee, she flattened the half-man to the floor and trapped his neck with both hands on the ends of the iron rod. Now kneeling over the thrashing corpse, she replaced her left hand with the heel of her foot, stomping down hard.

The flat of the poker sank into his throat, but not deep enough. Frantic, Savannah came to her feet, stomping and swinging the sharp end of the poker at the gash in his neck. Before long, she had separated the head full of snapping teeth from the chest and reaching, clawing arms.

She grasped a handful the thing’s bloody hair and tossed the head into the hearth without looking at the face.

“Vannie!” it whispered, but she didn’t look.

Far from the rest of the corpse’s reach, she fell onto the floor.

A new sound came from the hearth as the skull cracked apart like a beer bottle tossed into a campfire. Fluids boiled and sizzled on the burning wood.

Savannah blinked hard to reset a stray contact lens. The room was a grotesque mess, along with her clothes and hair. Daddy’s hands no longer reached for the unseen. Rather, the fingers touched the fabric of the couch, testing like a baby petting a kitten for the first time. Strong muscles worked, reminding her of the hundreds of times she waited, watching the same thumb and forefinger peel the backing off a Band-Aid. The hands had clapped hard, Daddy hooting away, when she’d won first place in the long jump during field day when she was little.

She sobbed angrily, pounced on the poker and used it to hook the back of her father’s shirt collar and drag the torso into the hearth. She kicked his stray arm into the flames and reached for kindling.

It took a while, but she burned all of him, right down to his work boots. Once the soles melted against orange-hot logs, she pulled free of her slimy, cold clothes, which was oddly liberating. Even her underwear went into the fire. Warmth comforted her while she stood in front of the fireplace, wrapped in the afghan off the couch. The scent of burning hair, clothing, and flesh thickened the air.

Finally, flame gave way to glowing coals in the shape of bones, so Savannah went upstairs and stood beneath a hot shower. She cried, but stopped quickly. Her mind went in different directions. She’d never be herself again. A person couldn’t “unsee” what she’d seen, or what she’d done. She’d go to hell for murdering her father, no matter the excuse. There would be no way to make anyone else understand why she’d done it. Molly might back up her story, given the chance, but her little sister needed to stay away.

The thought of Molly forced her to tears faster than any other time she could remember. Her sister would do the right thing and try to save her, but that wasn’t what was best. Molly needed to forget about everything. A fresh start was in order for her sister. Maybe their mother would come around if she could be reached and Molly could stay with her. Or the girls could possibly stay together since Savannah was 18. She could be her sister’s guardian, if only she could get them both away from Witcher. It seemed hopeless, though. If she wasn’t nuts before, she was full-on crazy after hacking her father’s body to pieces and then getting naked while watching them burn. Molly was better off far away.

Savannah fumbled through tears and nearsightedness to find the shampoo and soap. Her body trembled, echoing the way her heart felt like it was encased in ice. Once the water ran cold, she dried, put on a clean shirt, and went to bed, despite the way her room still carried the dead smell from when Witcher talked to her. She drifted in and out of fitful sleep, her mind refusing to quiet long enough to rest. She forced her eyes closed each time she woke, waiting for exhaustion to claim her and looking forward to the sleep of the dead. Every little creak in the old house made her bolt upright in bed. It became obvious it was Witcher using sleep deprivation as his latest tactic to break her down. She could go without eating for days, but her mind and body gave in to lack of sleep. She was anchored to the mattress and couldn’t find a way to stay awake long enough to try to move.

“Next time you attempt to seal a doorway, make sure what you want to trap is on the other side. The painting is merely an invitation without an open door. There will be no more burning things, understand?” Witcher spooned behind her, using one hand to smooth damp hair from her brow. He kissed the tender flesh below her ear.

“There’s only one doorway left to seal. I won’t make the mistake again.”

“Remember, you promised. You’re upset, so we’ll pretend you didn’t say such a thing.” Bare skin brushed against her shoulder as he pulled her close with an arm around her waist. Witcher’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Close your eyes and think of your beautiful horses and beloved spring time.”

***

 

#

Chapter 14

Contemplating church and devotion to God were a struggle, but it was Sunday. Bright sunshine warmed her bedroom. Witcher had worn her down and won the last round. She’d fallen asleep with him holding her, letting his comfort ease her to sleep. Blessedly, he was gone. Maybe he’d disappeared because it was the Sabbath or something. It had been years since the family had gone to service and weeks since Dad tried dragging she and Molly along with him. In the past, their parents worked diligently, waking her and her grumbling siblings early Sunday mornings, Caroline ironing dresses for the girls and combing Chaz’s hair with a perfectly straight part in the middle. Chaz would complain about his tight collar and stupid, shiny black shoes, and Savannah couldn’t wait to get home to trade the things she couldn’t wear boots with for something more suitable. Molly loved her dresses and wore them all day long. She would have slept in them, too, but Mother wouldn’t let her. That was a mystery. What harm would have come of Molly being able to sleep in one of her dresses? The stupid outfit would have to be washed one way or the other. Sometimes Mother’s rules seemed completely senseless, especially when breaking one was so harmless and would have made her sister happy.

They all had their own bibles. Mother’s was a beastly white tome with notes on the sides of scripture, clipped newspaper obituaries marking pages, and family lineage written in the front and back covers. Daddy’s bible was a plain, black King James with a spindled spine and worn cover that puffed out at the outer top corner from all the dog-eared pages. Molly’s was white, like Mother’s, but a much smaller New Testament so it fit in the dainty purse she carried on Sundays. Chaz’s was a smaller version of Daddy’s, with bent covers from where he shoved it in a back pocket when he played with other boys between Sunday school and the service. Like Molly’s, Savannah’s bible was just the New Testament, but Savannah had read the entirety. It was a little book of tiny print containing verses that didn’t make sense. Mrs. McKellips would explain a new part each week in her lectures, which helped some. After that they sang songs like, This Little Light of Mine, holding up a finger during the song to show the congregation that their “lights” couldn’t be “blown out” by Satan.

Most talk of angels happened early on in the scripture, and the New Testaments the kids were given didn’t have the old books. Mother had swiped both hers and Chaz’s bibles when she took off so all that remained around the house was Savannah’s and Daddy’s. Molly had stuffed her bible in her book bag to take to the Williams’. They’d once been a good family, God-fearing and kind to others in the small community. It was funny how recent happenings made the bibles important enough to take with them.

Savannah pulled her aching body out of bed and into the hall. Her head swam and she shook inside from lack of food, but she stepped over blood stains to Daddy’s bed stand to get his King James Bible. The book was heavy, the covers blotched with patina from years of use. Her chin trembled and a tear fell down onto the cover, splashing into a puddle that was nearly as big around as a quarter. Any other time she would have tried to quit crying immediately. But what did it matter? Really, it felt sort of good. She missed her dad and would love him forever and ever. Witcher had killed him off far before she finished it up.

The cat painting was rendered down to a frameless, flat canvas that slouched carelessly beside the fireplace. If she would have burned it as planned, there would be serious repercussions. Witcher promised he’d leave Molly alone. That was a deal worth respecting. Savannah paced through the house, looking for a place to sit, preferably one that wasn’t splattered with blood, which eliminated a lot. Molly’s room would make her cry more, and so would Chaz’s. Her room reminded her of how Witcher smelled. The mountain lion peered at her with oily, curious eyes. She placed the bible on a chair and flipped the canvas around so the cat stared at the rocks on the mantle.

“Screw it,” she mumbled, and plopped down cross-legged in Daddy’s recliner, across the room from the crusted, stained couch, and pulled a blanket over her bare legs and feet. Sunbeams surged in through eastern facing windows, warming the room and providing good light to read by. She settled the bible in the crook of her legs and opened it up in the midst of the book of Genesis at one of the pages with a corner turned down. Several segments of scripture were underlined in black, which meant Daddy studied that part when he met with other adults at church meetings. One segment was circled in red ink, a color she’d never seen him use in his bible before. She read from Genesis, Chapter 6, Verse 4.

There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.”

Witcher leaned against the arm of the chair. “I find it unfortunate only a small portion of history is written,” he said.

Savannah jumped at the sound of his voice, but he didn’t acknowledge he’d scared her, just leaned on the top of the recliner, smiling with too many dimples.

“So are you saying this is a lie?” She looked up from the scripture.

“Not that part. It’s the absolute truth.” He dropped an apple in her lap. “Eat that and don’t argue.”

Savannah picked up the apple, eyeing him. “And you’re an angel, right? With wings and a shiny halo.”

“I don’t like the tone of your words, Savannah. If I didn’t know better I would think you’re being condescending.”

“You’re quick.” She crunched into the apple, continuing to speak even though her mouth was full. “Angels are good. They don’t hurt people.”

“Just what I meant. That book tells only partial truths,” he said. “Of course, you’ve been told what to expect of angels since your birth. Caroline and Jack were good parents, according to what level your society has made it to this far. They did what they thought was right. Taught you what they thought you need to know about us. They couldn’t have been taught what was removed from His book.”

“Don’t talk about my parents.” She closed the bible and stopped herself from crossing her arms defensively. Instead, she looked out the window. Outside, sunlight glanced off the aspen leaves like stardust tossed in a wind. The breeze puffed in through the window screen, whistling softly. The tops of the ponderosas rocked until the wind died to a whisper. She closed her eyes, a stray sunbeam brushing warmth across her cheeks and flashing pink through her eyelids. His smell was suffocating. It was time for fresh air, so she dressed quickly, the kind of tossing on of clothes one does when someone might bust into the room any second, then ran outside to check the horses. Being outside and away from the murder scene helped to release the weight in her chest, but Witcher shadowed at a distance, impossible to ignore.

She looked into the cloud-dotted sky as her boot soles slid over gravel and soft tufts of grass. Dad said that nature was clockwork and strength. Witcher was a contrast of unexpected upheaval. She’d counted on the promise of summer each year, but everything was changed. The break of winter meant the end of cold, replaced by sunshine and warmth, good replacing bad. God made it that way, the seasons being some good and some bad, just like people. God made angels but they had to be good. There could be no bad. That one thing couldn’t change. Seasons could change. People did it by the moment, but angels, no changing for them. The thing in the woods with her, the Witcher, was no angel, even if he still claimed to be one. He had fallen.

Leaves and grass crunched lightly beside her. She fought the urge to lash out and tell him to go die. Picking a fight wouldn’t be smart, and besides, they had an agreement. She kept her eyes on the trees, hoping he’d leave.

He eyed her stance then followed her gaze.

A moment passed and she couldn’t handle being near him anymore. “Please go away,” she asked, careful to speak in a nice tone.

“I will if you eat this.” He grabbed one of her hands and placed the same apple in her palm.

She looked at him and took a bite. What did it matter if she ate anything or not? It had been days since she ate a full meal. Apparently, he knew that. Her stomach roared to life at the arrival of food.

He beamed at her. “Thank you.”

Savannah stopped chewing. Sun danced on his features, the flawless skin of his forehead, the softened shades of light brown in his hair. She looked away, unwilling to witness the way something as vile could appear so beautiful, so wonderfully deceiving to look at. It was unfair, like little kids that got cancer or how the good people died when bad people lived to be in their shrewish nineties. She hated the injustice in the world and didn’t want to be in it anymore. In fairness, Witcher should look like a monster. He should have sores on his face and drag one leg behind him. At least he smelled the part.

“What is it?”

She shook her head, looking at the mountainside. “Nothing you’d get. Forget it.” She dropped the uneaten apple in the dirt.

He looked hurt.

Savannah pounced. “It’s hard to eat when I have to smell you.”

Witcher looked slightly bewildered, but his expressions remained gentle. He looked down at his clothes and shoes, surveying his appearance.

“You should look just like you smell.” She couldn’t help letting it out.

“Like what? This image was taken from your own desires.”

“That’s not what I mean,” she snapped. “You smell like something dead the dog drug into the yard.” She tried to contain all the anger, but it grew to be too big to control. “You’re a horrible thing, a killer, a rapist, a liar, a thief—”

He cut her off with a hand over her mouth. She scratched at him and swung her fists. He used his other hand to pinch her nose closed, clamping down on her head.

“You will be calm,” he growled, squinting into her eyes. “You are my favorite of all, Savannah, but you should respect me.”

She nodded, breathing deeply when he released her. She doubled over, huffing. “You make me sick,” she said. She stood upright, breathing in through her mouth with her hands on her hips, looking at the sky, waiting for her heart to stop racing.

“Smell?”

“Like something decaying, baking on the roadside. Like the rot inside you.”

“I don’t understand what you mean. Just explain it to me and I’ll make it better for you.”

“The air smells disgusting, like you, before you even show up. That’s how vile of a creature you are. You’re not a thing of light and goodness, no matter what you try to appear as. I don’t believe you were ever an angel at all. Just filth from hell.”

He was quiet for a time, looking between her and the trees and the hillside she stared at.

“I understand.” He frowned. “I will show you. You will then know me.”

“Why does it even matter?”

“Because time runs out for me.”

“Good.” She looked up into his eyes. “Because you deserve to die more than anything I know of.”

“You don’t understand yet. I can be good.” He smiled. “It’s easier than doing other things and letting anger change my nature.”

“That’s the thing with you. You don’t get it. You do horrible things because you’re a terrible being. You’re evil and rotten and you don’t deserve to be here. You should be locked away. Trapped so you can’t hurt any one else.”

Shaking his head, he reached for her hand tentatively. “I will show you and you will love me, too.” He went to a knee, gently grasping her other hand and watching her eyes. His large hands cupped under both of hers and he rested his head in her hands, his cheek in her palms. He closed his eyes.

Stunned, Savannah held still, just watching as he enjoyed her touch, seeming like flesh and blood, a person with a wounded heart. Worse, he was trying to be a normal guy. The contrast with what she knew him to be was all so wrong. Her jaw locked and she envisioned twisting his head hard and fast until his neck popped and he fell to the ground, twitching. He deserved none of her comfort. Suddenly, she doubted her ability to endure.

There was no way she could get out of bed each morning and deal with him, day after day, no matter what she agreed to before. Pulling her hands back, she turned away toward the house. He followed.

“Stay out here. I don’t want you to come with me!” She broke into a run.

“I want you to know me, Savannah,” he called.

She kept running and he kept on. “I am not this ‘Witcher’ you call me. That man was here before you. James Witcher, a sinner. I tried to save him but he took his own life. The vilest of those below.”

“That, would be you! It’s a perfect name,” she yelled over her shoulder. “It fits you and what you are.”

“I tried to help the man, but he wouldn’t have it. It was my place here, as it was his. He wouldn’t see that I was here for him. He condemned me to darkness.”

“Good for him. Tell me how he did it.” She didn’t bother stopping, just kept chucking nastiness at him all the way to the front door.

“But he left me!” Emotion started to break through. Exasperation and frustration. “I would have helped him, but he took his own life in sin, leaving me to walk alone and finally return to darkness. Don’t you understand?”

“Well that makes you The Witcher then, doesn’t it?” Savannah skidded on loose gravel and sand, coming to a stop before she walked straight into his chest when he appeared in front of her. “Would you stop doing that?” she snarled.

“My name, the title you asked me for, is Val-Kryel.” He picked up one of her hands, caressing it with graceful fingertips, looking from her hand and deep into her eyes. “No human has the gift of my name. I am an angel of your God. My Father. And I am running out of time.”

Savannah opened her mouth, ready to tell him again that she just didn’t care, but he cut her off with a wave of a hand.

“Please, Savannah. I don’t want to die a creature of darkness.”

“Get away from me.” She was no one’s key to dodging the outcome of their own sins.

“Too much time has gone by to wait any longer.” He stepped back, an obvious peace offering for her willingness to hear him out.

“I fear if we waste any more time I will remain inside the mountain for all eternity, or simply perish. I made mistakes with the others, for I never cared for them as I do you. I love you Savannah, with all my existence. Allow me to prove this to you. I will show you. I will love you for eternity and care for you as the treasure you are.” His eyes plead with her and his voice held nothing but sincerity. “Please?”

“Piss off.”

He sighed, defeated. “I’ll give you space and some time so you can consider the fact you’ve been given my name. This is something you shouldn’t ignore. I will be with you forever. You owe me.”

She shook her head, watching him. He was right. He wasn’t going to give up or go away. Her life was changed. This would be no way to live. Thank goodness Molly wasn’t around. She had to believe her sister would be safe with the Williams. He drew from her somehow, becoming more and more real. That had to stop. And now, to top everything, he said she owed him. That was all it took to push her to the edge. Might as well get it done.

“Get out of my sight.” She stomped around him, heading for the barn to set the horses free. She had something to prove, too, and it involved a lot of gasoline. He deserved to die instead of being given a second chance. She wouldn’t be the reason he survived or became real. Hell probably had her number because she shot her dad, anyway. Being the judge and jury to ensure Witcher got what he deserved wouldn’t make her punishment any worse.

The horses didn’t stop eating, but they watched her with huge, curious eyes when she opened each pen and then snagged two of the round gas cans from beside a tractor. They were heavy and full, a good thing, but it made the little walk to the house seem fairly long, especially after stopping to pop open the chicken coop.

One can was enough to coat most of the downstairs. She stopped long enough to grab a box of matches from the hearth. The last can finished off all the bedrooms and a good amount sloshed onto her clothes, too. Savannah stopped by what was once her parent’s bathroom and rifled through the medicine cabinet.

“There we go,” she said, rattling some pills around in a mostly empty prescription bottle. “Can’t say Mommy didn’t leave me anything.” She gulped down the remnants of her mother’s sleeping pills and looked at her reflection staring back from over the sink, judging her. Savannah squinted back.

Her hair was matted and hadn’t been combed for the last two days. Gaunt skin made her eyes huge and dark chestnut, two pools of fear and pain and hate. She wiped a dribble of water from her chin with a fuel-soaked wrist.

“Goodbye,” the reflection echoed.

Savannah picked up the can and headed outside.

The time for the end had come, and it would be a damned fiery one.

***

 

#

Chapter 15

June 6, 1988, 7:10 p.m.

“Sinner,” he growled. Witcher stood in her doorway, eyeing the damp walls where Savannah hunched on the bed with the matches. “The worst of sins against my Father.”

She’d accidentally soaked the box in her spill-happy gasoline splashing session. Savannah stuck a new match, the softened head falling away so damp wood tore into the strike pad.

No spark, no fire.

She’d expected combustion, really wanted it. The match would explode in her hand, searing away everything she knew in an instant. The fire would speed from her room down the stairs and the house would explode into flames, she and Witcher going up in a huff along with it. She’d burn up so fast her eyes would quit working so she didn’t see the room go up around her. Savannah whimpered and tucked her head when her bedroom door crashed against the wall and Witcher raged toward her. She tried a new match, praying it caught.

“What have you done?” He batted the matches out of her hands.

She didn’t try to get past him to pick them up. There was no way the drugs in her system would allow her that kind of movement.

“You little bitch,” he growled. “I trusted you.”

“Your mistake,” she answered.

“That hurts,” he said, anger dissolving. “I am sorry, Savannah. We reap what we sow.” Sadness hung on each syllable. If she didn’t know better, she’d swear he was heartbroken.

A fat drop of liquid fell from above, splattering her forehead. She sat still, confused. Another drop plummeted, landing heavily. She swiped at it with limp fingers, fully expecting it to be gas rather than water.

Witcher snarled, balling a fist. “I loved you.” He stepped forward and hit her bedroom wall, the impact resounding hard, rattling the furniture and rocking her against the headboard. Tears ran down both of his cheeks. Thunder pounded and Savannah wrapped her head with her arms, screaming. A torrent of rain broke out, coming down hard, like her room was moved into a rain forest during monsoon season. Lightning flashed above, the ceiling an open port for an angry storm.

“Forty days and forty nights, Savannah. You deserve no better.” He retreated, closing the door behind him.

She peeked through rivulets coating her face, incredulous. He had to be messing with her mind somehow. Thunder clapped, rattling the hardwoods. A stuffed bear soaked up rain at the foot of the bed. Her discarded school bag lay soggy while water pooled against the baseboard by the door. Gasoline-laced rain ran into her mouth. She patted her face with a sleeve but more water coated her skin too fast to keep it dry. Groggily, she rolled off the bed and slogged miserably to her door, through the deluge.

The slick handle twisted, but the latch didn’t engage or something because it just turned each time she tried, the door didn’t budge. Fuzzy minded, she yanked and jerked as hard as she could, panicking so hard her chest hurt. The effects of the sleeping medicine battled hysterics. Finally, the door knob gave up, sliding loose from a bar that fell through on the other side when the handle came off in her hand. She let it drop into the water, the level suddenly ankle deep.

“No,” she said, holding soaked, heavy hair out of her face. She twisted as much of her long hair as she could into a knot at her nape, looking around the room. Thunder continued and lightning popped above. She leaned back and drove her shoulder into the door, but the wood didn’t budge, a brick wall beneath a wooden veneer.

Savannah put an arm overhead to shield her eyes from pouring rain, looking to the far side of her room. She waded to her dresser and grabbed one of the heavy Avon perfume bottles from her dresser, a tall figurine of a lady in a dress. Facing her window, she pitched the bottle hard at the glass. The effort would have been better if she didn’t feel like an over-boiled noodle. The bottle bounced to the floor without breaking through. Needing something more substantial, she went to her doorway, feeling around in the water. She sunk both hands shoulder deep, pulling her pet rock doorstop up from the depths. The round stone was the size of a flat volleyball, but weighed a lot. Huge, rattling, plastic eyes rolled, glued to the rock, as she carted the thing close and tossed it granny style toward the pane. The stone hit the glass dead center, falling off the sill into the rising water. Savannah plodded to the window and turned the latch to unlock it, then yanked as hard as she could, suspecting it would remain sealed, which it did. Witcher made his own rules when he tortured her. If only she’d managed to keep the damn matches dry.

More rain and thunder pounded down at her. The water level rose in a hurry up to the waist of her chilled, heavy jeans. A multihued puddle of color swirled in the center of the room, raindrops pounding in splotches of pewter, the fuel pulling together again after each drop. Her plastic piggy bank floated and knocked against her dresser, the few coins inside not enough to weigh it down. The storm roared and wood creaked when her dresser rose from the floor, sliding away from the wall.

She went back to the door.

“Witcher! Please, I’m sorry,” she yelled. She pounded on wood with the ball of a fist. “Help!” There was no sound on the other side. He’d gone. She turned her face up, holding her hands above her eyes. “Please, God, help me,” she wailed. “I know suicide is a sin. I was trying to kill him.” She sobbed. “I was doing the right thing.” Water lapped at armpit level. The storm raged on, the only sound an occasional clap of thunder and endless hissing as huge rain drops hit the surface. Matches floated by, clinging together like magnets. Water rose to her shoulders. She kicked through and crawled up on her bed to stand on the mattress, then leaned against the wall and pulled her boots and jeans off, letting them sink. A river ran down all four walls, knocking tacks free so her favorite Journey poster sluiced down to the depths. She lost her balance and felt like she’d puke, falling against the wall.

Icy rain water pouring over her shoulders and stacked up to her thighs as she clamored up to stand on the clunky, thick headboard and lean against the wall. The nine-foot ceiling in her room gave her a few more feet out of the water. The level nearly covered the top of the window, sunlight winking out as water lapped at the pane. A thousand faucets gushed above head, blocking her view of the ceiling.

God didn’t rescue her. Neither did Witcher. A precious minute went by and she panicked. She slid off the headboard and swam to the window, pounding on glass with her fists. Each time a hand make contact it sent her away from the window and she had to paddle over again. She took a breath and submerged, yanking on the top of the sliding pane. It still refused to budge. Her air ran out so she rose to the surface for more. She shoved a hand above her while she treaded, feeling the smooth ceiling. It was actually going to happen, Witcher really was going to drown her. “Coward,” she yelled. If he’d stuck around, she’d drag him under with her. He didn’t take the bait. She was alone and would run out of room to breathe when the water reached the ceiling.

“I’m sorry,” she said. She swam through floating debris to her door, putting the last of her energy into pleading for his forgiveness. “Witcher? I know you can hear me. Please don’t let me die like this.”

Nothing. Water filled her ears. The ceiling beat against her skull. She turned her face up to gasp at the only remaining oxygen. One last chest full of air. She swam to her window, peering through water at a flash of golden red as the sun came to rest beneath the mountains. Her chest and abdomen burned. She kicked the glass over and over again.

Exhaustion won out and her lungs gave up their air. Water rushed as her chest pulled in with reflex. She beat on the glass, her ability to swing any limb growing ever weaker. The cold was unbearable and darkness surrounded her. The only sound was the continuous rush of water lulling her away.

Relief. It was much larger than sorrow.

Cold waves iced her to the bone and she slammed her eyes shut. Death was death. Fire would have sucked in a lot of air just like the flood. Her body was lost, the feeling the same as it would have been if she’d succeeded at burning herself up. But what it felt like didn’t matter. The last of her awareness dissolved and finally, darkness coupled with sleep and it all stopped.

  • * *

Water dripped, splattering, landing with an endless echo. Confusion. Ice. She didn’t expect to wake up, but since she had, she’d certainly come to in hell. She blinked fluid out of her eyes. There were no demons wielding pitchforks. No fiery pit. She smelled only watered down gasoline and saw just a small, dancing dot of light shining from a distance. Pain split her head when she tried to lift it so she gave up, wincing.

Something gleamed on the ground in front of her. She blinked, clearing the fog from her mind. It was a shoe, the limited, yellow light bouncing from the toe. A familiar touch smoothed hair from her face, caressing her temple with soft fingers.

“Daddy?” she whispered.

He sighed, but kept comforting her.

“Where are we?”

“Inside the mountain,” Witcher replied, softly. “You could say it truly is hell’s honeycomb down here.”

She sighed. “Are we in hell?” It would figure she’d go there with him. He was a fallen angel. She’d all but committed suicide. They both belonged there and her punishment was to spend eternity in his presence.

“I would never allow you to endure such a place.”

All the blinking finally cleared her vision. An old lantern blazed from atop a rock across the room, if it could be called a room. The low ceiling was cut stone, with streaks of glittering pastel hues splitting the rock. Water ran down a jagged, rock wall into a pool. A huge chill ran the length of her body, causing her to tremble so hard her jaw locked.

“I’m freezing. You’re here, and we’re underground. This is hell.”

“This is not your hell. I have brought you to mine.”

“Why? I want to die.” She cringed, robbed of the prospect of oblivion.

“That infuriates me, Savannah.”

“I don’t care.”

He pushed her head up from where it had been resting on his thigh.

She propped with an elbow. Witcher got to his feet, stalking off. Out of habit, Savannah felt the rocky ground in search of her glasses, feeling little pieces of granite fall through her fingers.

“Where are my glasses?”

“You don’t need them,” he replied from the darkness.

“I can’t see.”

The little flame in the lantern grew, illuminating more of the cavern. Every detail was clear, down to Witcher’s face. The black pants and an untucked button down shirt showed no signs of wear. His hair was longer, all one length with the ends brushing the collar of his shirt. His eyes shone, huge with his brand of sincerity. He leaned against the wall, ankles crossed, in perfect 20/20 focus. Mica glittered, illuminating veins of lavender fluorite like fingers of distant lightning.

“Do you see, Savannah? I give you your sight back and light your way.”

“You drowned me.” She wrestled to her feet despite a throbbing head. Gravel and rocks clung to little indentations in her bare arms and legs. She scrubbed at her skin to warm up, shaking her tee shirt loose from where it hung plastered to skin. She balled the front of the shirt and wrung the water out of it, doing the same to her hair. There was no way she would take the shirt off so she could dry out her bra. Body heat would have to dry her underwear. It hurt like hell, but she bent to remove both her socks. After she squeezed the water out of them, she hastily put them back on, stretching them to mid-calf, as far as they would go. The skin of her thighs was blotchy, white and a little blue with gooseflesh rising painfully.

Witcher watched every move with too much interest.

She glared. If he stated how he loved her, or that she made him do it, she’d lose it. She was nauseated, dizzy and freezing. “I just want to go home.”

“Well, I want you to trust in my love for you. I saved you.”

“How can you expect—I mean, even think I could? And wait, you saved me? From your own tantrum! I can’t trust you. You destroyed my family.”

“For this reason you would choose to die?”

“I chose to die so I could take you with me!” She screamed. “I want you dead. I’ll never love you and you don’t love me. You’re a monster. You’re selfish. There’s no room for love in you.”

“You’re wrong about me,” he started.

Savannah grabbed a handful of rocks and hurled them at him in a scatter. He vanished. They bounced off the cut granite wall like buckshot off the broadside off a metal barn.

“Stop, Savannah,” he warned from her right.

She scraped up two more hands full and let it fly in the direction of his voice, into darkness beyond the lantern’s glow. Staccato tapped ahead as little rocks bounced off the unseen. Rocks fell to the ground. Silence broke the din. He’d vanished from sight and sound. She tried picking up on the smell of him but realized that was a lost cause because of the remnants of gas fumes that hung in her nose. Knowing he was out there in the dark somewhere, watching her, brought on the urge to run. That wasn’t easily done in only socks and underwear.

“Witcher?” she called. She turned in a slow circle, searching the shadows for him. “Where are you?” She backed toward the lantern and picked it up by a decrepit, creaking handle. The halo of light bounced wickedly so she stilled it with her other hand. The little wheel at the front wouldn’t spin any farther, the flame as large as it would get. She raised the lantern up to spread the light. There was no response.

“Are you still here?” Her voice shook, shrilling into the dark. Savannah turned, squinting hard into a black tunnel off to the side of the room. The lantern’s flame began to sputter.

“No.” Nothing sloshed inside the bottom. The blackened shred of canvas wick was burnt to a smoldering taper. Blue flame barely breathed at the tip. The wheel spun once and the light receded to a dying red coal.

Savannah rattled the lantern, hoping for any sign of life to emerge. When the tiny glow faded she hugged the glass close, absorbing warmth and trying not to completely lose control and start crying again. It worked for a matter of seconds before tears surged and sobs tore into the black silence. Hell had arrived. She would die, sightless and alone in a cold, damp tomb.

Something brushed the chilled skin of her right thigh. An abrupt yelp escaped before she could bite it back. The next moment, fingers grazed the back of her arm and she jerked away.

“Stop it!” Her entire body listened for movement, terrified of the next touch.

The lantern was batted from her grasp. Glass shattered where the globe met granite. With both hands seeking behind her, she stepped backward. A wall had to be near. Pitch blackness was suffocating, but she scanned her surroundings anyway. She stilled her gaze. The faintest possible light hung high in the distance.

Each shaky step toward the thin light brought more of the tight walkway into the faint glow. The soles of her socks made each foothold on jagged rocks a challenge, so she proceeded with her arms outstretched for balance. The floor grew rougher-cut still. The ceiling gleamed above, the only indicator of the enormity of the cavern beyond, the echoes of light bouncing from mica in the granite walls. She kept up a painstaking search for each step, determined to distance herself from darkness where Witcher could easily toy with her senses.

Light called to her ahead as she continued, unsure of what else she could do at that point. Going was slow. She watched the ceiling and tried to move faster. Water dripped into a shallow pool somewhere, the drops echoing the same note over and over. The smell of old decay grew stronger than the leftover smell of gas. She rounded the last corner into an opening. The ceiling climbed rapidly in a room lit by a pinhole punched through rock, which, for its small size, allowed a crazy amount of light to shine down.

Her eyes stung. She put a hand above her brow so she could see. The moment she could focus, a scream built in the back of her throat.

A white ray of light shone straight down onto the face of a giant’s skull that was tilted toward the small opening far above. Bare eye sockets were dark, holding the shape of the tortured. Patches of long hair remained, dangling in knots over a broad collarbone. The huge skeleton hung shackled by its wrists, gilt chains suspending the body from diagonal points in the walls. Gleaming metal links ran from a huge, thick cuff clasped at its waist, and shackles around the knees hung loosely, likely falling away with the shrinking and decaying of muscle. The chain attached to the thing’s neck spanned to a point in the darkness above her head somewhere. Wings with feathers as long as her legs stretched from the thing’s back and across the room, frozen in flight like an eagle that had grown to be ten times the normal size.

Her legs buckled and she plummeted forward. Jagged rocks stabbed into her knees. “Oh, dear God,” she whispered.

Empty space loomed dark behind the monstrosity, contrasting with alabaster bone dangling in sunlight. The spectacle of chain, spanned wings, and death was easily as long her school bus, the corpse alone nearly twice the height of her father, had it stood on the ground. The thing’s ankles and feet hung below her view, the floor of the cavern dropping off beneath the body. Thick links ran from there too, likely clasped around unseen ankles.

The chains creaked suddenly, the entire display wriggling, making the wings wave slowly, in an imaginary wind. Savannah squinted into the shadows below the arms and wings, allowing herself to clamber to her feet and step away, swatting at falling bits of dust and dried remains that threatened to land on her.

“Savannah,” Witcher said, from beside her.

She couldn’t help screaming, darting away from his voice. Sharp rocks bit into the soles of her feet. He stepped from darkness into the beam of light from above.

“Now, you see me.”

***

 

#

Chapter 16

Had Witcher been human, Savannah would think he had remorse. Did he wish he could go back to a time before he began playing with humans? When he was in the good graces of God, was he truly that lonely? It was certainly his reflection swinging on chains. At last, she understood his expression. Frustration.

“Look upon how He shows His love.” Tears welled. Witcher turned his face to the pinhole of light, peering toward the heavens.

Savannah backed away, one cautious foot behind another. She’d had enough hell for a lifetime, let alone one day.

“Stop!” Witcher commanded. His voice resonated, echoes erupting, quaking through the mountain. Savannah crouched, tucking her head.

Dust and gravel fell from above. Witcher watched her, still as stone in the ray of dusty sunlight.

She rose, tentatively, watching the rock ceiling. The tiny window above was way up there, probably about fifty feet, if she had to estimate. Behind her, the small room where she’d awakened was icy and sunk into complete darkness, like the Cave of the Winds. Even if she went back that way, a path to freedom wasn’t a certainty.

Witcher eyed her. She stared back. There was no way he’d let her leave on her own.

“How do we get out of here?” she asked. It was time to choose her words carefully, just like he did.

“You can give us both freedom.” He turned away from the angel in chains, walking toward her.

“Even if you’re right about that, I can’t undo this,” she said, nodding toward the skeleton.

“But you can, Savannah.”

“It wouldn’t be right. I won’t.”

“Then we both shall perish in the mountain. I will find placation through stinking apes of the Earthbound and you shall simply know no more. Here,” he yelled, waving an arm savagely. He grit his teeth, lips drawn thin and white. “Alone, scared, and in the damned dark,” he raged. His voice rose as his anger ignited. “Starving and wasting away.” He stalked up and grabbed her shoulders, shaking her hard. Witcher spun her around so she faced the suspended corpse. “Just like me!” he yelled.

Savannah cried, shaking so badly her legs were numb. Witcher was probably the only thing holding her up. “Stop it,” she pleaded.

“Why? Don’t you want to know what it is like?” He turned her in his grip, jerking her hard. “It hurts! To this day I feel myself rotting, enduring my flesh falling away. I fought against the bite of His chains for ages down here. And for what reason?” He shoved her back. Savannah watched him through a watery gaze, fighting to stay vertical. She stepped closer to the wall. He breathed in, shaking his head and wiping his eyes. “All because I took what was rightfully mine.” He walked two steps toward the bound angel. “There is no justice unless we make it for ourselves.”

“I don’t understand.” she said, just above a whisper.

He turned, responding softly. “I am His son, born of Him far before any who walk below. It is I who deserves to know you, before any other.”

She shook her head. “No.” Greater powers were at work. “I won’t undo something done by God.”

He searched her face. “I want you to love me, too, Savannah,” he said, softly. He grasped her hand. “Please, you alone have the strength to free me. You can end my suffering.”

She shook her head. The hell he’d been reduced to was fitting, a silent tomb removed from the light, just where a demon belonged. The essence of the thing had crept out into the world, feeding off energy from the living. Fear and lust were strong emotions, powerful enough to fuel the monster and enable him to appear to her as a man, as the man she wanted to see.

“I want you to get me out of here.” She crossed her arms and watched him hard, without blinking.

He looked surprised. “I cannot.” He looked from her to the skeleton. “You must agree to free me.”

“Well it looks like we have a problem then.” Savannah scooted a couple sharp rocks out of the way and bent to sit down before she fell down.

“I assure you, Savannah, the only way to free yourself is to free me.”

She leaned back carefully, making sure there wasn’t a jagged piece of granite jutting out to stab her. The only answer she offered was a shake of her head. She wouldn’t be the one to set a demon loose. He’d done horrible damage, even when he was still somehow tethered to his corpse. If he had freedom, God only knew what he would do to people.

“You don’t believe me.” He walked close and peered at her intently. “This is all that He left of my physical form. I am caged.”

“I can’t.” Savannah’s eyelids were heavy with exhaustion from taking an overdose of sleeping medication. She hadn’t eaten or slept right for weeks. Throw being drowned into the mix and she shouldn’t have been breathing. The fact she was able to move at all was impressive. She crossed her ankles, tucked her legs to her chest, and rested her head on her knees. Her chest and legs warmed slightly, but the temperature of the rock wall and floor quickly chilled her again. She allowed her eyes to close. “I just want to sleep.”

His voice carried over the cold rocks. “Accept me, Savannah. See me for what I am. We can leave this place and live in the light together.”

“But I do see you for what you are. I’ve seen what you do and how you use people to get what you want.” She grew colder by the moment, but welcomed the feeling. He was right. She would die slowly in the dark cave with a rotten angel corpse. A little different than how she planned it, but dead was dead and one wouldn’t get blood from a turnip. She breathed deeply, looking for sleep as he went on.

“The rest are merely puppets. I only have to do that because there hasn’t been one strong enough for me, one who sees what I am. Who sees what He has done to me.”

“None of it matters anymore. I don’t believe all of this crap anyway.”

“That’s it,” he said. “That’s why you can do it. You do believe, but you disagree with the things He does. You disagree with His choices.” Gravel scattered as he paced around. Savannah glanced up. “And this,” he waved a hand at the winged corpse, “is not just.” He stood right before her. “How many times in your life have you wondered about why He allows injustice?”

“That’s different.”

“You’re different.” He picked up her wrist and tugged her to a shaky standing position. “I didn’t see it before. I thought you were like the others who share your blood, who’ve shared my attention in the past.”

“You’ve tried before?”

“I have, but none see past my Father and His wrath.”

“Wrath? I see something that was punished for doing wrong. It’s hardly injustice. It’s just punishment. I can’t do this.” She pulled away. Vertigo grew, the dizziness taking over. Savannah sat down hard, rubbing her temples with weak, trembling hands. Rocks poked through the thin fabric of her underwear but thankfully, her bottom and legs were chilled and nearly numb.

He sat beside her with a heavy, resigned sigh. “Why must it be so hard with you?” He pulled her head down onto his thigh and smoothed her hair back.

Refusing to let him comfort her, she pulled away and curled up, watching him. A rock dug into one shoulder blade, but she ignored it. Witcher crossed his ankles in an all-too-human fashion.

“I don’t want to watch you die, Savannah.”

“I don’t want to die down here with you, either. I don’t understand why you chose me out of so many people. I won’t give you what you want. I’m not so special.”

“But you are. And my choice is made. I told you my name.”

“You’ve never told anyone?”

“No. You’re the only one.”

“Val-Kryel.”

“Yes.” He beamed at her. “That is my name. You alone have it.”

“You have the freedom you had when I first saw you. Just head out, back up there where you were before this.”

“You’ve given me what I have so far. I am not totally free. No one can see this likeness but you. I am not yet complete.”

She waited but he didn’t finish. “What?”

“I am not … whole,” he said. After a moment he looked at her again, searching for understanding in her face.

She shook her head. “Sorry.”

He sighed and let his head fall back against the wall. The bit of light provided by the pinhole above illuminated the perfect shape of his jaw, glinting with highlights in his hair. “When you let yourself love me in return, I will be restored. You will want me that way.” He dropped his gaze to hers.

Savannah’s eyes grew wide. He walks from the cave on four legs and takes the men of two. “That really is you over there.”

“Yes. The punishment He chose is ultimate, perfect. I can never be with you in earnest without using a—”

“Okay. I get it. It’s surreal enough to be having a conversation with you after everything you’ve done. I don’t want to think about the details like that. I am going completely insane.” She stopped talking before she blurted how she wanted him to die, all pitiful and shriveled. Her outbursts never worked out for the best.

“For a time, I begged Him to just kill me rather than to reduce me so.”

Savannah let her eyes close. There was no way she’d let him loose. Her brother and sister were safe. Their mother certainly would always look out for Number One, so she was okay, too. Sleep would take her and the pain would melt away. She curled into a tighter ball on her side, waiting for her thoughts to drift away. She’d possibly see Daddy again, on the other side. She lay still and silent for a while.

“Do you suppose the Williams man loves Molly?”

She opened her eyes with a jolt. “You son of a bitch.”

He didn’t respond and Savannah kept still, considering the implications of what he meant. “You planned this all along, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“So why play with me?”

“I’m not playing with you. I bared myself to you. It would have been preferable for you to see that, and to let yourself love me. To see this in me, that I can be good. I can be what my Father intended. All it will take is your love, Savannah. Then He will love me again. I will have you. I will, once again, be in His grace.”

“You’ll leave Molly alone if I help you?”

“I will not come to her again.”

“Can we leave this place?”

“I will take you out of here.”

She watched him, judging his sincerity. His gaze was steady, not even a blink. “I love you, Savannah.”

“I’ll do my best as long as you quit saying that.”

“Thank you.” He lowered his head and placed a kiss in her hand. “You will be very happy. I promise.”

He helped her to her feet, both steadying and pulling her forward at the same time. Savannah shook her head, trying to clear the fog. Her body ached, ten times worse than having the flu, weakened and sick.

“Don’t fight. Accept me and know peace.”

Savannah tried to relax the muscles in her face, concentrating on calming down, which was a lot easier to think about than to accomplish. Every fiber of her being wanted to shove away from him and run.

One of his hands cupped her chin, tilting her face to his. He pulled closer, placing his lips gently to hers. Her jaw locked and she squinted hard, trying to think about anything else, anything but feeling him touching her so closely.

The dizziness intensified. She drew a big breath in through her nose, forcing herself to still and relax. Fighting took so much energy, and she was so weak there wasn’t much fight left in her. The knot of dread loosened in her stomach. Giving in might be her death, but she was out of cards. Her breathing leveled out as he kissed her cheek and jaw, moving to her forehead and back to her lips. Serenity, more powerful than she’d ever known, warmed away the trembling. His lips were cool and smooth, and she tamped down panic each time it flared, knowing she should be repulsed. Goosebumps formed on her forearms as parts of her skin began to call out for his touch. She opened her eyes, just barely, to see what his face looked like. His beautiful eyes were closed, the lashes dark fans against perfect skin. Of course he looked perfect. He pulled every image and feeling straight from her mind and became what she wanted. Broken, she let herself fall into him. She had to believe in him. Trusting he wouldn’t hurt her anymore, wouldn’t hurt Molly again, was the only option.

Gentle and slow, he tilted his head farther, deepening the kiss and she closed her eyes again, trying with everything she had to stop thinking of what he’d done, of what he was. He wanted to be warmth and the comfort that she yearned for, to take her away from pain and cold, and the fear of being alone without her family. He would stop all the pain. She wanted him to. Savannah gripped his shoulders hard, holding on to the one thing that could make the pain stop. She hadn’t really wanted to die. Her soul begged for each second of freedom from pain. She concentrated on enduring him. The euphoria she experienced was worth it, to feel something other than the heartbreak and terror she’d endured for weeks, a time that lasted so long it seemed to make up her entire life.

Through her closed eyes, their surrounding grew brighter. He broke the kiss.

“Keep your eyes closed, Savannah.”

“Okay,” she said.

“I will never let you be harmed again. You are safe. Trust in me.”

She nodded, leaning into his shoulder for support. Was it possible he didn’t know about her weakness and exhaustion? Did he grasp the concept of simply running out of energy from not eating or sleeping? Her body was shutting down and fear was the only thing keeping her mind going. He might have had no idea.

“Do you love me, Savannah?”

She hesitated briefly, recognizing she’d be signing a contract with one word. There was no way around it. Her consent was the only way to keep Molly safe. “Yes. I love you with all my heart.”

Wind slammed into them, but she held on, burying her face in his shirt, praying he wouldn’t let her be hurt. The fabric next to her cheek grew warmer. A familiar scent, like pending rain, grew stronger. Fear knotted in her limbs and she went rigid, clutching at him hard as memories of drowning incited panic.

“No,” she said. “No more rain.”

“I took it all away. Everything is as it should be. I will take you out of here and you will bring Molly home. Then, you will keep your word to help me.”

Savannah managed a nod. Whatever…

One of his hands latched around her right wrist, so tight the joint popped. The knee-jerk reaction was to pull back, and that’s exactly what she did, but the meager attempt to free her arm yielding nothing. Witcher’s face was tilted toward the light. He didn’t react to her prying at his fingers, just held tight.

“Let go!” The tenderness was gone the instant she gave her word.

Light exploded around them in a flash. Her feet left the ground. Heart lurching, Savannah’s chest locked up like she’d had the air knocked from her lungs. Her head was entirely too heavy to hold up any longer. For the first time in her life, Savannah Caleman welcomed relief as she passed out cold with shock.

***

 

#

Chapter 17

A soft breeze hissed over the top of a tumbling creek nearby. The cloud of exhaustion faded. Lifting heavy arms, she covered her face and cried, ashamed of her weakness. “No!” Her voice cracked. Giving up had been too easy. She didn’t consider what it would be like to face what she’d done. Her body ached from exhaustion and hunger, and her soul sat heavy in the pit of her stomach like an old wad of gum.

Savannah inhaled a little too deeply and broke into a coughing fit. The world spun to the right. Bright, pink light burned through her eyelids and stung her eyes, but she forced herself to ignore it. A rock bore into her hip to the point it was unbearable, so she rolled onto her back. Her fingers searched the surface she laid on, which was a sun-warmed slab of rain-slick granite. For the first time in as long as she could remember, her stomach rumbled. Savannah put a hand up to shield her eyes and fought gritty eyelids so she could open her eyes to see. She let her feet down and sat up in late morning light.

It took a few minutes for her eyes to adjust, but soon she focused on the familiarity of aspen trees. A car sped by on a gravel road in the distance. Birds sang. The vertigo lessened a little, but she moved slowly, not inviting it back.

No matter how crappy she felt, it was time to push herself into motion. Keeping Witcher happy ensured Molly’s safety, so that’s what she would do. Her legs wobbled beneath her, but she took the first step up the hillside.

After a while of walking on more things that stabbed through her socks, her heels ached and the rest of her soles grew numb. She took it slowly, her surroundings growing familiar when she came to a cluster of bushes beside a thick corner fence post. She was on her family’s land. Sure enough, about a hundred yards outside the fence was an old mining shaft and pile of tailings her parents told her to stay away from. They’d likely worried she fall to the bottom, but the deadly hole in the ground was capable of doing more than just killing somebody. It was a gate to a special sort of hell. Witcher had yanked her up out of the cavern and left her baking in the sun, twisted up on top of a boulder.

Savannah trembled in her tee shirt and underwear, staring at the wooded and rocky trek toward the house. She hobbled along where the ground was mostly flat, impressed with herself once she cleared the backyard. Her feet had long since lost feeling, right up to her knees. She shambled up the back steps, around the veranda, and dropped onto the porch swing as the old wind chime tinkled away in the breeze.

The fact the house was standing and didn’t reek of gas wasn’t a surprise. Witcher could undo just about anything. Being back at home made her guts clench. But she’d made a deal. She would live. Hopefully that would provide Molly with some peace.

God only knew what the fallen angel would do with his freedom. So far, all she’d done was agree to help him, really. Just what it would take to fulfill the deal was a mystery she didn’t want to poke at. He’d own her by the time she made good, and likely did already.

Her throat ached and she trembled on the swing, both from the shock of it all and fatigue. She went inside to the kitchen and grabbed a package of Twinkies, devouring them on her way upstairs. Needing to soak, she turned on the bath water and peeled off the tattered shirt, underwear and bloodied socks. The water was almost so hot she couldn’t allow herself to slide into it. She downed two tumblers of water while she adjusted the temperature. Once it was perfect, she wiped dried blood off the multiple scrapes and gouges she’d accumulated and thawed from the outside in. Everything hurt, but it felt great to let her head rest back and close her eyes.

Over and hour later, she woke up in lukewarm water and got out of the tub with a throbbing head. A sense of responsibility took over, so she dried off, dressed, and went outside.

The horses had stuck around. Worried she would lock them into their individual runs where they belonged, they bolted past into the knee-high hay field. Watching them roll in the grass, kicking their legs up, was the best thing ever. Dad used to say that if a horse could roll all the way over onto its other side, it was a keeper. She hated thinking like that, remembering the things he said so well she could hear his voice. She didn’t fight the tears, just let them run.

Mabeline changed her course and walked toward her. Savannah waited, and when the mare drew close enough, she scrubbed the flat of her face between the eyes, just where the horse loved it. Savannah wrapped her arms around Mabeline’s neck, closing her eyes and inhaling the salty, familiar smell of her mare. The horse shook loose and returned to frolicking with the others. Savannah did her best to sling hay and drop scratch for the hens. On her way back to the house, she turned toward the driveway.

“Hornet,” she called. Her voice was thin and weak, but she yelled for the dog again. There was nothing wrong with holding out hope. She tried to call a third time, but her throat locked on a sob when she broke into another bout of tears. The dog didn’t show, but she’d known he wouldn’t. What she really wanted to do was call out for her dad. She went back to the house before she fell over and didn’t have the strength to get up.

The house didn’t smell of gasoline, but thick, dried blood still stained the floor and furniture. Sunlight beckoned from the kitchen, so Savannah turned through the doorway and went to work rounding up a meal. She dumped too much cereal into a bowl and ate it while frying eggs and toast, which she devoured so fast her stomach cramped. She put a cheek to the cool Formica table, hating the way the house was silent as death.

Monday afternoon couldn’t come soon enough. It was selfish, but she wanted Molly to come home. She needed to clean up before that. How on earth the house had been salvaged was beyond her. Dad’s gas can remained next to the porch swing. There was no water damage, no indication of the flood that filled her bedroom. Everything was undisturbed, as it was before she decided to burn it all down. The rainstorm was all in her mind, but she damned sure remembered dousing the house with gas and trying to strike a match.

The frameless cat painting leaned against the side of the hearth, face to stone. She crossed her arms, looking at blocky, charred remains of all she’d burned up. There was kindling and old newspaper, plenty to start another fire. She could run to the kitchen and grab a knife, come back in and tear into the canvas. She’d burn the strips one by one. Just get rid of the whole damned thing, but it might cause Witcher to come back with a vengeance.

Odd and screwed up as it was, she knew she and the fallen angel had a deal worth honoring. Burning the painting could easily be the equivalent of poking a sleeping bear, or lion, in that case. He hadn’t bothered her all day. She looked around the room, feeling goosebumps rise. The things she’d been through could make anyone paranoid, but she knew with every stitch of her being that he watched somewhere, without a doubt.

Everything made her think about him, no matter how she tried to stop. He thrived on it, on her curiosity and fear. He’d won. There was no avoiding him. Everything had changed, from religion to trusting her mother. Like it or not, he owned part of her.

She walked upstairs and eyed the door to Molly’s room. In a matter of hours Molly would be home. They had so much to go over. Would Molly hate her when Savannah admitted what she’d done? Would she be able to tell Molly the whole story and make it believable? A fallen angel bound and chained in a cave, feeding off energy of the women in their family, using men to experience sex? If Savannah wasn’t hurting like she’d had her ass kicked, she’d likely call bullshit. Should she even tell Molly? Whether or not she decided to, she’d have to start with news about their father. Her stomach churned, the knot there cold as the truth.

Molly had experienced the “nightmare” that night when the smell of death, the scent of Witcher, had awakened them. Had her sister written the incident off as a dream? How had Molly’s personal account allowed for the cut up knees?

The truth was, Witcher was responsible for the attack. For some reason he didn’t have their father do his dirty work back then. Perhaps it had been him experimenting, thinking maybe he’d grown strong enough on his own. Maybe Molly thought she was losing it after what she’d been living through. With Dad gone, would her sister find true peace, with no more crazy things happening at night?

And what should she expect? Would the image of Witcher be gone, replaced by the angel she’d freed? She told him she’d love him. He couldn’t possibly really love her. His equivalent of the emotion was ownership. The world was his. She was small town Savannah Caleman, hardly worthy of keeping his attention when he could shop the entire Earth and beyond. Maybe he’d forget about her. That was a damned gleeful thought.

She opened her bedroom door and went inside to change into pajamas, mind still reeling. Even if he never returned, she was damaged, deeply, and beyond hope. She’d lost it, and that was why she couldn’t forget about him. Accepting her new reality dissolved most of the guilt. She lowered herself into bed, remembering all the things she’d allowed herself to do. Wrong as it was, his kiss became wonderful and would never be topped by anyone else’s. He was complete magic and entirely supernatural, and he’d used that power to change her. It wasn’t the angel she’d kissed, it was the image of him that he made appear as human, the way she wanted him to appear. He’d handpicked those features from her thoughts. His face was what she wanted it to be. His voice as male and musical as she chose.

He was a beautiful and perfect monster. Her own beast and horror. Her sick dream man. And he was mean as hell-on-legs when she didn’t do what he wanted. Molly would be safe as long as she played along, saying she would love him, and he made it far too easy. He rewarded her duress with peace.

That was a chilling thought. Just how much of a lie was she telling herself? How long could she keep enduring Witcher and continue without cracking up? How far did she have to go before she was certifiable? Was he really only a monster before, and from the moment she agreed to help him, would he prove to be a “true” angel, back in the good graces of God? How could he ever go back to heaven after the things he’d done? What about her? Would her conscience really allow her to sleep at night, knowing she’d released something evil from where God had bound it? She sighed. Looney Toons, just like the rest.

  • * *

Someone knocked on the front door downstairs. Savannah sat up in bed, disoriented and still half-asleep.

“Dad?” Savannah called after no one got the door. Surely, he was downstairs and all the bad things from the last few weeks were nothing but a nightmare. Dad was fine. He had to be. The hammering sounded again so she went to the top of the stairs. “Dad? Somebody’s here,” she called.

Not a single sound rose. Even placing a foot on the second step down didn’t produce that annoying squeak she was used to. One stair after another, her bare feet chilled on the wood and she wished she would have taken time to get dressed. Her favorite white night gown left her arms and most of her legs bare, and since the furnace was apparently turned down, the first level of the house was much colder than her room.

“Hello?” she called. Where is everybody?

Savannah felt along the wall at the base of the stairs searching for the light switch. Dread crept up from the tight knot in her stomach. Cool plaster roughened beneath her touch, leaving behind a grainy, jagged stone surface. She withdrew her hands, cradling her rib cage. A beam of light broke through what should have been the tall ceiling of the den. Her breath drifted upward in a cloud that broke on drifting dust particles.

Half-blinded from the shaft of light burning her retinae, she began scurrying back toward the stairs. Her heart leapt into her throat. Feeling her way only allowed for so much speed.

Something heavy and metal banged on both sides and her hands shot to each ear. Footsteps thumped close, and the toe of one of her dad’s yellow work boots came into the ray of light, followed by the rest of him as he made his way toward her.

“Daddy, oh thank God. What’s going on?”

No easy smile crossed his face.

Please, please, please be my dad … not a monster.

Chains ratcheted against metal, shooting at her from the darkness, led by open cuffs that clasped harshly on both of her wrists. Two more came the next moment, locking at each ankle as her arms were jerked straight out. The chains banged against metal as the slack drew in, one huge link on the next. Tension took her weight, and each jolt lifted her farther off the floor. Screams ripped from her chest repeatedly until drawing the next breath and letting another free was too hard. The weight of her body pulling downward put a horribly amount of pressure on her chest. She pulled in precious air to sate suffocation.

Jack stepped closer, eyes pained. He examined the cuffs and wasn’t startled at all when two more slammed closed around her neck and at the base of her rib cage.

Neck locked, Savannah focused on darkness beyond, struggling against hope. She drew in a long breath, which was much easier now that the band around her waist supported her weight.

“Daddy?” she called, around a sob. “Please get me down.”

He stepped back so she could see him again. Tears streamed down his face. “I am sorry, my child. We reap what we sow.” He turned away, disappearing into the black depths in front of her.

“Don’t leave me, please,” Savannah said. “Please?” Silence answered, just as she expected. The only sound was the rattling of her chains as she hung shaking. Vertigo hit her entire system, leaving her head swirling.

The beam of light above began to strobe as time moved to fast-forward and the sun set and rose repeatedly. Her heart rate became that of a rabbit. Everything throbbed with pain. In the next moment, the ache ceased during the same second that her heart stopped. Her muscles locked tight and stayed rigid briefly, then relaxed as rigor subsided. Panic became sadness. Trembling subsided and all she knew was thirst as the sensation worked its way throughout her body from her throat, expanding into her skin and settling into each joint and bone.

Impossibly, she continued to cry.

Deep pain became a more superficial burn in every cell of her being. Willing her head to twist against the cold, metal cuff below her chin, she glanced along an arm to her hand. Flesh receded and skin flaked. Her lungs drew no breath. All was hollow.

She withered, just like Witcher.

Decay. It was in each moment; each beat of her existence. Senses remained. Rot hung in her nose. Visions of flesh falling away played in great detail. Metal coated her tongue. Cold was the only temperature and pain the only sensation as blood vessels receded and her nervous system raged.

The bulk of muscle clung fast, then withdrew to reveal patterns of white. After considerable and time-consuming effort, Savannah turned her face toward the ceiling and watched the beautiful sun rise and set, longing for one more day in the light or to simply know no more.

“I never understood why my father punished me so.” Witcher came into the circle of light, examining Savannah. The tie around his neck was relaxed and the top button of his collar undone. Still dressed for business, he managed to look relaxed and happy.

“It pains me to look at you this way. I know you can hear me. He reached for the cuff that held her right hand, releasing her as he spoke. “I know this because He would come and speak to me.” After he’d removed the last of her bonds, he cradled her rigid frame as best he could and started for the stairs, switching on the light as he walked by. The living room was back, rocky tomb replaced with her home. She wished he would have simply let her expire than make her put up with the sound of his voice.

“You didn’t endure nearly what I went through, though. I shortened your time to save you ages of pain, and so you didn’t feel each cell in your body fade and shrivel as life left you. My intention was for you to understand what it was like.” He rounded the corner at the landing and used an elbow to open her bedroom door. “The betrayal, the pain of death as you hung withering, I need you to understand these things, Savannah, so you understand me.”

Tenderly, Witcher set her down and arranged a pillow beneath her head. Savannah was still unable to move, but being released was a comfort. She wanted to scream at him, but couldn’t think about all the parts of her that had turned to dust and rendered her unable to talk, move, or anything else.

“You will awaken whole and you will remember this horror just as you do now.” He rose and turned one last time on his way out. “I can’t wait to see you alive again. I need to get this image out of my mind.” He smiled. “I love you, Savannah. Sleep now.”

Gratefully, Savannah did just that.

  • * *

To be away from Molly was more torture than anything she’d been put through. Thinking about seeing her again after the last three days made her feel like a new person. Savannah toughed it out in hopes of creating some normalcy for the sake of her little sister.

She’d woke up herself, body whole and, well, juicy and alive the way it should be, just like Witcher said. The feeling of her skin falling away and organs turning to something resembling silt from the creek stuck with her every move for the first hour of the morning. She wouldn’t soon forget what it felt like to die, to feel herself rot. She got it. He’d made his point crystal clear.

The keys to her truck weren’t hard to find. They’d appeared when she cleaned up all the blood and put the house back to as much right as possible. It was Monday afternoon. School would be out in nine minutes. She waited, waving and chatting half-heartedly with any friends who noticed her new ride, watching the double doors for Molly. At last, she found her.

Molly’s hair was in a ponytail. She walked by herself, overstuffed backpack swinging on a shoulder. She saw the Toyota and changed course to the parking area, pushing through the bus line. Relief was visible on her face.

Savannah got out, barely containing herself long enough for Molly to get to the truck. She wanted to rush out and grab a hold of her little sister, hug her tight, and maybe even let a threatening flood of tears flow. She held herself in check and just waved. If any teachers saw such an emotional reunion, it would draw a lot of attention that they really should avoid. And how would she explain the scrapes she couldn’t cover up with long sleeves and jeans?

The story was that Mom and Chaz were in Alabama visiting family. Daddy was headed out to get them, but it was a three-day drive, in good weather. The girls were fine staying home alone without their parents, who would return within few days. That would give Savannah time to get them out of town and learn what it would take to become Molly’s legal guardian. She’d have to get it done before her insanity surfaced and shit hit the fan.

From the look of Molly, it was tough not to break into a run. She walked fast, waving at others, but beat a bee line toward Savannah. Savannah got back in the truck and sat with the window down, trying to act casual. Molly jerked the door open, dropped her bag on the floorboard, and climbed onto the seat.

“Hi,” Savannah said. “How did it go?”

Molly’s chin trembled. “I was so afraid something would happen. Like, you wouldn’t be here.” She waved at two underclassmen, smiling with thin lips. “There’s something I need to tell you and I’m just going to get it out there so I don’t have to dread it anymore because—”

“Spill it already!” If Molly kept babbling she’d blow up, especially considering she thought she would be the one breaking hard news, not both of them. “I’m sorry. It’s been a long weekend.”

Molly was in tears. “It’s Tina, Vannie,” she said.

“No,” Savannah moaned knowingly and sick to her stomach. Taking a deep breath, she started the truck and eased into the lane.

“She’s dead and they think a mountain lion attacked her, but they aren’t sure yet.”

Savannah gripped the steering wheel hard and rode the clutch through the crosswalk, braking for students. Some people waved as the truck crept past, inspiring rage. Tears blurred her view of the road. She smacked the wheel with a palm. How could they act happy and smile when everything in the world was wrong? When her friend was dead because she’d confided in her? It was all she could do to maintain until they made it past any other teenager.

“Are you okay?” Molly asked, softly. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh, it’s not your fault,” she replied.

“I meant because she was your friend.”

“I know. I’ll be okay. It’s a lot to deal with so, I mean, I think I’m okay.”

“What happened with Dad?”

“It’s a long story,” Savannah replied. She edged into line with other cars leaving the parking loop. “We definitely need to talk about it.” She bit the inside of her cheek, trying to remain tough enough to shelf what she’d learned about Tina and deliver the news before she lost her nerve. She’d killed their father. Molly wasn’t up to speed with all the reasons why. She didn’t understand about Witcher—Val-Kryel, whatever he really was. Rather than try to explain all she’d learned in the last few days, she decided to go with the surface issue. Daddy was gone. That’s what a sane person would have done.

Molly waited, almost like she dreaded what was to come. Savannah could only imagine what was going through her mind. Thinking about what their father had done to Molly wasn’t something Savannah would detail. They rode in silence through Cripple Creek. Once the truck rolled onto Highway 67 to Victor, Savannah took a deep breath. Seven miles separated the two small towns. Fifteen minutes of travel time, maybe. In that small amount of time, she would change her little sister’s life forever.

“This isn’t going to be easy, Molly. Please just remember I love you more than anything, okay? I did what I had to, to make things better. I would never—”

“Just say it already,” Molly said. She looked out to passing mine tailings and the ruins of Mound City, the old rock towers and crumbling walls peeking from beneath outcroppings of wild raspberries and current bushes.

“Okay. Dad won’t be around anymore. He came at me. Tried to …” she drifted off, biting a lip briefly. A deep breath didn’t stop her voice from wavering. “We fought. He wouldn’t stop and I was so scared, I just panicked and ran. He broke through into my bedroom and I shot him.” The lie rolled out far too easily. Fighting would have done no good because he was too far gone by the time he— Witcher busted in. Savannah shifted in the driver’s seat, a little disturbed with hearing herself talk about it. She was actually relieved, getting it out there. “I knew no one would believe what he did. I burned his body to ashes to hide what happened.”

Molly didn’t move, didn’t say anything or even twitch. Savannah let her have time to process. After a moment, one shaky hand wiped at tears beneath her eyes.

“Thank you,” she said. “It was always dark when I saw him like that, so I didn’t really focus on his face. He deserved it,” she said, a sob breaking her speech. “I feel horrible saying that. Please don’t hate me. It’s been awful, Savannah. I don’t know what I did … I mean, I tried to cover up.” She doubled over, chest on her knees, sobbing and trying to hide at the same time.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Savannah said. She rubbed Molly’s back with one hand and kept the truck on the road with the other. “You didn’t do anything to deserve it. It’s going to be all right.”

“You don’t understand,” Molly said around a sob.

Savannah pulled the length of Molly’s hair from the spots where it stuck to her sister’s cheek, eyes darting to the road and back. Molly mopped at her face using a forearm. Savannah didn’t ask what she might not understand about it. There would be time to talk through what needed to be said. She wouldn’t push Molly. Her sister probably wasn’t aware she knew about Daddy and the molestations. Telling the lie about circumstances leading up to her killing their dad was well worth it. She’d sat quietly waiting for him to blast through her door, with every intention of shooting him dead as hell while Witcher was inside him.

After a few moments of silence, Molly straightened in the seat. She’d stopped crying. Savannah fought the urge to start. What sort of world did they live in where the death of their father made it easier to go home? It wasn’t fair to her sister. She held her breath, thinking about Daddy. It was completely unfair to him, too. She wondered about what Witcher said, the part about their father having the urges to do the things he’d done to Molly, how he’d merely pushed Jack in the direction to follow his desire. Certainly that was a lie. Jack Caleman was a good man. A great father. The one of their parents she could talk to about anything. Try as she might, she couldn’t hold back. The first of many tears betrayed her, sliding down her cheek. She wiped at it, angrily. There was no use in crying. It wouldn’t bring Daddy back, or Chaz, or Mom, or Molly’s innocence or her own sanity for that matter.

Washboards jittered the truck, the tail end fishtailing a little. Savannah rocketed back to the moment.

“Damn,” she said, letting off the gas. “The road’s sure tore up.” She downshifted, bringing the front end around to face the right way with trembling hands.

“There’s no one on the road. Just sit a second,” Molly said. A terrible try at a smile creased her cheeks.

Savannah nodded, shaking out her grip. After a moment, she signaled and pulled forward to get them home.

***

 

#

Chapter 18

“Do you ever think about how kids in cities, like the ‘Springs, get to go watch movies and go roller skating and stuff?” Molly kicked her feet lazily from the porch swing. Savannah perched on one of Mom’s kitchen chairs she’d dragged outside. No one was around to gripe about the good furniture being removed from where it belonged, so she figured she’d make good use.

“Yeah. I really wanted to see ‘Heathers’.” A puff of wind drove two curled, brown leaves against one of her boots. The old wind chime piped up, tinkling a few notes. The ring suspending the chime from a hook spun around, the thin bars glinting in the morning sun. Molly’s hair was loose around her arms and back, and a long strand picked up in the breeze, tangling in the chain holding the swing. She looked just like Savannah felt. One night of restless sleep wasn’t enough. They both got up early out of habit to check the animals. Four hens pecked and scratched inside the barn and they’d found seven eggs tucked in new nests rounded into loose hay.

“Ow,” Molly said, pulling her hair free. “Maybe we could rent it at the Fortune Club.”

Savannah nodded. The Club was the only store in Victor, providing the closest selection of food, VHS tapes, a soda and sundae bar, and cheap trinkets for tourists to buy. The place reeked from cigarette smoke, but the ice cream was worth toughing out a trip in.

“So, how do you feel about maybe moving to Colorado Springs? I mean, school’s out and all,” she said.

Molly watched her feet, obviously thinking. A moment later she looked up. “I don’t want to leave. Dad’s gone. You’re eighteen now. And besides, Mom and Chaz might come home and we should be here.”

It wasn’t the answer Savannah hoped for, but she understood. For Molly, the danger had passed. She had a good point about their mother and Chaz. There was the outside possibility they would come back.

“I have Dad’s checkbook. I guess I could sign one of the checks and we could fill it out when we get up there.” Their parents had done it before, sending them inside the store with a signed check that Savannah would finish filling out inside at the register. Making an appearance in town was a good idea. Getting the locals worked up thinking they’d all disappeared wouldn’t do them any good. The movies would keep Molly busy so Savannah could wrap her head around what to do next. She had to wonder if she could possibly hide from Witcher anyway.

“We can go as soon as you’re ready.” Savannah got up to go inside to get their check ready.

“I’m ready when you are.” Molly didn’t get up, just pushed the swing into motion.

“You wanna go like that?”

Molly looked down at her sweats and tee shirt. “I just need to get my shoes.” She got up and walked past. Savannah followed her inside.

Forging her father’s name came a little too easily. She signed two checks, one to fill up the Toyota at the Jet Service Station and another for groceries and movies. Lying to the people she’d known since birth took a lot more effort, but it was a necessity. She flawlessly recited the story she’d cooked up. Their parents were well and having fun visiting family in Alabama. Yes, the girls were fine and staying out of trouble. Summer break was off to an awesome start.

Savannah put her hair in a high ponytail and asked for job applications at both places. They loaded three grocery sacks and a selection of movies into the truck and headed home before someone asked the wrong question.

The road was still a little rough in places. Avoiding all the washboards was impossible and they snuck up in the road, catching her off guard. The ride was rough in places. Molly doubled over in her seat, clutching her stomach.

“What’s wrong?” Savannah glanced back and forth between the road and Molly, who didn’t reply. She downshifted. They were almost to their driveway.

“It’s a cramp,” Molly said. She sat up but didn’t straighten fully, arms still wrapped around her abdomen. A white tint coated her face and she looked like she was going to be sick. Just as Savannah was going to offer to stop so she could get out, Molly’s eyes shot wide.

“Look out!”

Savannah turned the wheel hard as the truck slammed into an outcropping of aspens. Wood snapped as the Toyota plowed through the small, spindly trees and smashed to a stop against a big, aged tree trunk. The engine died. Savannah pried her fingers loose from the wheel and moved her feet from the brake and clutch pedals. Leaves fell onto the hood and dust swirled in through the open windows.

“Crap,” she mumbled. They’d hit pretty hard, but it was just a tree. Hopefully the damage wasn’t really bad. Her ears rang and her knees hurt like they’d smacked against the bottom of the dash. Molly was slumped over again.

“You okay?” Savannah nudged Molly’s shoulder. She didn’t answer, dark hair tossed in every direction. Savannah pulled hair from around Molly’s face, stopping when her hand smoothed over a goose egg sized knot growing on Molly’s forehead.

“Mol?”

Still nothing. Molly’s eyes were closed and she breathed slowly through her nose.

A tree branch crashed onto the hood of the truck, the jagged wood scraping into the blue paint. Savannah cringed until the noise stopped, arms wrapped around her head. She peeked out. The branch was old and long since dead, crooked fingerlings of stems darkened and brittle. Wood and dried bark scattered all over the windshield and hood. Molly still hadn’t moved.

Savannah hit the steering wheel, which felt entirely too good. A sob hung in her throat. Tears erupted and she didn’t bother to wipe them away. She smacked the wheel again and again.

“Stupid trees. I hate this truck!” Thinking she could pull off holding up a semblance of normalcy and take care of Molly was a big joke. She couldn’t even get them to and from the damned grocery store safely. She beat the dash with her fists and kept screaming.

The door flew open and a hand locked on her forearm, jerking her out and slinging her free of the truck. She never got her balance or a good foothold so she fell backward in the rocks and fallen branches. The door slammed shut. Savannah struggled free of the twisted pile of limbs, both hers and the loosened dead aspen branches, and looked up.

Witcher glared down at her, anger contorting his features. His shirt tails hung loose over a pair of black jeans and biker boots. Something was much different about him, like he was more real than before. His hair was a little longer and a little messy in a stylish way.

“Nice driving, Earnhardt.”

“Piss off!” She growled. His words were clear with no hint of an accent remaining. He talked like the kids at school.

Stomping forward, he grasped her by the shoulders and jerked her upright, letting go as she collided with the side of the truck bed. Savannah caught the top of the bed and held herself up. He came at her again, grasping the root of her ponytail.

“Ow!” She grabbed at his forearm with both hands, nails biting into skin below his folded up sleeves. “Bastard!”

Witcher hauled her forward and planted her forehead against the half-lowered driver’s side window with a sweaty thump. Her nose flattened against the glass. He grabbed both her hands and jammed them against the door, using his body to hold her against the truck.

“Look at her,” he growled into her ear. “You’re lucky you didn’t kill her.”

Savannah pushed hard trying to get away from him. He let her come away from the truck just far enough to spin her around, then pinned her again. “See, how this works is you watch over Molly and keep her safe for me. I stay happy and keep loving you. Nothing nasty happens and life goes on.”

“Get off me!” She twisted in his grip, shoving and swinging to free herself. One of her elbows nearly connected with his neck but he dodged it. “You son of a bitch! You killed Tina!” She rocked back and slung a hand out, scratching at his neck and cheek.

“You want to beat me down, Savannah? That’s rich. You left me no choice but to get rid of her.” Witcher pulled her off the truck and shoved her away. She skittered back a few steps and faced him, glaring. “Is this going to make it all better?” he said.

“Feels good from this angle.” She wiped at her nose with a forearm, streaking her skin with blood. It didn’t hurt, but felt numb where her arm touched her face. “Everything that’s wrong with my life is your fault.” Tears blurred her vision as fast as she could blink them out. She hated that she had to bawl like a baby to let herself rage.

“Cry me a river,” he said, so snide the words dripped sarcasm. “You’re a lot tougher than you give yourself credit for. It’s one of the reasons I lo—”

She rushed him, swinging at him ferociously just to shut him up. “Shut your lying mouth,” she gritted. One of her hands connected with his cheek, slapping hard.

He shoved her away then fingered the flesh of his face. A smile grew into a leer. “What a turn on. I like you like this.”

Savannah stared, shocked and breathing hard. An exasperated huff of air erupted from her lips. Unbelievable. Witcher acted, talked, and appeared more human every time she saw him.

The truck rocked a little as Molly sat up.

“Molly!” Savannah ran around the side to pull her door open. “I am so sorry, Molly. I ran into a tree,” she said, pushing strands of hair from Molly’s face. Molly blinked, reaching for the knot on her forehead.

“Get off, Vannie,” she said, peeling Savannah’s hands away. She got out of the truck and slammed the door, mad as hell. Savannah stepped back. Witcher was gone. The woods were quiet. She was alone with her injured, pissed off sister.

Savannah’s heart fell. Molly couldn’t be mad at her. She couldn’t handle everything without her sister on her side, not that she was doing a great job, anyway. “I didn’t mean to, Molly. I was trying to see if you were okay and then it just happened—”

“Psht,” Molly hissed, cutting her off. She glared and shook her head, obviously judging her for screwing up.

“Fantastic.” Savannah put her hands on her hips and looked back toward the driveway.

“What?” Molly snapped.

“You’re the one who wanted movies. I wanted food around if you got hungry. I’m doing all this for you and look,” she said, waving a hand to gesture at Molly.

Molly continued to scowl with her arms crossed. The corners of her mouth quirked into a vile, little grin.

“What’s funny?”

Molly didn’t answer, but broke out with a quick bark of laughter. Her neck twisted a little, tilting her chin sideways. The grin turned into a nasty smile. Her eyes darkened beneath her brow. A trickle of black slobber sluiced from one corner of her mouth. She laughed again, the sound juicy with a strangle from the dark fluid. She stepped forward.

“You heard the man. Keep us safe.”

“Molly!” Savannah screamed. “No! Leave her alone!”

“Keep us safe,” Molly said. She continued to smile, teeth blackened around the edges. Her chest heaved and she folded forward, leaning against the truck, growing quiet.

Savannah didn’t know when the clouds took the sun, but the sky darkened fast. A soft wind blew and the air was actually cold. The ground beneath the trees was as dark as Molly’s hair, which hung to brush piles of leaves and gravel from where she bent, one hip against the truck so she didn’t fall. Moments passed. Savannah wouldn’t run away and leave her sister that way, no matter what Witcher was doing to her. Trembling from chill and out of fear for Molly, Savannah went to stand at the hood of the truck, feeling waves of heat from the engine. She watched Molly carefully. Minutes drug by, feeling like a week each.

Finally, a huge hick-up racked Molly’s body. She laughed, standing up straight. A huge belch erupted and Molly lowered her brow again. She made no sound and not so much as twitched for three full seconds as Savannah counted, to avoid concentrating on the stabbing dread building in her chest. Still nothing but a black scowl. Savannah kept counting. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi.

Molly’s jaw dropped.

Four Mississippi ….

Her eyes slammed shut.

Five Mississippi ….

An air horn pealed from Molly’s mouth with the ferocity of those used on ocean liners, blasting into Savannah like a hurricane. She clamped her hands over her ears and leaned forward, rocked for a moment, then went to a knee. Hair flew away from her face while leaves and sand pelted her skin, needles driven through her clothes. The horn blared continuously and Savannah cringed low on the ground with her eyes watering, her head threatening to split.

As quickly as it started, the wail ceased, leaving Savannah a crumpled, quaking mess on the ground beside Molly’s gym shoes. She opened her eyes and forced herself to scan her little sister’s face, praying to anything that might be listening that it was over. By the look of her sister, it wasn’t. The only sound was her own shaky breath. She skittered backward against the truck’s front tire.

Molly’s smile gaped silently as her black eyes burned holes into Savannah. The grin split with darkness, slowly spreading to take over the whole area below her nose.

Savannah covered her mouth with both hands, terrified, as if covering her own mouth would make Molly’s stop opening so wide. The popping sounds of Molly’s jaw dislocating resonated as deadly as gunfire. Air hissed from her yawning face and more blackness leaked down her neck. Her torso shook and a wail of pain screamed free. Molly’s neck twisted and bulged, the shriek cut off so all that could be heard was Savannah’s own shrieking.

Skin stretched and tore at the corners of Molly’s mouth. Her eyes rolled, half her sister’s terrified, pleading gaze and half something other, a darkness that reveled in tearing her apart from the inside out.

A shrill scream continued and Savannah forced her own mouth to close. Molly stopped, as if on cue, becoming absolutely still. The silence lasted only briefly, broken by a squeak, like a mouse or a rat. Molly’s jaw rested on her chest, her mouth chasmal. Her eyes closed and something moved in the dark tunnel leading into her throat. A long, wet insect emerged, black and gleaming. Savannah slid back as a cockroach crawled toward freedom, sliding over Molly’s torn bottom lip. It navigated the side of her face, using an earlobe to drop lower. Another scratched its way out and more chirping echoed behind it. Molly’s chest heaved and trembled. A small, grey snake fell out onto the ground, twisting in dried leaves. A tiny, clawed foot grasped the side of Molly’s lip and a soaking wet mouse ran out, climbing across her shoulder. A rat shoved a fat roach out of its way, birthed slowly from the back of her torn throat.

“Make it stop!” Savannah screamed. “Please, I’ll do anything.” She turned her face to the sky. “Help my sister. Please,” she begged to the heavens.

More greasy things crept out, vomiting forth like a sewer line broke open. The smell of rot and feces gushed with them. Molly went to her knees, one hand grasping along the truck bed and the other clawing at her throat beneath her dislocated jaw.

Savannah rocked to her knees, certain her sister was dying or dead already. A stinking, slime-dripping rat stopped to claw away a leaf that stuck to its head. It ran off into a heap of dead grass and twigs. Molly fell forward, her chest flat against the ground and face turned away. Savannah sobbed hysterically.

Witcher stepped from the side of the truck. No sounds or gasping came from Molly, but she couldn’t see her sister’s face clearly. He was silent and so was the wind.

“Please help her.” Savannah’s voice was a whisper but she knew he heard her. He’d been listening, waiting for her to break. She sat back on her heels. The world began to spin in a very slow spiral.

“I hate it when we fight,” he said, peering down at her. His eyes searched her as he extended a hand. She took it and let him pull her to standing. He smoothed hair from her face, caressing the tender skin of her jaw. A tear stung a scratch just below her right eye. He kissed her cheek. She trembled, but let him embrace her, closing her eyes.

“Please help my little sister,” she whispered. His touch had grown familiar, which was not a good thing. She relaxed in his arms, and that was worse. The pain and fear clutching her chest let go. He kissed her and she let it happen, concentrating on the feel of cool air and the rhythm of her own breathing. He rocked her in his arms and moved his lips to her ear.

“She’ll have to sleep it off.”

“Thank you,” she said. “She’s okay?” Talking to him came easily, but she knew she should still want to cry. Molly’s torn face screamed silently against the back of her eyelids.

“I made it stop. Take her home. She needs to rest.”

She peered over his shoulder. Molly’s back rose and fell like she napped in the sun.

“You need only talk to me from this point on, understand? No others need to know our secrets.” Witcher tightened his arms around Savannah and placed a kiss on her forehead, then stepped away.

Savannah went to her sister, knelt and pulled matted hair away, carefully removing brittle leaves and twigs. Molly’s face was clean, except for a couple smudges of dirt. Her cheeks weren’t torn, the skin there pink and healthy. Savannah cried, using trembling hands to pick Molly’s head up from the dirt. She slid beneath her shoulders and pulled Molly into her lap, trying to get control while she examined the lump on her sister’s forehead.

“Molly?”

Molly blinked lazily then focused on Savannah’s face. “What are you doing?” She pushed herself up and scooted back, looking around.

Savannah got to her feet. “Can you stand up?”

Molly nodded. “I feel like crap.” She pulled herself up with a hand on the wheel-well of the Toyota.

“We hit some trees and you got knocked out,” Savannah lied.

Molly put her hands on her knees. “I feel sick.”

“Can you get back in the truck? I need to back it out of here.” Savannah went to the hood and pulled the branches away. The paint was a little scratched, but the big dent she expected to see wasn’t there. She looked around, removing anything behind a tire. Witcher was gone, just like the last time he appeared from the nearest, darkest shadow.

Molly climbed into the cab and shut the door. Savannah got in the driver’s side and prepared to be let down if the engine wouldn’t fire up.

“Ow,” Molly said, hissing when her fingers grazed the lump above her eye. She swiveled the rear view mirror, examining the damage. “Holy heck.”

“I’m so sorry, Molly.” Savannah held her breath, waiting for a response.

“Did you get hurt?” Molly continued to poke at her lump, turning her head a little to see how far it stuck out in her reflection.

A big sigh of relief broke loose. Her sister was back. “No. Just got the heck scared outta me. You had a stomach cramp and I should have just pulled over, or kept my eyes on the road.” She shook her head, frowning. “I want to get you home and get an ice pack on that goose egg.”

Savannah held her breath, floored the clutch, and turned the key. The starter fired but the engine didn’t come to life. She tried again, listening to the rrr rrr rrr as the truck struggled to start. Molly turned the mirror back around and looked at her. Finally, the motor grabbed and roared. Both girls breathed in a long, full breath. Savannah looked behind them, adjusted the rear view and started backward. The peppy little four-wheel-drive crept over rocks and branches. Soon, they backed onto the gravel drive and continued toward the house.

“I need a shower,” Molly said, when they were inside. She put the groceries on the kitchen counter. Savannah tried to hide her alarm at having Molly out of her sight. Judging from Molly’s face, she had failed.

“Okay, gosh.” Molly dug into the sacks and started putting the food away. “All you had to do was ask me to help.” She didn’t look up, just grabbed into the second bag.

“It’s not that.” Savannah pulled the brown paper bag away. Molly looked at her, curious and a little snippy.

“I just worry about you and the bump on your head. Go on up and shower. I’ll put these away.” She smiled, but it was really hard to do.

Molly didn’t say anything, just turned toward the kitchen door.

“I’ll be up to check on you in fifteen minutes if you don’t come back down, okay?”

Molly stopped and looked down. She turned and gave Savannah a what-the-hell look.

“The hot water might make you dizzy. Don’t lock the bathroom door.”

Molly didn’t respond for a long moment. “All right,” she agreed, finally. “I’m getting a sore throat.”

“I’ll make us something soft to eat and we can just watch movies all day.”

“Pancakes?” Molly asked.

Savannah nodded. Suddenly her little sister was young again, excited about the little things. “Sure.”

“Cool.” Molly tossed the response over her shoulder on the way out. “I’m starving,” she called down the stairs.

Savannah went to the table and sat heavily. The water came on upstairs. She rested her head on her arms, trying to get it together. She could do it. She’d make breakfast and soak up a day in front of TV with Molly, trying to act like nothing was wrong, like their parents were coming home with Chaz and his dumb dog. As if they were a happy family without any secrets.

***

 

#

Chapter 19

Savannah penned the last mare back in the horse’s usual stall and tossed three flakes of hay into her feeder. The ranch animals doubled as pets, right down to the last chicken. They all thrived on security and feeding schedules, and that’s what Savannah intended to provide for them. The hens that survived slaughter pecked happily in their coop. The cattle needed counting and the farrier was due for a trip out for new horseshoes. For the time being she could look around and feel good about mock normalcy. The hay stack would run out by fall unless she started up the tractors herself. On such a bright, sunny morning she felt like she might do just that. She craved stability and routine just like the other denizens of the Witcher Place. Two of the horses slept in their pens, warm in the sun while reflex kept their tails swatting at flies. They needed her and she needed them.

Molly would sleep late, which was expected after the latest incident Witcher put her through. Savannah pulled out of her mucking boots and padded into the house in socks. The shower was running upstairs, which was a surprise. Coffee sounded wonderful so she set a pot to brew, poured some cereal, and waited for Molly to come downstairs.

A knock sounded at the front door. Savannah’s stomach leapt into her throat. What if it was the sheriff’s department? She’d cleaned out the fireplace after burning the remaining bone in there for another day, but only given a half-hearted attempt at the stains in the den. Afghans covered the bloodied couch and floor. She hurried to the door to get it over with before Molly came downstairs.

Mr. Williams was on the porch, sporting a warm smile beneath a John Deer ball cap. Seeing a friendly face sent a flood of relief her way, and she jerked open the door with a grin of her own.

“Hi Mister Williams.”

“Good morning, Savannah.”

“Dad’s not back yet,” she said, wondering about his unannounced visit.

“He’s here to get me,” Molly called as she came down the stairs. She jogged through the den and plopped onto the mud room bench to put her shoes on. More sweats and a clean tee were her chosen attire. At least she was clean.

“Oh.” Savannah peered down at Molly, waiting for an explanation. “Aren’t you a little tired?”

“I’m fine,” Molly answered while she stomped her foot into a shoe.

“What were you girls up to yesterday? Playing with some old tractor horn? We heard you guys clear out by the barn,” said Mr. Williams, casually. He watched Molly tie her shoes.

“No idea,” Molly said, not really caring or paying attention.

“Yeah, that was me,” Savannah said. “Sorry.” She gave him a half smile. “So Molly, what’s going on today?”

“I’m going to see Kim. She started Four H. I’m thinking about joining.” She whipped her last shoestrings into a bow and sped around Savannah to the door. “Ready?”

Mr. William walked out and down the front steps. “Ready when you are.”

“Well, I guess it’s okay if you go,” Savannah said. “When will you be home?”

“I’ll bring her back tonight, if that works. She said she talked to Jack last night and he okayed skipping the last day,” Mr. Williams said, half asking. “I gave in at our house, too. Heck, it’s summer.” He moved out of Molly’s way and she didn’t look back, just headed out to his truck.

Savannah watched them go and found herself waving to Kim, who jumped out grinning at her, holding the truck door open for Molly.

“I guess I’ll see ya guys tonight then.” Savannah shook inside, both from anger at Molly’s actions and from adrenaline from when he’d knocked. She had no idea why Molly hadn’t said anything after apparently calling Kim. They should be a team and be working together since the parents were gone. Molly gallivanting where and when she pleased wouldn’t work out.

“Alrighty, see you,” Mr. Williams called, and he was off the porch and walking away, her little sister firmly planted on the bench seat beside Kim, not even bothering to wave to Savannah. Savannah stood in the doorway watching them go, a little numb and hurt. After the dust settled in the driveway she closed the door and looked around the living room, greeted by silence.

The timing was perfect for Witcher to show up and give her hell for letting Molly out of her sight. He didn’t appear to be around, but it wouldn’t have surprised her, for once. His fascination with Molly’s well-being troubled her. Why did he care if Molly lived or died? She was only a pawn to him, a way to keep Savannah under control. If Molly wasn’t around, he’d surely find another tool. But the way he was so adamant that Molly was kept safe, unharmed, didn’t set well. What could he have to lose? He didn’t complain when Jack died and it was his idea for Mother to run away with Chaz.

Savannah went back to the kitchen. The coffee was done, so she heaped three big spoons of sugar in a mug and sat stirring. She wasn’t worried about Molly’s safety when she was over at the Williams’. They were good people, and the girls had known Kim since kindergarten. She flipped decomposing corn flakes around in warming milk. Maybe 4H was best for Molly. It was a normal thing that normal kids did. Savannah had competed in horse shows for years but didn’t join back up during her senior year. Molly wasn’t much into animals or livestock. Maybe she’d choose some kind of craft. It wouldn’t cost much, and she could sign their dad’s name on more checks. A permission slip for 4H would be no different. Molly would be sixteen in August. She needed something to do, a club to belong to. It would be a good thing, she decided. Molly should have talked it over with her first, though. It would be okay. And besides, there was a day of cleaning ahead.

Restoring normalcy to a living room where she’d hacked apart her father’s animated corpse as it tried to strangle her was a challenge even Lysol wasn’t up to. The preliminary cleaning she’d tried to do days ago wasn’t very thorough, which is why she resorted to covering it up so Molly didn’t see. The not-so-fresh scent of chemicals and pine was overwhelming but better than the mixed aroma of charred remains and dried blood. Stain spray helped the bottom of the couch along with a good scrubbing.

After a couple hours of scouring, the stairway gleamed, the wooden steps swept and scrubbed shiny. The washer and dryer hummed dutifully while she worked, bedding stripped from every room after she threw open curtains and windows to let in sunshine and fresh air.

Savannah stood between the two eastern windows, drying sweat saturating her tee shirt and shorts as she surveyed what a full morning of cleaning could do for a murder scene. Every place she’d seen something horrid was first bleached and then disinfected again with more cleaners from beneath the kitchen sink. Lemon scented furniture spray was a nice finishing touch. A trash bag of empty cleaning products sat by the back door, reminding her of a bigger problem than keeping the house clean. The household supplies would need to be replenished, and she had no idea how much money was left in the parents’ checking account.

If she was going to make everything work, she’d have to take responsibility of the household. That would require a certain hardness she didn’t know if she’d developed just yet. She could keep writing checks from their parents’ account, but who knew how long that would work out. One room she didn’t spend any time in was that study off the back hallway. That room was always so dark and quiet, she and her siblings didn’t like it. Daddy spent his nights in there, taking care of ranch business after everyone else was in bed. The small, ornate room was the likely keeper of all the family business.

After one last attempt to wash the smell of bleach off her hands, she walked to the back of the long hall, the smell of old tobacco growing stronger as she neared the thick wooden door. It swung open with a heavy groan. She hit the light switch beside the door.

Doing her best to ignore the way the room smelled of Daddy, of leather and sweat, love and guilt, Savannah walked around his giant, dark desk and gingerly lowered into the hardened leather desk chair. The room was constructed mainly of wood. Everything was carved and expensive looking. The hanging light from above was the most modern of the features, the trio of light bulbs behind a cheap, glass plate etched with flower petals barely lighting the desk and ritzy, Victorian looking area rug beneath.

Savannah pulled the chain on the desk lamp, which helped a little. The metallic sound of the pull chain barely clicked. There was no noise from outside, or from anywhere for that matter, like the room was insulated by extra thick walls. To the left was a small fireplace, framed by a gilt mantle. Old ash lumped over the grate and a round, metal caddy held a small store of logs and kindling. The rest of the walls were comprised of floor-to-ceiling bookcases that stretched up into the darkest part of the walls. She spun in the chair, searching out detail. An 8×10 family photo from about three years ago hung on the wall behind the desk, and her parent’s wedding photo was up there too, just above it. She spent a moment looking at that one, her parents childlike faces appearing far too young, her age maybe, not old enough to be married. Innocence reflected in their eyes, along with promise and ambition, virtues too good for what their joint future held, especially Daddy. She forced herself to move on.

Another switch was mounted to the wall beside the bookcase to the right of her, so she reached to flip it on. Small light sconces blinked to life above every section of shelves, about a dozen in all, with one centered to illuminate the hearth. Light enlarged the study, rows of books heavily coated with dust arranged and held by a menagerie of animal shaped bookends.

Something tickled the top of her left knee, like a piece of hair blew across her skin. She scratched at it and found a piece of Scotch tape hanging down from the well of the desk. Without much thought she pulled it off, looking beside the desk for a waste paper basket. Something flat and cold landed on her thigh as she pulled the tape free. She pushed back in the chair, the wheels rolling a few inches. A small silver key was stuck to a piece of overused Scotch tape. There were no etchings marking it and nothing was written to say what it went to. She set it on the desk beside the lamp. Curiosity emboldened her and she yanked open the desk drawers. A quick ransacking turned up a couple boxes of pens, an envelope of photos of her and her siblings, random receipts for the farm equipment, and a bill organizer which held utility bills, among others. Two of the drawers were file cabinets full of labeled files for everything she could think of from the veterinarian to receipts for groceries and gas. Daddy’s address book was in the flat, middle drawer, holding familiar business cards for livestock auctioneers and cattle trucks. There was a ledger book with lots of small numbers written in too many titled columns. Dates for entries stopped on May 18th.

Savannah put everything back where it was, pre-ransacking. When she put the bill organizer back where she’d found it, she noticed that drawer was very heavy and hard to push back in. The bill envelopes scraped along the top when she tried to close it. She pulled it out as far as it would go, looking for a keyhole. There wasn’t one, but the bottom of the drawer came loose and lifted out, revealing a hidey-hole of magazines and other man-goodies. The mag on top was missing the cover. She pulled it out and flipped a page, immediately wishing she hadn’t.

She couldn’t picture her dad sitting at his desk, looking at photos of people having sex. A couple more pages over, the content changed to two women shaving and bathing each other. The next two pages fell open to extreme close-ups of the two women engrossed in a whole lot of oral sex. She closed the magazine. The book under the first was just a Playboy with a pretty lady in a split skirt on the front but she didn’t want to know about the rest. A square, half full bottle of Jim Beam rested on one side in the far back of the compartment, snugged in between two stacks of VCR tapes. Jack Caleman came away from her discovery wearing a new image.

With shock still tingling, she put the drawer back together and stood up.

“Snooping?”

Savannah jumped at the sound of Witcher’s voice. He watched her, leaning against the wall by the hearth.

“Get lost.” She practiced breathing slow to calm the racing in her chest.

He came toward her, and she ran to the opposite side of the desk.

“You should know if I wanted to hurt you, I would. I’m not here to hurt you. It’s important that you succeed, Savannah.” Impatiently, he sent the wheeled chair careening to the side and grabbed the frame of their parents’ wedding photo.

“Leave that alone!” Savannah shot forward, grabbing at his hands. He held the picture over her head until she calmed down, then set it on the desk.

“Look.” He pointed to the wall where the hinged door of a safe appeared, tucked into a square cut-out in the thick wall. There was a dial for a combination and below it was the keyhole she’d searched for.

“Someday soon, you’ll understand that I love you. You’re welcome.” He dropped into one of the wingbacks on the other side of the desk.

Savannah did her best to ignore his presence and went about her search. The key fit the safe and the lock clicked twice. She turned a steel handle and opened the black door.

The safe was larger on the inside than the little hole in the wall gave credit to. If she tried, she might be able to touch the back of it with her arm extended the whole way. She dragged the desk lamp forward for light. The first thing inside was a silver pistol and a few boxes of .22 rounds.

A little box the bank used to send new checks was next and nearly empty, with only one book left in the bottom. She set it on the desk hurriedly. A file folder containing the title to her Toyota, the tractors and the ranch truck was next, along with the deed to the land and home at the Witcher Place. Another folder had the family’s birth certificates and everyone’s social security cards. She set those on the desk, too and reached for a flat box that rested beside them. Inside were more magazines, only the new ones had only men, naked with other men.

She sighed. “Will you please go do something else?”

Witcher had been watching her and now wore a look of utter amusement. He looked at the box of skin mags then got up, leaving the room with a smirk.

Savannah waited until he shut the door, then continued, not really sure what good it did for him to leave when he could watch what she did without being seen, himself. She shook it off and concentrated on the contents of the safe. There were two more books with men showing, on top of a layer of more black video tapes that only had bits of torn paper stuck where labels had once been.

“What?” she muttered. Could they be Mother’s? Her dad had kids with Mother and she wouldn’t let herself wonder about him feeling … otherwise. She thumbed through the last one, which happened to be missing the cover, too. She set them on the floor and went back to the safe. A purple Crown Royal sack held a heavy button of milled gold. Reaching way inside, she grabbed whatever was behind that and pulled out a banded roll of mixed bills, ranging from twenties to hundreds.

“Finally.” Cash was what should be in a safe, in her opinion, and there was more. Two short stacks of money against the back of the safe and random wads of cash that appeared to have been tossed inside when Dad was in a hurry to rat-hole money. That was a habit she wouldn’t complain about. The family had never gone without anything. Jack Caleman saved money after taking care of his kids. And she’d found the hidey-hole.

Savannah removed all the cash, intending to count it and lock most of it back up. The last thing inside the safe was a copy of her parent’s marriage license. She locked all the pornography inside the safe and left the bill organizer on the desk. The ledger opened to lay flat on the desktop. She situated the lamp and put the chair back, sitting down to give herself a better look. An unopened letter from the bank was stuck in with the bills, so Savannah opened it up, hoping for information on how much money she had to feed Molly and the livestock. Bills needed to be paid, and she wanted to keep them current the way Jack did it. He wrote out checks apparently. Caroline shopped for groceries in Woodland Park, at City Market. The girls had gone along many times. Caroline wrote checks there, too.

There were two accounts at the bank. The checking account in Cripple Creek had an attached savings account. Savannah’s eyes grew as she counted the numbers, seven spaces left of the decimal. What went out monthly from the checking account was minimal. The interest that came in and added to the balance on the savings doubled it. Cattle sales added in every three months. She dropped the statement.

Jack Caleman was duplicitous. He was a man of diverse sexual taste. And he was a closet millionaire.

Savannah closed the door to Jack’s study and went to the mailbox. The girls hadn’t checked the mail in a couple days, and there was a stack of envelopes waiting. Inside, she gathered the unopened mail from where she’d been stacking it on the kitchen table. Helping herself to a large portion of Oreos and a big glass of milk, she loved that she didn’t have guilt. Saving food for Molly wasn’t something to worry about any longer. Money was one less thing looming over her. She popped a cookie in her mouth and headed back to the study with her snack and the mail.

Savannah neatly separated the mail and opened it all up. There was a new banking statement and bills for the phone and electricity. She wrote checks for the amounts due and carefully balanced the checkbook. Two books of stamps were in the middle drawer, so she affixed postage to all of them and headed back out to the mailbox, leaned the envelopes against the side and put the red flag up so the mailman would know to stop.

Satisfied that she’d taken care of business, she went back to the study and began putting everything away. There were only two checks in the book she’d used and only one unused book remaining in the bank box. She used the rotary telephone on Jack’s desk and dialed the bank’s number from the statement.

“Good afternoon, this is Karen. How can I help you?” The lady was pleasant with a smile in her voice.

“Hi Karen. This is Caroline Caleman. I need to add our daughter, Savannah, to our account, please.”

“Certainly. Just one moment while I get your account files here.” After a moment Karen was back on the line. “In this case we’d like to suggest starting a student account in Savannah’s name. I see she just had her eighteenth birthday. You could just bring her in and we could get her started right away.”

“We’d rather just add her to our account, please. She won’t be going off to college yet. Maybe next year. Can we talk about that then?” Savannah stood up, too nervous to sit any longer. She pressed the phone to her ear hard, waiting to hear what the lady said in response.

“Not a problem. I have Savannah’s social security number and date of birth here from the beneficiary forms we have on file. If you’ll just verify that for me I can get this done for you within the afternoon.”

Savannah recited her personal information nervously. If she let on that she wasn’t her mom, it would mean trouble. She waited patiently, listening to tapping keys.

“We’re almost out of checks, too,” she said, figuring she might as well go for broke. If all went well, she wouldn’t have to call back for a long time.

“I’ll get those ordered for you,” Karen said. More tapping and shuffling came from the other side, then she cleared her throat. “You’ll receive the checks in about three weeks. I’ve added your daughter to the account, but we will need to get a copy of her state issued identification. I’m mailing out two forms that will need to be signed where indicated and returned to the bank to finish up.”

“Thanks. We’ll watch for them. I’ll send Savannah by so she can give you her driver’s license for the records.”

“Perfect, Missus Caleman.” Karen thanked her and hung up. Savannah dropped into her dad’s chair, breathing easier since that the deed was done. After a moment she sat up and began putting the ledger and things away. It hadn’t been so bad, she decided. She locked the safe and tried to put things back how she’d found them and went to the brighter part of the house with the key to the safe in hand.

The key had to be kept in a secure place. She went to her bedroom and dug through her closet, pulling out a purse and wallet she’d received for Christmas a few years back. She wasn’t the type to carry a purse, but the need arose. She put a hundred in twenties in the wallet and zipped it up inside the handbag. Dropping the key in a purse pocket didn’t feel right, so she paced around her room looking for a good place to hide it. She opened her wooden jewelry box and took out a necklace with a golden “S” pendant. The chain fit through the hole in the key nicely so she put it on, the small key lying flat behind her initial, warming quickly against her breastbone. Keeping it on her was a much better choice and lent a sense of ownership.

Mr. Williams pulled into the drive, his truck leaving from view when he stopped in the half-circle close to the porch. The day had flown by. He didn’t turn off the motor. A door slammed and then the front door to the house opened up as he drove off.

Savannah went downstairs to see how Molly’s visit went. Around the corner in the living room, she found Molly on the couch, cuddling two baby rabbits.

“They’re for my project,” she said with a huge, dopey looking smile. She held out one of the brown and white dots of kicking fluff for Savannah. A few little brown balls of rabbit poo fell from her arm onto the couch.

Try as she might to be angry at Molly for not asking about the rabbits, 4H, or to go over to Kim’s, Savannah couldn’t do it. She ran to the bathroom for a wad of toilet paper, picked up the droppings, ran back to flush them, and plopped on the couch with Molly in baby bunny heaven. They sat kissing and petting Molly’s new rabbits while Savannah decided on the best place to keep them. At a loss for a rabbit cage, and because Molly wouldn’t want them out of her sight, Savannah decided to help make them a lined box next to Molly’s bed. Mr. Williams had sent a can of rabbit pellets to get her started and they used one of the water tins left over from the last round of chicks they’d raised.

“So, can we talk about something?” Savannah asked. She sat on the bed next to Molly, who was on the floor with the box of bunnies.

“Sure,” Molly said without looking up.

“We need to tell each other when we’re going to go somewhere, or if we want to do things like this.” Savannah gestured to the rabbits.

“You’re not my mother, Savannah.”

“I know, and I’m not trying to be. But I’m the closest thing you’ve got, unless you’d like to contact the family in Alabama to try to find Mom.” Molly didn’t respond so she continued. “I don’t want to tell you what to do. I just want to make sure you’re okay and that things are taken care of here.”

“We don’t need her, anyway,” Molly said, quietly.

Savannah just watched her for a moment, her heart breaking for her sister for a new reason. She hated that Molly despised the thought of seeing their mother, but she also understood it very well. “You’re right. I’ll help you get whatever you need, okay?”

Molly nodded, resting her chin on a forearm. One of her rabbits nosed around, close to her fingers.

“I just need you to agree to talk to me about things and to let me know your plans.” Molly didn’t bother looking up. “Molly?”

“What?” she snapped.

“It’s important that we agree on that. It’s just the two of us. It can work, but we have to stay close and work together. The animals need us. We’re a team. We have to keep our secrets from other people.”

Molly looked up, staring from one eye to the other. “Yeah, we do.”

***

 

#

Chapter 20

Caroline had always said that making a grocery list was the best way to prepare for shopping. Savannah put Molly up to the task while she got ready for the trip to Woodland Park. Making the most of the drive was the responsible thing to do. They hit the feed store for bunny food, a real indoor cage, and other frivolous rabbit “equipment”, and then went to City Market and started filling a grocery cart with items on their list.

When they went into the produce area, Molly went a little overboard, grabbing so much fresh fruit Savannah worried it would go bad before they ate it all. She put the bag of oranges she’d picked up back to make room in their diet for cherries, grapes, and strawberries for Molly. It didn’t take that long working together, so soon they’d picked up all the items on their list and some other random food that looked good at the time. Molly smiled and joked around, which put Savannah at ease for the time being. The cherries went up front to munch on the way home.

Half way through Gillette Flats, most the way back, Molly asked Savannah to pull the Toyota to the roadside because she wasn’t feeling well. Her feet no more than hit the gravel and she unloaded about three dollars worth of cherries in a projectile geyser into the bar ditch.

Savannah ran around the side and tried to hold Molly’s hair back. She missed. Molly’s stomach heaved and up came another crimson outburst. Molly panted with her hands on her knees.

“Ouch,” Molly said. She spit a long rail of pink saliva to the ground.

“That was … enthusiastic. You okay?” Savannah rubbed her sister’s back to sooth her.

“Yeah. Totally out of the blue. I was worried you wouldn’t get off the road fast enough.” Molly stood with her hands on her hips, breathing deeply. A strand of gooey hair was plastered to her shirt. “Oh, grodule. I need a shower.”

“Being carsick sucks. We can stay here until you feel like you can get back in.” Savannah leaned against the fender well as a semi truck barreled past, rocking the Toyota in its wake.

Molly’s eyes watered, but she nodded toward the road. “Let’s get going. I’ll tell you if it’s going to happen again.”

Savannah drove a little too fast on the flat spots of the road and slowed down on the curves so she didn’t jostle Molly too much. They made it back without any complaints after the remaining bag of cherries was hidden from view. The girls each grabbed grocery sacks from the bed of the truck and went inside, where Molly shoved hers onto the kitchen table and ran upstairs. After a moment the upstairs toilet flushed. Savannah hoped the phone number for Dr. Jamieson was in the study just in case Molly’s stomach problems kept up.

Three more trips from outside and the rest of the groceries were finally brought in. A gentle rain began during the second trip, and by the time Savannah went out again it was a full mountain monsoon with fat hard drops falling so viciously she thought it was hail at first. In no time she was soaked to the bone. Molly met her in the kitchen with a towel, which Savannah took gratefully.

“I like our house and all, but I really wish we had a garage so we could park like, here,” she made a little box with her hands, illustrating the thought, “and walk inside a door there.” Molly pointed to the far side of the kitchen where it just so happened there was plenty of room for a door leading out since the kitchen had two exterior walls on that side.

“If the garage could be kept on that side of the kitchen, the doorway could be on the back of it, and we could use that one window to make into the door.”

“That would be cool,” Savannah agreed. She knelt on the floor to start stacking canned food in a cabinet. “I guess it would be nice to have a pantry out there. We could keep firewood out there, too. It’ll never be wet.”

“Ever wonder why the parents didn’t have one built?” As soon as the words left Molly’s mouth, her eyes went to the floor. Neither knew what to say for a moment. The thought of the loss of their parents took them both off guard.

“They had slave labor,” Savannah joked, trying to shake it off. The thought of actually fulfilling Molly’s idea churned in her head. The money was there, and so was the cause. She stood, rubbing the soreness out of her boney knees. Molly’s frown remained so she tried to change the vibe. “I’ve got the rest of this if you want to go get the new cage and take it up to your room. You know, get your little buddies moved into their new home?”

“Oh yeah,” Molly said. “Looks like the rain let up.” She grabbed the towel Savannah had used and left toward the front door while Savannah started folding up the paper sacks.

“If we had a garage, the floor wouldn’t be all wet right now,” Molly called from the mud room.

Savannah grinned. It was a good point.

  • * *

Daddy’s ledger showed a grain order about seven months ago. Earlier that afternoon Savannah had to scrape the bottom of the last barrel to get enough for all five horses. Letting the grain run out was a dumb, childish move. She’d have to spend a lot of time checking to make sure everything kept going as if Jack himself still ran the place. They’d never run out of anything before. She sipped at her mint tea and dug out the card for the feed store to make sure the last check written matched where she wanted to get grain. They were at the feed store earlier that day and she hadn’t remembered. Running the household and the farm stuff was a big deal.

The card for the cattle auction was in a plastic slot right under the one for the farrier. She pulled it out and read it. The thought of riding to count cows was daunting. She didn’t once tell Dad, but Savannah really couldn’t stand cows. There was no way to tell him that, knowing—or believing, rather, that they made their living off the cattle. That simply wasn’t the case anymore. Ranch life had once called for the raising of cattle to keep it operating, but that was before the change.

She leaned the card on the base of the phone, planning to call and sell off every last slobbering, stinking cow first thing in the morning and use that money for her plan to have a garage built. The fat phone book for their area contained listings for Colorado Springs, as well as their little town. She let her fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages and found too many ads for construction companies that built garages. In the morning she’d call the one with the biggest ad, Father and Sons, to talk with someone about getting started.

The daily mail contained a letter from the University of Colorado. The invitation was for something she’d never be able to do. The thought of more school after graduation wasn’t thrilling anyway, but now that the choice wasn’t an option, it looked pretty great. Many friends from school were already packing bags to go. She would stay put and take care of her sister and their home.

The packet from the college went into the trash can. Next was a thick envelope addressed to Dad from some guy with “Esq.” behind his name. She used the letter opener and carefully split the envelope along the top and began reading.

Four full pages later Savannah dropped the letter, which was actually divorce papers, teary eyed. She pulled out a black pen. Caroline Caleman wished to once more become Caroline Tearney. Jack could remain on the ranch and the two older children of the marriage would stay with him. The youngest child of the marriage would remain in the state of Alabama with his mother. A settlement of $750,000.00 would cover the division of any and all joint property. The amount of $375.00 each month would be sent to Caroline in Alabama for the care and support of the minor child, Chaz, who had no inclination to visit his father or sisters due to past trauma and abuse.

Savannah scrolled Jack’s name angrily on each marked line. She wrote out two checks as instructed, but made the second one out after calculating nine years of monthly payments for her little brother. She’d mail off the payments and the signed divorce papers first thing. Caroline would get what she wanted, and it would keep her away for good. Their mother would never hurt them again.

For one last time, Savannah dropped her face into her hands and cried about missing her family, the loss of her little brother breaking what was left of her heart. Molly was her responsibility, and so was every other living thing on the place, and it was all thanks to Witcher. She hated that she thought about the monster, but everything that happened was because of him. Overwhelmed, she laid her head on the desk, the cool wood soothing her hot cheek.

“It’s for the best,” Witcher said, softly.

Savannah jumped, breath catching in her chest hard enough to hurt. She narrowed her sight on him with swollen, watery eyes as he seated himself in one of the ornate chairs across the desk. She shook her head with a sarcastic laugh.

“What are you doing here?”

“I don’t like to hear you cry.” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “And I haven’t collected, yet. It’s clear you need time to become the lady of this house.”

“Thanks for thinking of me. Now get out.” For once, the fear wasn’t there. Anger about everything welled up, but Savannah did her best and cooled off. He remained in the chair, watching her with huge, soft eyes.

“You’re doing a good job here. Molly is happy.”

“Leave. Now.”

He rose and walked to face a bookcase. He ran his fingers over a wooden shelf. “After all that’s happened, you still won’t talk to me.” He turned to her. “I will help you here, Savannah. I will make it easier for you to help Molly.”

“This is all your fault!” She exploded at him. “Everything! Now there is a divorce. Our mother is divorcing Molly and me. I’ll never see my little brother again and it is all because of you.” Fresh tears ran down her cheeks. She grabbed the desk lamp and threw it at him with everything she had. He moved easily, letting the lamp crash into the books behind his head. They stared at each other while Savannah panted and sobbed.

“You’re angry.”

“No shit.”

“It’s okay to be angry, Savannah.” Witcher took his eyes off her and let his gaze roam the study. “I’ve always loved this part of the house.” The warmth was gone from his voice and one side of his mouth quirked in a half smile. “The secrecy. The books,” he said, walking toward the desk, “the photographs.”

Savannah crossed her arms, doing her best to quit crying.

“The books with photographs,” he said, watching her for a reaction.

“Please leave. Seriously, I want you to go.”

“Your anger is welcome, Savannah. It lets me be angry, too.” He leaned against the side of the desk. “Jack loved this room. He was happy you didn’t come here. Happy Caroline didn’t come here. He shared this place with Molly.”

“Don’t,” she said, pointing at his chest.

“He showed her his books,” he said, gesturing to the desk drawer. “And she liked them.”

Savannah grabbed the letter opener and rushed him, slashing at his throat and face. He grabbed her hands.

“You see, this is why we can’t be close. You let your anger ruin what we could be together.” He squeezed her wrist hard, shaking her arm. “Drop it.”

The little bones at the base of her hand screamed under the pressure. Afraid he would break her arm, she let the little blade slide free to clink against the floor. Before she could take another breath, his lips were on hers. He pressed every bit of his body against her hard. Soon, she’d forgotten about the lost breath, feeling each nerve ending sparking, awakening to him. He broke the kiss and looked deep into her eyes, gazing at every inch of her face.

He shoved her backwards hard.

She landed in the desk chair in a clumsy heap and struggled to get a mental grip.

He straightened out the wrinkles in his shirt, refastening the top button. She sat straight, glaring as he went back to the chair where he’d sat earlier.

“You need to find another way to vent your anger.”

“Not from my angle. You deserve it.”

“Let’s talk about that. I do not deserve your wrath.” “How can you say that?”

“I gave you sight. I became for you. I’ve gifted you in that way. I allowed you to know the attention of a man you find beautiful.”

“I’d rather have my glasses back. I never asked you for anything. I was fine without boys.”

“You asked me to save Molly. You begged me. Twice.”

“To stop doing what you’d done to her,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re the one who hurt her and I asked you to stop.”

“You enraged me. I acted on my anger, just as you act on yours when you try to hurt me.”

She sat back, mystified and at a loss for words.

“I think you understand,” he said, softening his voice. “It’s been three days since we last spoke. I was hopeful it would go better than last time.”

“I don’t want to talk to you. Stay away from me and my sister.”

“I’m afraid I cannot. You, I could but do not want to. But not Molly. I have an interest in her safety.” He walked around the side of the desk and knelt before her. “It’s you that I want to be with. I want you, Savannah, but I don’t need you. It’s desire for you I feel here,” he said, putting a hand over his heart. “It burns for you here.”

She didn’t respond, just watched him acting like he was honestly capable of loving her. He grasped her hands and pulled her up with him.

“You can love me. You’ve seen me.”

She braced herself, knowing what was next. He pulled her close and leaned in slowly, stopping just before letting their lips meet.

“You told me you would try. Please keep your word,” he whispered. “I will be everything for you.”

She watched him, so close and so beautiful, the image of her perfect man covering up the demon beneath. His touch was soft, just the way she’d once imagined it to be, and his voice almost like music. He smiled, watching her. He was right, if she gave in, just let herself go, there wouldn’t be more fighting or pain or fear for her sister. Even with him so close, her own pain lessened.

He continued to wait for her, to make her be the one who took the first step for the intimate feel of their lips together. Savannah shut her eyes and closed the space, gently placing her mouth against his. He reciprocated, moving so slowly that her whole body came to life, waiting to feel what he would do next. There was fear and anticipation. Kissing him was a small thing, but she was too afraid of him taking it further.

Witcher broke the kiss and placed a few little pecks over her cheeks. “When we are finally together, it will be you who comes to me.” He cupped her face, watching her eyes. “I hate to see you worry. I will not take you until you ask me.” He let his hands drop and stepped back.

A knock sounded on the thick door. “Savannah?” Molly called. She pulled the door open and walked in, looking from the busted lamp to the desk and then straight to where Savannah stood alone with cooling tears still on her face.

Savannah gathered her composure and bent for the lamp, but Molly beat her to it. The shade was crumpled, and Molly put a hand inside it, pressing out the indentation while holding awkward silence. She let go and Savannah placed it where it belonged on the desktop.

“I thought I heard something going on in here. Are you okay now?” Molly kept her distance, leaning against the bookcase, far from the desk.

“Sorry. I was upset. Mom sent divorce papers for Dad. I signed them.”

Molly nodded, a little too quickly for Savannah’s liking. Her lips drew so tight they were pale white. “Good riddance,” she said. “I hope she never comes back.”

Her anger was understandable, although Savannah had to wonder how much Molly thought about Chaz.

“Yeah. I’ll mail it off in the morning. Sorry if I worried you.”

Molly’s eyes fixed on the desk, wandering from drawer to drawer. She looked up, gaze full of unsaid thoughts, so much it made her look scared and panicky.

“I need to tell you something about Dad.”

“It’s okay Molly, I know. You don’t have to—”

“Savannah, I have to tell you!” she yelled. “It’s important that I just tell somebody and really, you need to know. Please just listen for a minute?”

Savannah closed her mouth and watched pain mount in her sister’s eyes, ready to catch her when she fell to pieces.

“He started doing things, I mean like sex stuff, a few years before we moved from the ranch. He didn’t hurt me or anything.” She looked at the carpet and breathed a huge sigh. “I watched the two of you and I thought you did the things with him, too, you know? You hugged him all the time, and so did I. When we moved here, we spent a lot of time in the study.” She stopped talking and walked to the door, which she shut hard and locked with two interior sliding bolts.

She faced Savannah again, pointing at the door. “He figured we were hidden away in here, but this isn’t where … it happened. He came into my room for that. Here, he just showed me magazines and asked me what I liked about them. He touched me and himself at the same time.”

Savannah held back tears, refusing to let any visuals cross her mind’s eye. Finally, she just nodded. “I guess I can understand why you’d need to tell someone. I’m glad you did.” Inside she cringed. She had to wonder if it would have been easy to believe her sister three years ago.

Molly nodded, but looked down at her shoes. Savannah jumped up and hugged her as close as she could.

“Thank you for saving me, Savannah. Mom didn’t believe me.”

“I wish I could have helped you sooner,” she said, holding her little sister tight.

After a moment, Molly stepped back. “Why don’t you come out of here for the night? Let’s make Jiffy Pop and watch TV.”

Savannah nodded. “Let me put things away and I’ll be right there.” She closed the ledger and put the paperwork in a drawer, then followed Molly out and they went to the kitchen.

“How are your bunnies doing?” Savannah dug inside a cupboard for the popcorn.

“Great,” Molly replied. She sat down at the table where a notebook was opened to a sketch. Savannah went over to see what she’d drawn.

“Wow, this is really good.” Savannah admired Molly’s drawing of a beaded dress design that was short in the front with a big raised collar and a long, sparkling train. The model was perfectly proportioned, the head faceless. “It’s a shame all you have is lined notebook paper. You’re great at this.”

“You think so?” Molly looked back at her sketch. “I’ve got more. I love drawing my ideas for dresses. I know they’re sort of wild, but somebody out there might like them.”

“Let’s add sketchbooks and colored pencils to the shopping list. We have to go back to town because I forgot to buy grain.”

“Dad ordered it with the alfalfa hay for the horses. Maybe you could just do that to get a lot all at once.”

“Good idea. I’ll have to pick some up tomorrow to last until I figure that out.” She went to the stove to start the burner. The digital clock stated it was already 9:47.

“Um, I don’t want any of that, if you don’t. Instead, I think I’m going to go round up all my drawings. Can we get some folders too? Maybe a binder for them?”

Relieved that Molly didn’t want to watch TV, Savannah shut the burner down and put the popcorn back in the cabinet. “I think that’s a great idea. I had no idea you were serious about designing dresses.” She took a seat at the table and leaned on an elbow.

“You look beat.” Molly smiled to let her know it wasn’t a put-down. “I’m pretty tired,” she admitted. Letting her emotions get the best of her wore her down quickly. Witcher always put her over the edge.

Molly nodded. “So, let’s not think about Mom anymore, okay? She left and that’s that. She’s happy and she’ll take good care of Chaz. It’s not worth being miserable over, really. Then she’d win.”

“I’ll try.” Savannah pulled her hair back from where it draped onto the table, fidgeting with the ends. “I miss Chaz a lot.”

“Yeah. But he’s with Mom and she won’t let anything bad happen to him. Honestly, I’m glad he wasn’t here for what happened with Dad.”

Savannah nodded, shaking it off before she got upset again. “Just a thought,” she said, pointing at the notebook, “if you join Four H, you could take sewing to brush up on what Mom taught us. That way maybe you could make some of these.”

“That would be awesome,” Molly said, with a nod. She picked up the book. “I’m headed upstairs. Gonna look for all my dresses and get them ready for a binder. Night.”

“Love you,” Savannah called after her.

“Love you, too.”

Savannah went to the front room and looked outside. Low clouds covered the moon, trailing the rainstorm earlier. The trees glistened in muted moonglow, their leaves still wet with glimmering droplets. She pulled the curtains, locked the front door and let her hands drop, looking at the deadbolt. Witcher could come and go, and there was nothing she could do about that. If a burglar, or worse, really wanted to, he could just bust in through a window. They’d be upstairs, two girls sleeping, pretty much defenseless and unknowing. That had to change. She had to protect her sister. Maybe the construction company could install a tough, iron gate and iron bars on the lower level windows.

All the worry wasn’t enough to fight off a fierce yawn. She went upstairs and walked past Molly’s room. The door was closed and light shone from the gap beneath. Prince and the Revolution jammed away from her sister’s cassette player. Without disturbing the bit of normalcy inside, she went to her room and changed for bed.

  • * *

Sleep was heavy and warm, her mind drifting away from current troubles to easier times where the surreal ruled and nothing mattered. There was a familiar faceless boy and he was good, the right boy. He picked her up, way above his head. She stretched her arms as high as she could, reaching for the clouds and the wind. They ran through tall hay together and wrestled, laughed and kissed, the tops of the grass feather soft wherever they touched. The breeze was cool, but wherever he touched her, heat ignited. She touched the places he liked, eagerly, wanting nothing more than to make him feel as good as he did her. It was a game they played together and had been for a long time, the game of touching, urging each other on the way she did to him, guiding his hands and him bringing her closer and closer to the best feeling ever. The game could only be played with him, but that was perfect because he was good, so she slid his hands wherever she wanted and he kept touching.

Something clicked evenly and the sound didn’t belong with them in their good place. Savannah tried to ignore it, but the ticking wouldn’t go away. He was touching so perfectly, but the noise picked at her and made her a little mad. She opened her eyes because the sound came from right in front of them.

Through dim light she saw the hands of her bedroom clock as it ticked away on the wall. She let her eyes close again, trying to enjoy the game. He was there and she was so close to finishing. They never stopped until she was done.

His placed his mouth over hers and slid his fingers inside. If he moved like that two more times he’d finish the game. She grasped the familiar soft skin of his shoulder and opened her eyes.

She grabbed Witcher’s wrist with a gasp. He held still but didn’t pull back.

“Are you sure?” he whispered.

She blinked, the reality that she was with him in the dream buzzing in her mind. They’d been touching each other … he wore nothing and her pajama bottoms were around one ankle. Her lace tee was pushed up and one nipple was cold and wet. He dipped his head and kissed it again, gently and perfectly keeping her hanging, the feeling dangling.

He faced her again and without a blink moved his hand just right. She shut her eyes and let it happen, her body tightening and trembling. She moaned. He kissed her and she clung to him until the last wave passed. He pulled his hands away and rolled her to her side, then wrapped his arms around her.

“You see, we can be so close we share thoughts, Savannah. I am good because it is right.”

Savannah didn’t respond, just watched the clock do its job, feeling filthy and far too awake and aware.

“Go back to sleep.”

“Get out of my bed.”

“And suddenly she’s all grown up.” Witcher kissed the tender skin on top of her shoulder.

Savannah ignored the way he’d become too damned good with sarcasm. The mattress rebounded from where he’d been and cold air fell around her back and legs but she didn’t care.

***

 

#

Chapter 21

“One, two, three.” They lifted their parents’ dresser and with Savannah walking backwards, and carried it down the hall and into the room where Chaz used to stay. Molly kicked a book out of the way. They set the piece down and on cue, they both moved to the front and pushed it against the wall. The room was full of furniture, with their parents’ bed leaning on a side with Chaz’s and all the family’s clothes tossed in trash bags and left inside the closet. Molly closed the door behind them and they went back to Jack and Caroline’s old bedroom, which from that point on would be Molly’s sewing and dress design room.

That morning they’d mailed off a huge order from the Montgomery Ward catalog. Two new Singer sewing machines would arrive, along with some new summer dresses for Molly. New curtains and throw rugs would change the feel of the main rooms, and new towels were always nice. The J.C. Penney catalog, the one that was usually only a Christmas wish book, was picked through, and an order went off to that company, too. Savannah did her best not to think about what was in the envelope to the lawyer in Alabama when she put the outgoing mail in the box and tipped the flag high.

She looked down the long, gravel and dirt driveway. The trees in the yard were a beautiful mixture of aspens and spruce, but some nice, dark purple flowers would look great lining the driveway. And she didn’t like mud. The drive should be paved. Rather, cobbled, like the streets she saw in photos of English country houses, and the half-circle drives were ringed with a low, rock walls that had stone steps leading to grand front entries. Molly would like that.

She walked back to the house, adding the improvements to the growing mental list of changes she wanted made, along with the new garage and security features for the place. Molly was in the kitchen, putting the last of the breakfast mess away.

“About ready?”

“Yep.” She tossed the dish rag in the sink.

Savannah picked up their list from the table and grabbed her purse. She fished for the keys. “I can’t wait to get your new clothes here so you’ll quit with the sweats every day,” she teased. Molly walked past and went to the door without a word.

“Kidding. It’s summer so I guess that means wear what you want.”

Molly didn’t respond. Savannah followed her to the Toyota, wondering why her sister was pissy when she was the one who’d had a bad night. Part of her wished she would have just slept through the whole thing like she imagined she’d done many times. At least that way she wouldn’t feel dirty and victimized and guilty for letting herself like it.

Doing her best to stow the memory, she climbed into her four-wheel-drive and they were off to get grain, cloth and thread, and some art supplies for Molly. The chores were done and the house was locked up. They’d be back in the early afternoon so Savannah could meet up with the construction guy to get started on the garage.

She let Molly pick out what she wanted to make herself feel better about teasing her earlier and bought a small, lighted drafting desk. A second hand furniture store close to the doughnut shop had two wooden sewing tables and a tall lamp with three moveable arms so Molly would have plenty of light to work by. Savannah just smiled and shook her head when Molly picked out bright purple and royal blue velvets, and black satin for her designs. Molly played it smart and grabbed a catalog to order from, along with a supply of needles and a new pair of scissors. Colored pencils and two different sizes of sketch pads, plus white erasers and a folding wooden easel were the last things she grabbed. They were finished and back on the road before noon, sipping 7-Up and chatting excitedly about Molly’s new “studio” room. Molly pulled out the craft catalog and opened it up.

“You should put that away until we’re out of the truck.”

Molly’s face dropped, smile dissolving as if she’d bitten her tongue.

“I’m sorry, Molly, but I’m just trying to save you from throwing up again.”

“I’m not car sick, Savannah.” Molly turned toward the window and watched trees go by.

“Well maybe not now, but reading—”

“Forget it!” Molly yelled. “Just leave me alone about it.”

“Okay. Jeez. You don’t have to get so snotty.”

Molly just shook her head.

They were quiet for the rest of the trip, and Savannah guessed Molly’s stomach wasn’t bothering her because she didn’t ask her to pull over. When Savannah turned off the motor in front of the house, Molly filled her arms with as much as she could carry and went toward the door. Savannah ran up the steps and unlocked it for her, then went back to drop the tailgate. Working together, but in silence, they unloaded the sewing tables and took them upstairs, followed by the lamp and boxed drafting table. Once it was all inside the room, Molly plugged in her little stereo and closed the door.

Savannah turned to head downstairs as the door jerked open again.

“I thought you said you bought a copy machine,” Molly called, from her room.

“I ordered one for the study.”

Molly closed her door again with no reply. Savannah took a deep breath to cool her temper and went outside. She drove around to the barn and unloaded the sacks of grain.

Reluctant to go back to the house, she walked the horses, two by two, over to the gate to the hay field and let them loose to graze and stretch out. The outside of the perimeter fencing was barbed wire, which she didn’t like. Now that she thought of it, the top of the hillside made up the little hay field. It was only about an acre, maybe a little more. The iron fencing around the front could be extended to that part of the property, and the horses would be a lot safer without the possibility of getting caught up in the wire. She watched the horses trot around for a moment then went back to the house.

Right on time, the construction people arrived in a big Ford truck. There were three men, and it was obvious which was the “father” of the trio from “Father and Sons”. His name was Michael.

“Are you parents around?” he asked.

“They’re dead,” Molly blurted.

Savannah went on like she’d heard nothing from her sister. “I am twenty years old and fully capable of handling any business at my home. My name is Savannah Caleman. You and your crew will be working directly with me, and I’m also the one who will sign your checks.”

“I see then.” Michael surprised her by offering a handshake and introducing his sons, without further argument.

Savannah smiled at him, careful not to seem overly grateful for his acceptance of her “take charge” attitude and white lie about her age. Molly perked right up when introductions went around, and one of the younger men, a redhead with a football player’s build, shook her hand, rather awkwardly.

“Sammy. It’s nice to meet you.”

Molly turned a pinkish shade of red and finally managed, “Hi.” She smiled and went back inside.

Savannah came to the rescue immediately. “So, can I show you where we want the garage? And do you guys install fencing and security systems?” They walked around the property, pointing and talking costs and time frames. The men measured and took photos, talking and taking notes on clipboards, so Savannah dropped back, leaning against the side of the house.

Witcher stepped from around the corner. “This is good,” he said. “You will feel safe with the fences.”

Savannah kept calm so she didn’t draw attention. “If only they could build something to keep you out, it would be perfect.”

He didn’t respond and it took a few seconds before Savannah let guilt force her to speak.

“I’m sorry. That was mean.”

“Accepted.” He smiled.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Certainly.” He let a shoulder rest against the wall beside her.

“Why didn’t you tell me our dad had been molesting Molly since before … you know, you?”

Witcher looked at the ground for a moment before he answered. “You wouldn’t have believed me anyway.”

“That’s completely true.” She sighed.

“Please listen carefully to what I say. I do not go without guilt in that. I played my part.” He took a deep breath. “I give you honesty from my heart. It beats heavy with what I’ve done, for my part in what he did. I gave him liberty to ask the ultimate of her.”

“I understand that.” She couldn’t help it, but she stood up and stepped away from him a little. “Please leave.”

“There’s more you should know, Savannah.” He closed the distance she’d gained.

“I really want you to disappear now,” she said, keeping her voice under control.

“Your good father asked the ultimate from her, and she accepted him of her own desire. Stop looking at her like she’s a child.”

“That’s enough!” Savannah yelled.

“Everything okay over there?” The elder of the builders called, looking concerned.

“Yeah, we’re okay, just a lover’s spat,” Witcher called. “Carry on, gents.” He turned to Savannah, whispering. “I’ve warned you about your anger. Look what you did. Best prepare your lies.” He disappeared around the side of the house.

Savannah approached the crew. “Everything’s fine. We just need to … um, talk it out.”

“He looks like a chump,” Sammy said.

“Sam, it’s not your business,” the father warned.

“It’s okay,” Savannah said. She turned to see if Witcher was gone, shaking her head. If there was one thing her damnably good looking “lover” didn’t look like, it was a chump.

“We’ll work it out later. What’s going on over here, anyway? Things going good?”

“Your new garage will be a good fit here. And I think we can help out a couple of other ways, too,” Michael said. “If you’re interested, I mean.”

“Of course I am,” she said, breaking into stride beside him to hear what the company had to offer. Michael was a quick businessman. He’d likely put together what Molly had said about their parents and guessed she had control of an inheritance. She’d accept his respect and keep the job under her control, however.

The family of builders was full-service, including maintenance work. There would be fences welded around the top of the property and gilt security bars installed on the windows, which made Savannah breathe a little easier. No, she didn’t mind if the men measured and left some markers while they were there. Construction would start immediately with a check for a down payment for the estimate of the garage. Michael and his sons were pleasant and ready to get started, stating they’d call and be back to start dirt work as soon as they could load up their equipment and schedule a concrete truck.

Savannah shook Michael’s hand as the crew prepared to leave.

“We’ll be in touch shortly,” he said.

“Perfect. We can’t wait to get started.” She smiled, barely containing her excitement at handling her first real business transaction with confidence.

“Miss Caleman, if you girls need anything before we get back out here, you just give us a call, okay?” Michael pulled keys from his pocket, waiting for her to respond.

“Of course,” she said. “Thank you, Michael.”

Each of the sons shook her hand as well and they headed out. Savannah locked the door behind them.

Moments later a knock sounded before she’d even made it out of the mudroom. Michael was at the door.

“Hi.” She waited for him to answer. Maybe they’d forgotten a tape measure or something.

“Miss Caleman, we were talking out there, and seeing as how you young ladies are bound and determined to get this done by your own means and all, one of us will plan to give you a call and stop by often until we get the security set up out here.”

“That’s very kind.” She smiled.

“Talk to you soon,” he said and went back toward his truck.

Savannah locked up again, thoughtfully. It was darned lucky she’d called a good company.

Molly was in the kitchen making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches out of leftover hotdog buns. She handed one to Savannah and they both went to the table.

“We should get some dogs. Like big dogs that bark when they see people at the gate. The kind that won’t chase livestock.” Their dad’s cattle dog was killed by a rattlesnake before they left the old ranch. They would no longer have the burden of counting cows, so they could pick good, protective security dogs.

“Let’s get a couple of beefy Rottweiler pups,” Molly offered around a sticky bite of sandwich. She slugged down a huge gulp of milk. “We can get them spiked collars and name them Smith and Wesson.” She laughed.

Savannah couldn’t help busting up herself.

After dinner, Molly went to her studio, so Savannah grabbed the cat painting from where it still leaned against the hearth and went to the study. She dropped the canvas on the floor behind the desk and sat down to organize paperwork. Molly was ensconced in her creative process, so she figured it was a good time to work on the books.

The study was silent, like always. Savannah opened up the ledger and turned on the desk lamp. It worked to light the desktop even though it was damaged and listed toward her a little. Cheaply made crap was due to be systematically replaced. That went for anything overly-used by one of their parents, as well. Neither of them needed the reminders in their home. She’d done away with the hand-made afghans from the couch just after ordering a new one.

The toilet flushed above, louder than any other sound that made it through the extra thick walls. The way the upstairs stool was the only household sound she ever heard was an oddity, but a good way to track her sister. Savannah dug for a pencil and arranged paperwork to balance the ledger. The toilet flushed again, just a couple minutes later.

Worrying about her little sister’s well-being had become a very familiar type of awareness. Sure, she’d worried a little before, about both her siblings, but it was just normal, big sisterly love kicking in. The worry that settled in her gut for the last few months wasn’t like the old stuff at all. Plain old anxiety had the power to ruin anything she had going. The current situation illustrated that perfectly. She closed up the ledger and headed upstairs to make sure Molly wasn’t sick again.

The bathroom door was locked. Gently, Savannah thumped the wood with the palm of her hand.

“Molly? You okay?”

One more flush, but no answer.

“Answer me, please. I’m just checking in with ya.”

The sink ran inside and a moment later Molly pulled the door open, an oversized smile on her face. “Hey,” she barked, a little too enthusiastically.

“You all right?”

“Yeah. Fine. Why?” Molly brushed past, but Savannah got a look at her flushed face and watery eyes. The smell of vomit lingered, trailing out on Molly’s footsteps.

“You were in there for a long time. Just making sure you didn’t need anything.”

“So now I can’t even use the damned bathroom without you up my butt?”

“Hey! Watch your mouth!”

“It’s none of your business. I can go to the bathroom ten times if I want to!” Molly shouted back.

Savannah stomped toward her. “You won’t talk to me that way, get it?” She poked at Molly’s chest for emphasis.

“You’re not my mother!” Molly slapped her hand away.

“I’m not trying to be. And you’re lucky I’m not. I’d kick your ass three ways from Sunday for being a nasty little shit.”

Molly’s mouth locked into a white line. The top of her sloppy pony tail trembled, betraying her emotions. She put her head down and ran past Savannah in the opposite direction, bumping shoulders hard enough that both girls thumped into walls. Keeping her momentum, Molly careened back into the bathroom just as her stomach heaved.

Savannah swallowed hard, hoping Molly had made it to the toilet. She leaned against the wall, waiting it out. The door never closed, but the stool flushed. Quietly, she decided to check.

Molly’s back was to the door and she leaned sideways against the sink cabinet, head hanging.

“We need to talk.” Savannah let the words out slowly. “I want to take you to Doctor Jamieson.”

“I don’t want to go to the doctor, Savannah. Really, I know this is hard for you to hear, but you need to butt out.” She ripped toilet paper from the mounted roll and blew her nose, which made her gag again, understandably.

“What if there’s something wrong and you need to be seen to get help?” Savannah asked after a moment.

“It’s nothing I can’t handle.”

“It will be easier to handle it together.”

“Fine!” She spun around and strode past Savannah and into her room. Savannah waited in the hall, unsure of what to do. Molly rumbled around and a few heavy things landed on the floor. Seconds later she came back out into the hall and thrust a pen of some kind at Savannah.

Savannah turned it over in her hand. The letters “E. P. T.” stood out in purple along the side.

“It’s positive.” Molly snatched the test stick back.

Savannah didn’t say anything, trying to be careful how she reacted. Time slowed a little, but she held composure. “Where did you get that?”

“I stole it when we were in Woodland.” Molly looked at her hands. Her body shook with effort to control her emotions. Molly wasn’t one to cry easily. She never had been. Savannah admired that about her.

“Does anyone else know?”

Molly shook her head.

“We’ll keep it that way.” Savannah chose her words with extreme care and spoke evenly. Somehow, shock didn’t floor her the way it should have. Maybe somewhere in her mind she’d known and pushed the idea away each time it came up. She wanted to do the same thing then, but the time had come to deal with it.

Molly nodded and handed over the pregnancy test.

“Have you thought about your options? I mean, whether you want to put it up for adoption or get an abortion?”

Molly turned on her with a look of shock. “How could you suggest such a thing? I’m keeping the baby.”

“Molly, think this through. There are so many concerns. You have to think about your future and the health—”

“I’m keeping the baby!” she yelled. “If you say another word I’ll split your lip. It’s not your choice.”

“Okay, calm down. I was just worried and want to help. We can talk later or whenever you need or want to.”

“Drop it, Savannah.” Molly glared at her hard.

“Why don’t you go lay down for a while? I’ll be up later.” She needed space to absorb. Solitude in which to explode.

“Okay,” she said, coming away from the wall.

“It’s going to be okay, Molly.” Savannah put her arms around her sister. Molly might not cry about it, but Savannah couldn’t help it.

“I feel so disgusting,” Molly said against her shoulder. For once she didn’t pull away. “It’s not okay.” Her voice broke and she buried her face, embarrassed.

Savannah hated that her little sister was so scared. It was more proof that nothing cosmic was fair, and she had no trouble placing blame. “I love you so much, Mol. There is no part of this that’s your fault. You’re not a bad person. You don’t deserve to feel bad about yourself.”

“I’m just scared, you know? What if the baby’s deformed, or not right some way? The poor little baby doesn’t deserve it, either.”

Savannah’s shoulder grew damp where Molly pressed into her shirt. Her sister had given things a lot of thought. “I’m sorry for saying that stuff about your sweats. I get it now.”

“It’s okay,” Molly said, breaking the hug.

“No, it not,” Savannah smiled, wiping her eyes. “I’m an ass.”

“Well, yeah,” Molly said, trying to smile back.

“I’m going to go make some tea and I’ll bring you a cup. Then I’m going to go finish up with the bills and stuff.”

“Okay.” Molly went to her room. Savannah watched her go and then went downstairs on shaky legs.

She clanked around the kitchen with the tea pot. The water boiled and she sunk a bag of mint tea in a mug for Molly, but it didn’t sound good to her anymore. She’d never been so angry in her life. She put the honey bear and a spoon on a dinner plate and headed back upstairs. Molly’s door was open and she appeared to be sleeping, so Savannah put the plate on her bed stand and slunk out, silently.

There had been fresh tears on her sister’s cheek. The urge to break something into little pieces was tough to suppress, but she remained quiet until she was outside, standing behind the old barn in lavender twilight. She grabbed an old shovel handle and swung it like a bat, cracking it hard against the thick corner of the barn. It felt great. She swung it again. Vibrations reverberated into her hands, but she embraced the pain, swinging over and over. The handle split where it hit the barn’s upright, so she choked up her grip and smashed it again, out of breath. Tears exploded down her cheeks. Through a watery gaze, she continued to bust up the shovel handle, which lasted well until her stomach muscles burned each time she twisted. The handle rapped hard, echoing back. Finally, it broke apart against the wall, splinters flying.

Savannah shoved the spent wood to the ground and grabbed a short tree branch from where it had fallen, starting anew. The branch came apart too quickly. She threw the ends into the trees. “Witcher!” she screamed.

“Savannah, stop,” he said, just behind her.

“You bastard,” she growled, charging him. One fist landed and his head turned. Her other hand connected with his face, scraping and gouging three deep troughs in his flesh with her nails. Black lines formed there, the crimson tone lost in the dim light. She continued to hit him, wild with rage. Her hair came unbound, flowing around her arms and shoulders in a tangle. She screamed and kept beating him with all her strength, not stopping to notice her hands bled and started to swell up.

“I hate you,” she said over and over as her hands kept pounding at him. He let her hit him, closing his eyes and bracing against every blow, but didn’t raise a hand to stop her or hit her in return. Near exhaustion, Savannah threw one, last fist too hard. She missed and lost her footing. He caught her before she fell forward.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It never mattered before.”

She shook his hands off her shoulder and waist, doubling over. After a few deep breaths, she stood up straight. “You’re sorry?” She laughed through hysteric tears. “Are you sure? How do you know what the hell you’re feeling?” She scraped hair away from her tear-streaked face, tucking thick strands behind her ears.

“It is remorse I feel, Savannah. I am truly sorry.”

“Molly doesn’t deserve this. You’ll never understand that. All you know is you wanted her. And now she’s paying for it.”

“I wanted you, not Molly. Jack is the one who wanted her. When I came to him I was certain he had lust for both of you. It was only for her and he would not be swayed.” He ran his hands over the marks marring his face and neck, leaving behind smooth, perfect skin. “You’ve shown me you can love me. That I needn’t use another to be with you. It’s the first time in my life.”

“I don’t believe anything you say.” Her stomach turned over and for a second she bent, expecting that she was going to be sick from overheating.

“I need you to believe me, Savannah. There were times he went to Molly without my persuasion. I was the push he needed when he took her, at first, and what you perceive as my guilt lies there. But please understand, your father went to her of his own solitary will and she accepted him.”

“Shut up!” she screamed. “You’re the lowest of any creature on the earth. I never want to see you again.” Hate and anger emboldening her, she approached him, feeling her chin tremble as she spoke. “I want you hanging in that cave. I want to come and watch you wither and I hope you weep with pain and loneliness.”

“You do not mean that, Savannah, you’re just upset—”

“That’s the thing with you,” she pointed at him, poking his chest. “I do mean it. I hate the sight of you, and you just don’t get it. I don’t want you. I hate that you touched me, and I loathe when you show up here. I never want to see you again, and I hate that my family is cursed with your presence.” She grinned, despite the way her upper lip was wet with snot. “Believe this. I hate you.”

“Savannah, don’t,” he said, holding up a pleading hand. “You need me. I will prove my love. You’re tearing me apart.” Tears built in his eyes, heartbreak creasing the face he pulled from her mind’s eye. “I cannot be, without you.”

“You make me want to die. I want you back in Hell, where you belong.”

Witcher took a step backward, leveling his gaze on her. She’d never seen such sadness in anyone, but that was what she’d wanted to accomplish. He deserved to know pain and she delighted in the fact that she was the one to give it to him.

“I will always love you, Savannah.”

He tipped his head back like he saw something above, something she couldn’t see. Wind kicked up, tossing his hair against his face. Unseen chains jerked his arms out to the side. Terror marred his face as light descended on him from above. He screamed. Savannah clamped her hands over her ears and slammed her eyes shut.

There was peace.

***

 

#

Chapter 22

Savannah filed away the court order announcing the finality of her parents’ divorce. The checks she’d mailed out to Caroline had cleared the bank the week after the papers she’d signed left the mailbox. The final order arrived just before Thanksgiving.

Jack Caleman had gone missing just after that, reported by Savannah and Molly, who tearfully declined state welfare intervention, but used the advice and state services to arrange an order deeming Savannah as Molly’s legal guardian. After their parents’ divorce order was reviewed by the state office, rumors abounded about Jack Caleman’s suicide. Savannah let it happen, seeing the nasty hemming and hawing of the locals as nothing but a tool to cement her grip on the Witcher Place. The estate and property was settled in Savannah’s name, with trusts set up for Molly and Chaz. Molly had turned sixteen and decided to forgo public school for the year.

Savannah ran the books with shrewd precision. The family money grew interest at a sufficient rate to put her at ease, and what was left of the Caleman cattle business was sold off, for good. The estate received a full facelift, with stables designed to incorporate the old barn. Father and Sons built all the requested additions and maintained the grounds impeccably. That peace of mind was worth every penny, especially since Savannah used her freedom to spend time with her sister, helping her prepare while the trees lost their leaves and frost coated the mornings.

Molly was the cutest pregnant girl ever. They worked together to transform the extra bedroom upstairs into a bright, sunny nursery with new curtains that Molly made herself. Being the guardian of her sister, Savannah called the school on Molly’s behalf. She’d finish her remaining credits the next year. Molly’s belly grew and so did Savannah’s apprehension about the health of the baby. Molly saw the life she carried as a product of incest and guilt. Savannah saw it as just that, but much more, considering. Witcher had told her the way it had gone between Molly and Jack. She hated to admit it, but that explained the way Molly wasn’t open to giving the baby up.

She worried away a path between the desk and the doorway pacing inside the study, trying to prepare and expect the worst from all angles. The Book of Genesis dictated the offspring of an angel and a human was a “giant” and that made sense, explaining the way Great Aunt Stella towered over her that day at the mental hospital. Savannah found no relief, knowing she could expect a monstrosity, a deformity, or one destined to be locked up with the deranged.

The nights were long as she lie awake with her mind drifting. Witcher’s face hung just beyond recognition, and she quickly flushed it away by counting sheep or thinking about something— anything else. She couldn’t risk expelling any energy on him. He—it fed off her thoughts, so she kept her mind and imagination reined in tightly. As far as she knew it was bound back down in Hell, and she intended to forget about it one day.

A month and about a week was all that remained until the baby was full term, by their math and estimations of date of conception. They sat on the sofa in the den, watching television and talking it over. A big bowl of popcorn rested in Molly’s lap. She giggled, watching the outline of a little foot stretch beneath her skin, nudging the side of the bowl so hard it nearly toppled to the floor.

“There’s always a lot more action at night,” she said, looking up to see if Savannah was watching.

Savannah grinned, focused on the spot where the baby kept kicking out. “So much energy.”

“I can’t believe it’s almost time.”

“You know, after the baby’s here, you really can go back to school. I’ll watch the baby. You’ll pick up where you left off last summer.”

“I’ll think about it,” Molly said.

Molly didn’t elaborate, so Savannah changed the subject. “Are you scared?”

“A little. I really can’t wait to get it over with, though. I miss sleeping on my belly.” She grabbed the remote and silenced the squawking television. “I’ve been thinking about when the baby comes.” She looked over at Savannah. “I don’t want to go to the hospital for the birth. We should do it here.”

“Hell no,” Savannah said, getting to her feet. She shook her head. “I want you at the hospital with a gajillion doctors running around. I want you to have pain medication and for the baby to be safe, Molly.”

“You said we could keep it a secret,” she pointed out.

“We’ll go to the ‘Springs. No one knows us up there.”

“That’s not keeping it secret, Savannah. Please? You said we could.”

“I didn’t mean no hospital or doctors for the birth!” she said, wide eyed.

“You can do it. You’ve pulled lots of calves and helped the mares and the barn cats.”

“You’re not a horse or a damned cat! Oh my God!”

Molly set the bowl on the couch cushion and got up. She walked straight up to Savannah. “This is my baby, not yours. I am having him or her here at our house and that’s the way it’s going to be. I am not going to a hospital.” She turned toward the staircase.

“I’ll call Doctor Jamieson,” Savannah threatened.

“It’s final, Savannah. You’ll either be there to help me when it’s time or you won’t. I think you’ll be there.”

“I will not,” Savannah called after her.

“Yes, you will.”

“Shit.” Savannah dropped onto the couch and put her head in her hands. Molly had to change her mind. There was no way she trusted herself to bring her little niece or nephew, or sibling, as it were, into the world. It said a lot that Molly trusted her so much. Or was it that Molly was so bent on keeping her pregnancy secret that she’d risk her own health, plus the baby’s, along with Savannah’s newly found sanity? She rose and began to pace before the couch. What if there really was something wrong with the baby when it was born? What if some defect prevented it from breathing or something and they couldn’t do anything for it and the worst happened? Or even worse than the worst, what if something happened to Molly?

“Aw God.” She dropped into the new, fluffy arm chair that replaced Jack’s recliner. “I can’t do this.”

  • * *

“Yes!” Molly waddled into the kitchen holding up a letter in one mittened hand. She’d been walking to the mailbox a few times a day for exercise. She knocked snow off her stocking hat, shaking it over the sink. The snow was so deep it caked over the top of her boots, soaking a ring into the sweats on each leg.

“What is it?” Savannah looked up from the book she was reading.

“Alistair Couture likes my designs!”

“Really?” Savannah asked, excited for her sister.

“Yep. Look.” Molly held out the letter.

“I’m so happy for you, Molly.” Savannah grinned, taking the letter.

Molly beamed, slowly taking an awkward seat at the table.

Savannah skimmed the letter and handed it back. “This is wonderful. I’m going to check out a business attorney for you, to make sure your stuff is protected and you get paid for it the way you should.”

“Good idea,” Molly said with a grunt. She crunched up, trying to get her snow boot off. “This storm is socked in good. It’s coming down hard out there. Is the wood bin full?”

“It’s full if we want a fire, but the furnace is cookin’ right along. Let it snow,” Savannah replied, marking her book. “Hold on so I can help you.” Savannah got up and took a knee at Molly’s feet. A slow circle of water spread down the leg of Molly’s sweats. “Oh, Molly,” she said, still holding onto her boot. “I think your water just broke.” Shit ….

“Oh no,” Molly said. She wrapped her arms around her belly. “It’s not time yet. What do we do?” Her face paled.

“We take you to the hospital. That’s what.” Savannah turned to the table, reaching over the chair where she’d been sitting to grab her purse, fully intending on fishing out the keys.

“No, no way,” Molly said, shaking her head. “No hospital and no strangers. It’s only a couple weeks early.” She breathed deeply, visibly trying to calm herself. “And look out there!” she yelled, pointing out the window at the snowstorm.

“Please, think about this. What if something goes wrong? I’m just … me,” Savannah reasoned, gesturing at herself.

“Uh uh.” Molly shook her head fast, then got really still. Her eyes grew big and she moved a hand to the bottom of her swollen belly. “It just got really tight right here, or … something.”

“What do you mean? Like a contraction?”

She nodded, enthusiastically.

“Molly, please, please get in the truck.”

Molly scrunched up her face and held her breath. Seconds ticked by and Savannah wondered about trying to drag her sister out and toss her in the Toyota. She eyed the rotary phone hanging on the wall. Beside it, the clock said 2:37. Outside, the sky was dark with the storm and snow was piling up fast.

“No, Savannah.” Molly gritted her teeth. “This is his baby, and I just can’t do it!” The spot of water grew into a flow that ran all the way to Molly’s sock. Savannah went to her knees and pulled the other boot off.

“Promise me you won’t tell anybody.” Molly stared without blinking. Little beads of sweat built where her bangs parted away from her forehead.

Savannah nodded. “I won’t. I promise.”

“I want to go to my room,” Molly said. Savannah helped her from the chair. The hysterics had passed from Molly’s voice, and it was time for her to get a grip, as well. She followed behind, watching her sister take one toddling step after another.

Once they were in Molly’s room, Savannah handed her a night shirt. Molly sat on the bed and started to change.

“I’m going to go get some towels and anything else I can think that we might need.” Molly nodded and Savannah took off down the hall to the linen closet. Reaching inside for a clean stack of towels and washcloths, she just concentrated on finding calm.

“She’s right. We can do this,” she said, then repeated it. Not that they had a real choice. Savannah ran to Molly’s room and put the stack on Molly’s dresser. Molly was changed into her long sleep shirt and had put her hair up in a twisted bun. The sweats were at her feet and apparently she’d planned to use them to catch fluids, standing over them. Savannah went around the bed and pulled the blankets off the mattress, leaving the sheet, which she covered with a double-layer of towels. She arranged the pillows against the headboard. Molly sat back against them.

“It’s going to be okay, Savannah,” Molly said. She made the face she had before, shutting her eyes tight and holding her breath. Once the contraction lightened, she exhaled and let her head fall back on the pillows.

Savannah covered Molly’s bare legs with the top sheet. “You’re the one who needs comforting, not me.”

“Thanks.” Molly raised up with her hands, settling in better.

“I’m going to go get a chair, okay?”

“Yeah.”

Savannah forced herself to walk instead of run. First-time mothers didn’t deliver quickly, in the animal world, at least. She scooted a chair from the kitchen to the base of the stairs, grabbed her book, and went back up. She sat with Molly for a brief time, then went to the nursery to retrieve a package of receiving blankets. She grabbed her Walkman and helped Molly get set up listening to Prince, hoping it would help her somehow. Savannah sat down again, watching the clock to see how long it was between Molly’s contractions. She jumped up and went for a pad and pencil to keep track.

The night had the possibility of stretching out long so she went to the kitchen to get something to eat. She had to keep her energy level up to be strong for Molly. Darkness fell a little early because of the foggy storm. Snow continued to fall, and everything was covered in a thickening blanket outside. The forecast called for at least another foot by morning, but by the way it stacked up, she figured there would be more by then. As it was, they had already been snowed in. She slapped together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and went to check on Molly, but her eyes caught on the telephone beside the doorway again.

Calling for an ambulance would betray her sister. On the other hand, it might save her life. She dropped the sandwich on the counter and grabbed the phone. She placed the receiver to her ear and reached to dial, but stopped. There was no dial tone. She put the phone back carefully so Molly wouldn’t hear and know she tried to call out. Somewhere between their house and town, the weight of the snow had likely broken another tree branch and downed the lines. Having electricity at that point was a serious blessing. She retrieved her sandwich and went back upstairs.

“That’s a lot of snow,” Molly said, looking out her window.

“How are you feeling?” Savannah asked, scooting the kitchen chair up to the bedside.

“Not great.” Molly settled back and closed her eyes. A contraction came on, steadily cramping, and all she did was cover her face with shaking hands. Savannah hated how she was trying to appear calm so she didn’t get scared. None of it was fair. Other sixteen-year-olds were worried about getting their driver’s licenses and prom, but not Molly. Their dad had ruined her life, with a little urging from beyond. But the blame was shared. Savannah should have done something, should have read in to the shifts in her sister’s demeanor. The very day Molly had withdrawn, she should have been there, asking questions until Molly broke and told her what had happened.

Molly’s eyes closed for seven minutes, and Savannah diligently scribed it down on her notepad. The amount of time continued to lessen from ten minutes, which was the previous time spanning between the contractions, going from nine, and practically skipping eight. During the wee hours she woke, scrunched up her face for about twenty seconds, and then dozed again. Savannah shifted in the hard dining table chair, wondering if the timing was normal.

Hours went by. The contractions didn’t come any faster than seven minutes. Twenty or so seconds of white knuckles wringing a small fistful of the bed sheet, and her sister closed her eyes again. The night droned on the same, and snow stacked up outside.

Savannah sat, paced, and ran to the kitchen for tea, her anxiety for Molly growing as the sky turned lavender and finally the grey clouds peeked through icy window panes. Little winces accompanied each bout of tensing. Molly didn’t rest in between any longer. After the pain lessened each time, she finally broke down, tears trailing to her chin as her emotions surged.

“What’s wrong?” Savannah asked, alarmed at the sight of tears. “Does it hurt worse?”

“I think I’m just tired of this. I want to get it over with and I’m scared and I hate it!” She tensed, bracing for pain. “Ow,” she moaned, barely audibly.

“You’ve got to be exhausted.” Savannah scooted her chair up by Molly’s side. “Good thing you’re so tough.” She smiled, giving her sister’s hand a squeeze.

“Ow,” Molly said again. She pulled her hand away, pushing up against the headboard so she sat up at an angle that looked entirely too straight to be comfortable. “Something’s happening. It moved down lower. I feel it in my back.” She panted, sucking air between her teeth. She took a deep breath, visibly trying to remain calm and under control.

“Maybe that means the baby’s coming soon. That’s a good thing.” Savannah came to her feet, which was a contrast to the way she told herself to be calm. “You need to scoot down so you’re laying back, Molly. Try to get more comfortable.” She offered a hand and held tight so her sister could move lower on the bed. A contraction came, and it must have been a doozy because Molly threw her head back, crying out and grasping at the towels covering the mattress at her sides.

“Breathe really deep, Molly. Your muscles need lots of oxygen to work hard. I think that will get it over with faster.” That’s what she’d learned during track practice, anyway. When she worked out on the weight machines the coach told her when to inhale and exhale during exercise so her blood carried lots of oxygen to her working muscles. Molly nodded, watching her and breathing in and out fast. Savannah grew lightheaded, trying to keep up in support.

Thankfully, nature took course, and fast. Savannah cried with Molly and replaced towels as the baby pushed its way to life. Once the head was exposed, and the kid had a giant skull from both their perspectives, the shoulders finally came and the rest of the little blue body sort of squirted out after the wider parts. Savannah wiped at all the fluids and the rough texture of the towel shocked the baby, who responded by sucking in a huge breath and wailing. Savannah looked from the huge pile of black and blue umbilical cord to Molly’s body.

“Is it a girl?” Molly asked, letting her soaked head fall onto the pillow.

“Of course it is,” Savannah responded. Somehow she’d known it would be all along. The baby raised her little fists, eyes slammed shut. Savannah grabbed two soft receiving blankets and wrapped her up tight, being careful not to pull on the cord.

Molly winced as an enormous bulb of placenta and blood oozed out. “Is she … okay?” The baby cried, and Savannah quickly moved to hand her over to her mom.

“She’s perfect, Molly.” Savannah couldn’t help but cry. Between exhaustion, relief, and awe at seeing her niece born, there wasn’t any stopping.

“Oh God, she’s beautiful,” Molly whispered around a sob. She used the corner of the blanket to wipe at a streak of fluid on a tiny, soft cheek.

Savannah’s eyes were drawn to the growing pool of blood at the foot of the bed. She grabbed the kitchen scissors and took to the job of hacking through the tough cord where it protruded from the receiving blankets. It took a little while, but she finally was able to fold over the deflated, raw end, which she secured with one of Molly’s pink hairclips.

“There we go,” Savannah said, looking up at Molly. Her sister’s eyes were closed but her arms held the little baby tight. “Hey,” she said, softly rocking Molly’s arm. She didn’t respond. “Molly?” Savannah bit back, trying not to call out too loudly so she didn’t scare anyone. Instead, she pulled on Molly’s arm. The sheets and towels continued to soak up blood, far, far too much.

“Oh God,” Savannah whispered. “Molly!” She shook her so hard it jostled the baby who began to cry with alarm, shaking her tiny fists. Savannah snatched her up and knelt, placing the bundle on the floor.

“Molly, wake up,” she wailed, pulling her sister up by limp shoulders. Molly fell forward. Savannah’s heart hit against her rib cage to the point of pain in her chest. She needed help.

Her legs shook to the point of numbness as she sprinted downstairs into the kitchen where she grabbed the telephone and dialed in nine, one, one.

There was still no sound from the other end. She jammed the hook button down and let it up again, listening for a dial tone, but empty silence was all there was. She tried again, looking out the window at piles of thick, wet snow. She slammed the phone back in its cradle and sprinted back upstairs.

Deep red soaked the sheets and towels nearly up past Molly’s hips. Checking for a pulse was almost impossible with trembling hands, and the poor lighting in the snow-grey tinted room, but after forever of holding her own breath, she saw a tiny beat beneath Molly’s ear.

“Thank God,” she said, grabbing one of Molly’s chilled hands. “Stay with me, please. You’re all that’s left.” A sob cramped her throat. The baby sniffled from beside the door. “And you’re little girl’s here now. She needs you, too.” Savannah left the bedside just long enough to retrieve the tiny bundle from the floor and tucked them both together beneath a dry blanket from Molly’s waist up. It was hard to look below that.

She rolled up the soaked towels and replaced them with dry ones atop the bloody mattress. Molly continued to hemorrhage from inside and all too soon another pool formed. Frantically, and hating it, Savannah checked for the source of the bleeding so she could put pressure there but there was no visible tear or cut. Her hands came away with a thick coat of angry blood.

“I don’t know what to do.” Her hands shook harder. Savannah ran to the head of the bed. “Molly?” The only response was a cat-like wail from the baby.

“Dear God, please!” Savannah screamed at the ceiling. “It’s not fair. Please don’t let her die,” she yelled, both pleading and full of rage. The baby quieted, and the only sound was her own uncontrollable helpless sobbing. The room remained darkened as the storm blocked out any hope of sunshine, continuing to douse the mountain top with more heavy, spring snow. Savannah slid onto the chair, taking a leaden seat with her face in her hands.

There was nothing she could do against fate’s plan. Being the oldest, Savannah should have got the family doctor involved from the start, despite whether Molly wanted it or not. Even if Molly had agreed to go to the hospital, labor came early and the storm wouldn’t let them past the driveway. She shouldn’t have listened to Molly, anyway. She should have called for an ambulance the very second her water broke. The medical team might have been able to get a snow plow to carve a path through to the house, but even then, they’d be late and she had to wonder if there would have been anything they could have done, if the phone was working when she tried to call the day before.

Molly’s baby began to cry again, a pitiful, helpless plea. Savannah crumbled, wrapping her head in her arms.

“Witcher.” His face formed in her mind, his dark eyes glimmering to life. “Please help me.” She picked up her head, looking past the bloody mess on the bed, straight up to the ceiling. “I need you.”

The baby quieted. Savannah listened hard but cold silence was all she found as she waited. Minutes passed. The wind kicked up and snow built in the corners of each window pane. The baby slept. Savannah stood and quietly left the room.

The air in the hallway was cold. Half way down the flight leading to the den, the wind howled, the breeze coming hard enough to puff a strand of hair from her shoulder. The front door hung wide, snow drifting in from outside.

Savannah slammed the door and leaned there for a moment, looking past the shallow mudroom into the den. “I should have burned this place to the ground.” She slid to the floor, sitting down in melting snow. If she’d succeeded, Molly would have been spared the ordeal. She would have been with someone more competent who would have got her into the doctor’s office for help during her pregnancy.

She opened her eyes. From that angle a dotted trail of wet animal tracks gleamed, leading away into the house. She scrambled to her feet and hit the closest light switch, then grabbed Jack’s shotgun from the corner beside the door, where it had stood at the ready during the larger part of the last year.

Huge, drying paw prints led her back up the stairs to her own bedroom door where she stood panting with her heart in her throat, thankful whatever animal hadn’t gone for Molly’s room. The door swung open, but the room was dark because of her drawn curtains. She inhaled steadily, stepping inside. Her eyes refused to adjust to the dim light fast enough. Gun leveled, she kept watch on the room, fishing against the wall with an elbow for the light switch. The scent of rotten meat hit her senses like a truck. That changed things. She held back a flood of escaping bile, fear mounting and butting heads with resolution.

Savannah lowered the shotgun and closed the door.

“Savannah.” Witcher came away from shadow. “I’ve missed you.” He remained in silhouette, framed by bleak grey light from a covered window. She turned on the light.

Something was different about him. He seemed slightly taller, or just altogether a bigger man, his presence claiming the room. The same dark eyes watched her, brimming with feeling and emotion she didn’t want to hear about. Black pants and a dark burgundy shirt were just as familiar. He stepped forward and she followed him into Molly’s room.

“This is God’s will. You would go against His plan?” He looked up from Molly, watching Savannah closely.

“Yes,” she answered. “I want her to live.”

“Then you are no different than I.”

“I know,” she said quietly.

“Leave us.”

Savannah looked up at him, torn between trust and fear for her sister.

“If you want me to save her, you’re not helping.” He nodded toward the door.

She brushed past him and placed a kiss against the cold skin of Molly’s cheek. “I love you, Molly.”

Savannah left them and slid down the wall to the floor outside in the hall. She cradled her head, not daring to pray. Moments later, Witcher came to stand before her.

“Her soul clung by a strand.”

Everything inside Savannah twisted. She cried with gratitude, but wept with loathing.

“My patience is at an end. Deny me one time and I’ll take her.”

Savannah nodded and ran to Molly’s room. He could work out the details on his own.

***

 

#

Chapter 23

Victoria Jean Caleman wrapped her tiny grip around her Aunt Savannah’s pinky finger, falling into the kind of deep sleep known only to an infant with a full belly. Savannah paced the hallway while Molly showered, taking her first time babysitting her beautiful niece. She cradled Victoria and stepped softly, stopping each couple of paces to place another kiss on the baby’s forehead.

“Keep that up and she’ll never grow any hair,” Molly said, standing in the open doorway. She grinned, toweling her own hair. “I’ll be done in just a second.”

“Take your time,” Savannah whispered, heading back down the hall. Once her back was to Molly, she smiled and kissed Victoria again, rocking as she walked. At the end of the hall her bedroom door creaked open and Savannah’s heart dropped.

She kept pace, and once beside her room she poked her head inside to see Witcher sitting on the foot of her bed. He smiled. Quickly, she peeked back out toward the bathroom. The door down there was still closed, so Savannah went back inside, but left her door open wide.

She didn’t get too close to Witcher, but was in good earshot of a whisper. She continued to rock Victoria, staring over the little bundle defensively.

“Congratulations,” he said, with a gentle smile.

“Thank you.” She gave him a once-over, gaze hanging on the way his shirt was unbuttoned to show the perfect expanse of thick, bronze muscle. He was really bringing it, still hadn’t given up.

“I’ve given you space. It is now time to fulfill your promise to me.”

She nodded, averting her eyes to her little niece.

“Molly and Victoria will have my protection. It will be easy for you. Using my name, simply stand before my true form and state that you wish to free me.” He stood, peering down at the baby and then looking at her. “You have my promise in exchange for your own.”

“I need a few minutes to get it together here. I’ll tell Molly I need to go to town.”

“I’ll be outside the gate.”

“Savannah?” Molly called. “Where’d everybody go?”

Savannah turned for the hallway to make an appearance rather than call out and wake Victoria. Molly met her outside the bedroom, holding her hands out to take her daughter.

“How’s she doing?” she asked.

“Sleeping like a rock,” Savannah answered, carefully prying the baby’s fingers off her pinky. She took her hair out of the clip since the clingy little hands were at a distance. Molly tucked the baby in close, not appearing clumsy or naïve at all.

“She ate like a beast.” Molly smiled. “See? I told you we could do it by ourselves,” she said, and turned toward the nursery.

“I’m so proud of you.” Savannah let the words out, fighting tears.

“Thanks.” Molly smiled over a shoulder. “You okay?”

Savannah nodded. “I’m going to make a run to town and take care of a couple things. I’ll be home before dark, though.”

Molly nodded. “Okay.”

“You sure?”

Molly turned around, shaking her head. “We’ll be fine, Vannie.” She smiled.

Savannah headed downstairs to get ready to go meet Witcher, completely full of dread and apprehension.

  • * *

About thirty feet past the gate Savannah pulled the Toyota to the side while Witcher got in, as if he was a real person hitching a ride. The temperature didn’t climb past thirty degrees, but the sun shone, casting frozen white rays across the snowy mountain and iced pines. She was bundled up in her winter coat and gloves, but he was wearing jeans and a sweater. If she’d given a crap, she would have asked him if he was freezing.

“I don’t know where I’m supposed to be going.” She put the truck in first and eased back out onto the snow packed road.

“Go toward the Cripple Creek, he said, trying to find a way to situate his long legs and thick-soled boots.

The Cripple Creek it is.”

“There is a path on the mountain ahead. When I tell you, we will turn and go that way. We will walk after that.”

Savannah didn’t respond, just concentrated on driving safely over the icy road despite the way her mind raced. She didn’t know why he didn’t simply try to drag her back down into the mining shaft. Maybe he’d learned and didn’t want to hurt her. Whatever the reason, she wasn’t going to complain. Driving and walking was a large improvement over being bounced off rocks and drug around by a wrist. They had to be almost there. She didn’t want to think of what she was about to do, so she counted trees and didn’t let her mind wander, snuffing the idea of running over the side of the road and down the mountain side. The only one who’d suffer or die was her.

Once they made it to the highway she was able to speed up, but just a little because the dark side of each switchback was a new sheet of ice, untouched by the warmth of the sun. About two miles later, Witcher put up a hand, signaling her to slow down. She took a right onto a dirt road that barely showed through the snow. A few minutes later he pointed out his window.

“There,” he said, and gestured to a flat spot off the side of the road. Trees and boulders banked the turn-out, sporadic clusters of naked aspens giving way to the tall pine forest. Bolstered piles of mine tailing jutted up from the mountain. Not so much as a deer trail was cut through. He’d instructed her to take him to the back side of one of the district’s largest abandoned mines.

“If I leave the truck here on the side of the road, the sheriff’s department might get concerned,” she warned. Hiking into the frozen mountainside would be a bitch, to boot. She looked behind them to see if any other driver would notice them pulling off. “Can we get far enough so no one will see where we park?”

“No. This is where to stop. If we see other humans, you will tell them you are not in need of any help.”

She slammed the truck into first and killed the engine, determined to get it over with. He reached for his door and looked over at her, shadow catching him at an odd angle, darkening his eyes to black. For a moment, she saw his mouth full of fangs. She slammed her eyes shut.

I can’t let this monster loose ….

Opening one eye a little, she was ready to dive from the truck and run. The demon was gone from his face, but she was rattled and panicked, remembering the potential of what she was about to set free on the world.

Witcher regarded her as if he read her mind. “Let’s go, Savannah,” he said.

Savannah shook her head. “I can’t do this.” She looked away, wishing he’d always appear as a monster rather than the mortal, emotional man he’d become. It certainly helped her hold resolve. “I just remembered you with the face of a monster and there’s no way—”

“You would betray your promise?”

“Yes.”

“We had an agreement.” His anger was barely held back. “Even before I saved Molly. It was my Father’s will and I went against it for you.”

“There’s a reason you were punished like this. If you’re freed, will you be this guy?” She gestured to him. “Or will you be that creature down there, who apparently did something very, very wrong to be strung up that way?”

“The choice will be of my own will but I assure you, I am good.”

“I understand you want me to trust you but you already screwed up, big time. I can’t do something to allow that to happen again.” She locked her eyes on his. “I don’t believe you can be the good … person it’ll take to stop menacing people.”

He watched her, a bit stunned. “I will get what I want. The right way, or my way. It’s your choice.”

“I’ll take my chances. I won’t be the reason you get to torture people.”

His eyes turned to black, shining like a lake on a moonless night. He smiled with a mouth full of fangs, just like her conscious showed moments before. He’d made up his mind.

Witcher screamed with the ferocity of a cornered mountain lion. Savannah braced herself, throwing her arms over her head when he lunged onto her. A heavy thump sounded when her head struck the door glass. Her skull felt like it split from the impact, the pain fading slightly when his fangs sunk deep into the flesh above her collarbone. She swung at him and tried to fight back, but his jaw clamped down hard, the pressure sending her to a fetal position. She screamed until she was out of air. Her hand was smashed and pinned the wrong way, her knuckles brushing the top of her forearm. The last sensation she knew was soft fur and the crush of all his weight pushing her outside the open truck door.

  • * *

Pain flared in Savannah’s arm. She tried to pull her wrist back from the hands that gripped it too hard. She opened her eyes, blinking her surroundings into focus, again laying on her side on cold rocks. Witcher had her hand, inspecting the lumpy, bruised flesh.

“Let go!” she yelled, jerking her arm away.

“I will heal you,” he said. “I am so sorry to hurt you, but you make me do it.”

“Screw you,” she grated.

Witcher jerked her to her feet. “I have no more patience,” he growled.

“I don’t care.”

“Your biggest mistake.” He yanked her up by the top of her jacket, spinning her to face the winged skeleton.

Savannah did her damnedest to get away from him, staring in terror at the huge, blackened, empty eye sockets in the skull’s face.

“You are a betrayer, Savannah. You deserve this pain and more. You’re not good. You go against His will. You killed your good father and do not respect mine. You should consider yourself fortunate to have my attentions. Now pay your debt. Restore a modicum of the faith I once had in you.”

“I can’t! It’s not right.” She pulled at his grip on her coat with her good hand, but he held her off balance.

“Of course it’s right. Don’t fool yourself into thinking I won’t kill you and haunt your sweet sister into an early grave if you deny me again. I’ve given you all my faith. I’ve vowed to stop my former ways for you. It is you now, Savannah. You must do the right thing and fulfill your promise.”

“I can’t,” she said. “Please. I think you broke my wrist.”

He lowered her to a foothold and released her so she could stand. She held still, watching him and cradling her wrist. He continued softly.

“You know I am good. You love me. You told me so.” He reached out to pull a strand of hair away from her tear-stained cheek.

She looked away, ashamed of her lie.

“It is unnecessary for me to hurt you. If you’d kept your promise, I wouldn’t have done it.”

Savannah didn’t answer, doing her best not to shake from pain-induced adrenaline.

“Give me your hand,” he said.

“No. Please, I can’t handle any more.”

“I will make it go away.” She didn’t move so he grabbed her arm and wrapped her wrist in his hands. She cried, feeling like she might pass out from the pain. Within a few long seconds, the throbbing subsided.

He released her. “Better?”

She nodded, holding back nausea that threatened to empty her stomach. She breathed deeply, thankful he gave her a few moments of peace to calm down. She straightened her coat and attempted to gather herself, wiping away tears.

“Are you okay?” he asked, softly.

Savannah nodded. “Sort of.”

“That’s good to hear,” he said with a smile. In an instant he grabbed her arm. Gripping it in both hands, he easily snapped her wrist again. He released her and she fell to the ground shrieking. The pain was unbearable, far worse than the first time. Muscle spasmed through her shoulder and into her back. Bile crept into her mouth and she rolled onto her side as a geyser of vomit spewed through her mouth and nose. She curled up, coughing.

Darkness threatened to take over. With her broken arm tucked against her chest, she tightened into a ball, certain she’d finally been pushed past the point of no return.

Witcher took a knee beside her. He reached to clear hair from her face and she jerked away from his touch.

“Stay away from me,” she screamed.

“Look at me,” he said, pulling her up to sitting. Heavy sobs shook her, but she did her best to do exactly as he said to keep from giving him another reason to hurt her more. Tears ran freely down his face and he appeared to be grief stricken.

“I hated to do that to you,” he said, bringing her into his arms. He pulled her to standing, holding tight and stroking her hair while she cried into his shoulder. With a gentle touch, he pulled the pain away. Bone knit inside her skin, the grating sensation making her knees give. Witcher held her next to him, making sure her feet were secured beneath her again.

Savannah couldn’t care less if she was standing or lying flat on her back. Her heart pounded so fast she didn’t know why she wasn’t dead from a heart attack. Puke streaked her face and his shirt.

Witcher cupped her cheek and turned her face up to his. Unshed tears stacked up in his eyes and his nose was red. His chin trembled.

“But if you don’t free me, I will break that wrist again, and then the other one.” He kissed her forehead. “And then a finger or two, and maybe one of your legs.”

Savannah backed away, fighting shock.

“If you still won’t, perhaps I’ll crush your jaw or pelvis.” He ran his fingers over his eyes to clear away tears. “This is your choice. I will see my will is done if I have to pummel your bones into powder as your sister watches.” He smiled through tears, nodding.

A huge sob wracked her body. She covered her face with her hands, imagining him hurting her that way, reaching for more parts of her body to maim and fracture while Molly screamed and begged him to stop.

“I will see that you are forced to uphold your promise and take back your lies. Justice will be mine.” He ripped her hand away from her face. “Agreed?”

She nodded quickly.

Witcher stepped back, watching her closely while his emotions went stoic. “State that you wish to free me now. This is your chance to repent, to make right of your wrongs, the murder, your lies. Save yourself from punishment.”

He turned toward his hanging, macabre corpse, looking at the withered skeleton and wasted body. “This can go on no longer, lest I be lost, truly forever gone to my Father. Do the right thing, Savannah, please. Only your sincere wish for my freedom can break down the chains.”

She held her breath, looking from Witcher in human form to Val-Kryel, hanging in torture. She had done horrible things, just like he had. Killing her father was a good example. She owed him for Molly’s life. There was no choice. She hoped for good to prevail rather than giving him reason to revisit horror. There was no backing away from what she’d done when her back was against the wall.

“I wish to free you, Val-Kryel, on the condition that you provide peace for my family, both now and for all the future years to come.”

Witcher took a deep breath, closing his eyes. “Close enough.” Once the words left his mouth he simply faded out.

Minutes ticked by with no sound and no sign of him. Savannah considered that she’d possibly done something wrong and it hadn’t worked.

A low groan came from the angel. It gasped breath into invisible lungs. The head fell forward and lolled to the side.

Dear God, what have I done?

Metal fell loose from rock overhead, mammoth chains released from above. Savannah ducked back, looking beneath a ledge in the rock wall for a good place to gain cover. Links stretched tight, screaming loose from bolts. Gravel and ice sprayed, a few stray rocks striking her knees and shins. Savannah skittered back until jagged rock smashed against her back. Another barrage of granite broke loose. She clutched her knees to the icy dampness of her torn up coat. The space around her was dim with only light coming in from above, shining white on the giant skull of the winged skeleton as it fought to free itself from bonds.

The rock-framed skylight fractured and fell, letting more sun burst down on the skeleton. It stilled and chaos subsided, the face tilted, taking in the golden light. The thing’s right arm was loose but unmoving, resting against the ribcage. One enormous chain streamed from the cuffed wrist to the floor. Savannah squinted, shielding her eyes from the bright rays. Bone glistened with fluid, like a raincloud had unleashed overhead.

“Witcher?” she called. The fear of being alone and vulnerable in the quaking mountain was worse than being with him. She’d learned to keep the bastard in her line of sight. He didn’t answer and wasn’t within view. She searched the hanging giant for any trace of him.

The finger bones twitched, glossy and dripping, curling into a fist below the loosened cuff. The head rolled then picked up, the neck vertebrae popping together like cogs. Bone thickened and sacs of organs inflated in cavities, the sounds reminding her of tossing slop out to the hens, the various clumps of spoiled food slapping to the dirt. Muscle formed, sinewy at first but as more of the fluid ran down into joints, cartilage and bulk popped into place. The loose arm contracted, jerking the freed chain into motion, swinging the length in long, swooping arcs until it came up off the rock floor, the massive face turned toward the sun. With a groan, it flung the chain hard, the links flying upward and bashing against the ceiling and walls. Boulders and sand screamed free and more of the sky poured in, sunlight filling each part of the carved out room with golden rays. The huge wings beat slowly, wind huffing Savannah’s hair away from her shoulders. She continued to protect her head with her arms, peeking through a gap while at the same time pushing back with her feet, scooting into the tunnel she’d used before for shelter from flying rock and swinging chains.

By the second, more and more bulk formed into a winged giant. Tawny skin knitted across the broad expanse of chest, one massive arm still swinging the chain, breaking the mountain apart. Each time the arm contracted, the wings beat hard and the chains that still bound remaining limbs groaned against the bolts holding them in place. As the body gained strength, links broke or bolts were ripped free. One bare foot planted on the rock level. He crouched with one knee bent, touching the floor then twisted hard, yanking the last chain loose to free his left arm with a shower of rocks. Cuffs and limp chains hung from each ankle and wrist, and a massive gilt collar remained around his neck, gleaming platinum in the sun. His head fell forward, chin to chest, long falls of light and dark brown hair flowing over both shoulders.

The chaos fell away, the last of the rocks settling against the ground. He grasped the chain that was attached to his collar and yanked it free, rolling his face to the sun. He inhaled, nostrils flaring and chest inflating with life.

Val-Kryel leveled his face in her direction. Familiar eyes opened, the same color as Witcher’s weaved in a pool of twisting silver and bronze, so full of life that they spoke his recognition of her.

Savannah let her hands drop, watching him. He was perfect, if she ignored the wings. Each sculpted muscle flowed beneath flawless, bronze skin. She imagined his face was a lot like what Jesus had looked like, although she clearly saw the familiarity of the one she knew as Witcher in his features. There was no hair anywhere on his body except for his scalp. The perfection was as intimidating as his size. It was hard imagining such a being carrying out cruelty.

She clamored to her feet, steadying by hanging onto protruding rocks on the wall. Val-Kryel stepped forward, watching her closely. When he was close, he went to a knee to make them closer to the same height. His wings folded together curling in at his knees, becoming compact and out of the way of his arms. He lowered his head, staring into her eyes.

“Thank you,” he said. The tone of his voice was deep and smooth. “I will be better this time. I promise you kindness.”

She hung onto the wall with every cell in her body, afraid to speak.

He watched her just a moment longer, then reached for her arm.

“Wait! What are you doing?”

“Step forth, Savannah.”

When she came into the clear, he locked a hand around one of her forearms.

“Hey! No!” She yanked away.

“You’re frightened.” He stood up so his sternum was just above her head.

So many things came to mind, all of the ways she was horrified by the sheer size of him. The wings, the unnatural depth and color of his eyes, and the damned perfection were too much to deal with. Involuntary motions pulled her arms around herself as she wished she could stop staring at him. She concentrated on keeping her gaze above his collarbone, and there was undeniable evidence on his face, showing worry and disappointment that she was scared to death of him.

He pushed a long fall of hair to his back, then backed away toward the dark side of the cavern. A moment later he disappeared into darkness.

Savannah listened hard around the pounding of her heart, hoping he’d gone. Only the sound of dripping water echoed around her. She peeled free of the wall and stepped into the light. Rocks had fallen into heaps, but none were tall enough to help her climb out. Through the window, clouds loomed above. The scent of a mountain storm drifted down, the chill so heavy it penetrated her coat. Her fingers were numb and her boots felt like the leather was made of ice water.

“Savannah,” Witcher said, striding from the darkness beside her.

“Dammit,” she yelped, again trembling to the bone.

He didn’t respond, just watched her. He stood quite a bit taller than before, and his hair was longer. More about him had changed, but she couldn’t put a finger on it. Even the way he watched her was different.

He reached for one of her hands, which he turned over and placed a soft kiss inside.

“Are you hurt?”

Savannah shook her head, eyes locked with his.

“Good.”

“Will you take me home now?” She looked from him back toward the cavern.

“Are you cold?” he asked. His gaze caught on her lips and stayed there.

“No, not really,” she said.

He moved to stand right in front of her, so close his breath brushed her cheek. “Good.”

If there was a certain way an angel should be, she looked at one right then, utterly spellbound. The familiar feeling of accepting her insanity crept in. She couldn’t imagine him ever doing anything mean or hateful to anyone. She should be afraid and hate him, no matter how he appeared, but she couldn’t bring herself to remember why.

“Such a treasure.” Apparently the confusion was plain on her face because he backed away. “I will wait for you to come to me.”

Part of her wanted to scream a protest and the rest of her was ever so grateful for his patience. She grew cold when he pulled his hands away, frozen, remembering his touch the night she’d dreamed of being with him. The memory circled her mind, and she stood paralyzed and trembling. She drew a breath that gusted in, shaky and loud.

“You’re still scared,” he said, softly.

She nodded. “I don’t know what to think.” Lying to appear tough would do no good when she shook like a leaf and wondered if she might bust out in tears any second.

“That is understandable. I promise you, I am not the same creature.”

“Please, just take me home.”

Witcher sighed, letting his gaze drop. “I’ll take you out of here, but this is not what I want.”

Without warning, Witcher grabbed one of her arms and yanked her off the rocky floor. The bright sky dimmed out other detail and through the distortion he began to grow taller as his clothes fell away, dissolving into the air. The giant wings slung free above his shoulders, and he didn’t take his eyes from the sky above. Savannah screamed as he launched upward, dragging her through the busted out hole in the rocks overhead. Wind blasted against her bare midriff, and the sun became so bright that her eyes watered. More wind hit her from above as he pumped his wings. Her boots hung above the snow, and her mind refused to register how the ground grew farther away and tree tops whipped by beneath them.

The weight of her body twisted in a spiral below, but his grip was relentless. Cold and wind made her eyes water as air screamed by her ears. A moment later they slowed and got closer to the ground beside her truck. Savannah blinked hard to clear the water from her eyes.

He released her and she fell onto her bottom with a solid thud. Icy air bit into her ears and cheeks. She got to her feet, searching. There wasn’t an angel in sight. Blue contrasted against the pines and snow, the top of her Toyota peeking between the trees close by.

Savannah waited, trying to accept that he’d really gone. Freedom was hers, cold and silent. She went with the feeling and dove inside the cab and slammed the door. After a few moments of trying to get her frozen fingers to work, she started the motor and went home.

After finally pulling into the garage, she went inside, excited to see her sister but feeling the exhausting aftereffects of her meeting with Witcher. The television was on and from the sounds Molly was watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Victoria slept in her bassinet beside the couch.

“How’d it go?” Molly asked, still engrossed in the film.

“Good. How’s it going here?” Savannah leaned over the arm of the couch, peering at the sleeping baby.

“Okay. I didn’t hear you pull up.” Molly looked up, her eyes settling on Savannah’s shoulder. “You have sticks in your hair.” She laughed and looked back at the screen.

“It’s a little windy out,” she said, pulling a twig free. “Must have got stuck there when I got out of the truck in town.”

Molly nodded, clueless to what had gone on and that was more than okay with her.

“I’m going to go lay down for a while.” Savannah let Molly’s attention drift back to her movie and went upstairs to shower and change. The sounds from the television carried in through the heater vent. She sat on her bed, numb, and happy she was alone. She closed her eyes and laid back.

She’d had to lie, but it wasn’t a big deal in the grand scheme. Things hadn’t gone okay. She’d undone God’s work, and that worried the hell out of her. The good part was Witcher was gone and hopefully wouldn’t be back unless she called him. That would be about the time hell froze over. For the time being, she could rest easy. She yawned and fell asleep fast.

  • * *

“Do you remember when you told me you loved me?” Witcher whispered, his voice silk against the tender skin below her ear. Savannah pulled the covers over her head, determined to go back to sleep.

The little reading lamp beside the bed made her blankets into a glowing dome of purple light. The TV still rambled on downstairs. Dull pain throbbed at the top of her head. She was still so tired, and growing ticked off at being drug out a deep sleep.

He pulled her off the bed, kissed her softly despite her trying to turn her face away, then stepped back and began to unbutton his shirt. He smiled and let it fall.

There he was, a mix between Johnny Depp and John Stamos, the two most gorgeous men on the planet. She closed her eyes to get the image to quit messing with her sensibilities.

“You said you’d leave me alone. That you wouldn’t come here unless I asked you.”

“You’ve said a lot of things, too.”

An eye for an eye. She rubbed her face, trying to shake it off.

The torment, his gorgeous appearance, was her own fault. He measured her responses somehow and picked the best. The result stood right in front of her, the image of the perfect man plucked from her imagination. It couldn’t stop there and be only skin deep. Surely if he looked the part, everything else would be just what she wanted, too. He would move perfectly and read into her. He would be like the men and the women from the books in the safe. Her body grew warm.

Try as she had all along, it was too hard to remind herself that Witcher was a monster, a demon with the will to play with lives, to save the dying or reanimate the dead, no matter if he’d begun his long life as an angel from the beginning of time. But hadn’t she helped him become something better?

He smiled, knowing it too well.

She didn’t know when she’d zoned out, but watching him unfasten the button of his jeans brought her back to the moment with a jolt.

“Hold on,” she breathed. Her eyes wouldn’t stop watching the way shadows played across his chest as he breathed and the way his eyes glinted. Beautiful as he was, he absorbed the space in the room, leaving nowhere to go.

“You’re doing this to me,” she said. “I know it. You’re controlling my thoughts somehow.”

He laughed. “No. I assure you, I am not. I am truly here with you.”

She shook her head, trying to tune him out.

“Come here, Savannah.” He took her hand and placed it just below his collarbone where a heartbeat surged beneath soft skin.

She shook her head but he pulled her close and kissed her again until her legs felt like they might buckle. Parts of her ignited and she was unable to tamp them down, good senses be damned. He moved on to the sensitive place below her ear. At some point, one of her hands had become entangled in his hair and she stared at it, soft strands sliding between her fingers.

“Feel me,” he whispered. “It’s okay now.”

She allowed herself that. They’d already done so much, what did it matter if they went all the way? She stepped closer to him and the palm of her other hand caressed his shoulder where soft strands of hair brushed his skin. No one would know if she did it. There was no one to judge her.

He removed his hand from the button on his jeans, letting his head fall back and eyes close.

Savannah’s touch grew bolder, defeating the last of her ability to hold back. He wanted her to touch him, so she did. Giving up for good, she reached for the waistband of his jeans and popped the buttons loose, one at a time until the fly hung open. She’d expected underwear for some reason. Hot flesh brushed her hands. She stared.

He sighed with relief. “Thank you. I’ve wanted this for so long,” he paused, pulling in a breath when she moved her hand away. He grasped the base of himself in a fist and replaced his hand with hers, watching each movement.

Realizing she didn’t know how to make a guy feel good was awkward, so she made it about her own senses, feeling how tight the skin stretched over different parts of him or how his breathing changed when she touched the tip. Her abdomen grew tight. He ran a hand inside her shirt, slowly at first, but picked up speed, feeling her greedily as she continued to touch him. He throbbed once hard in her grip and she let go, looking up at him. His eyes were twin fires in the shadows of his face.

She didn’t wait, just leaned up on her toes and kissed him hard. Each move he made radiated as he pulled her sleep shirt away and pushed her underwear to her knees. All at once he picked her up and set her on the bed, taking a knee to get rid of the last stitch of cloth she’d worn. The niggling feeling that she was doing something very, very wrong grew farther and farther away.

Once he stepped out of his jeans, he sat back on the bed, pulling her astride his thighs. She looked from his cock to his face. Witcher pulled his hands away, the look on his face giving her reign to take any action she chose. He watched her closely, waiting for her to take the last step.

Savannah breathed deep and leaned forward, moving up his body enough so she could kiss him. He gathered all her long hair in one hand and twisted it to one side. She was embarrassed for a moment when her wetness came into contact with his hand, but it ignited something inside him and he began to touch her faster. With one hand, she prompted him to grasp himself, and she leaned up so he could guide them together. He was careful to the point of pain. By the time she was seated, every nerve in her body was centered on what he might do next.

Witcher sat up and pressed her to his chest. Wrapping her legs around his waist hard, she grated against him, holding on tight. He stood with her as she kissed his neck. Cold met her back as he pressed her against the wall and settled himself in. He kissed her in a rush, holding her that way, and then began to move his hips achingly slow.

A growl rumbled in his chest.

A whimper escaped before she could bite it back. Images of him changing, turning into a monster while they were so close together came to mind. At any given moment if he caught onto her reservation, fear, or suspicion, he might act out in any of the horrible ways he done in the past. She forced herself to look at him, using the image of normalcy he projected as a way of keeping sane. Although, if he wanted to do something mean, it would stop what they were doing. He wanted them to make love, not to keep going with her screaming, fighting, and horrified, so she wouldn’t allow herself to dwell on that. He had to know she wasn’t scared. Everything he did made it easy to play along, if she could honestly say she had to work at it.

He moved so perfectly, but it was like he held himself back. She grasped at his hips, trying to get lower onto him, to feel him seat at the very back of her, but he fought it and kept moving slowly, kissing her neck and letting his breath fan her cheek. She tightened her grip with her legs, feeling herself getting closer to finishing, just like their dream game.

Witcher pulled back just enough to look into her eyes. He leaned his chest away and while watching her eyes, he put the tip of a finger in his mouth, then lowered it between them. He stopped just above the perfect place to touch, looking down at the junction of their bodies, tracing where she stretched around his base. Savannah began to tremble as he continued. He leaned in close to her ear.

“Shhh,” he hissed. He placed his mouth against hers, moved the pad of his finger to the perfect place and pushed inside her so hard he hit deep against her back. The muscles inside her clenched hard around him and she came, the feeling mounting slow and pulling from the back of her thighs. He pushed into her twice more as she climaxed, then grabbed each of her wrists, pinning them to the wall beside her head. He moved faster, growing hotter where they touched. His grip tightened around her wrists and he rested his cheek against hers. He trembled and pulled in a huge breath. He hit against her hard once and it was all she could do to remain quiet. Witcher froze against her and the only part of him that moved was the pulsing inside her as he finished. He pulled her arms down and she wrapped them around his neck. He swallowed hard and pulled back.

Savannah pulled her thighs from his hips and took her own weight back on shaky legs. He stepped away and she went for her clothes. Witcher sat on the bed and slid his arms into his shirt, beginning to fasten buttons. Neither of them spoke. The television played on from downstairs. When she slid into her pajamas, she caught him watching her with a wistful expression.

She understood. He was waiting for her to tell him to leave.

She stopped him before he could finish with his shirt, putting her hand over his. He looked at her, apparently expecting her to kick him out, half dressed. She wanted the opposite.

“Can we do some of the stuff from the books in the safe?”

Witcher smiled.

***

 

#

Chapter 24

May Day, 1989

The days grew longer all the time, but there was still a few weeks left to allow heavy snowfall in the mountains. Life kicked along at the Witcher Place, Savannah running the household and helping Molly raise her little girl. Not a day went by when she didn’t watch the sky, and not a night passed when she didn’t expect to feel the mattress sink beside her and anticipate hearing the voice of an angel. A few days without seeing Witcher rolled along into nearly three months with no sign of him.

Savannah wrote him off, much the same way she was able to with the first guy she’d ever slept with. Jesse Freeman had treated her the same way. Both of them got what they wanted and ignored her afterward. She was back to being a Crazy Caleman girl. An awkward wallflower. A nobody. She’d take it with a smile. Her debt was paid. Maybe she’d see him again, and maybe not. She had an estate, as she’d come to think of it, to manage and she continued to run the Witcher Place with precision.

Two of the mares dropped foals in late April, and Mabeline herself was round and ready to pop any time. That would make eight head of horses that were really nothing more than pets, the youngest of the foals being set aside as a gift for Victoria’s birthday. Downsizing the ranch and selling off all the cattle was the best decision Savannah had made for them. Father and Sons Construction followed through with the additions the girls wanted so the horses, barn cats, and chickens barely felt the winter chill, bedded down in the new stable and barn. A raised, cobbled walk ran from the back door around the entire house to the mailbox and out to the barn. Savannah rarely had to put on snow boots once the sun was up. She’d done as much changing of things as she could to ensure she wasn’t reminded of Jack, Caroline, or Chaz.

One of the “Sons” had grown close to Molly, so she and Sam talked a lot. Molly kept Victoria far from the other men when they came to do any maintenance work or plow the snow from the driveway. Savannah kept a watchful eye on the antics of her sister and Sam, but a few times when she’d gone to town for groceries and supplies she’d come back to find Sam had arrived and the three of them were watching a movie or something. Whatever the case, Sam cuddled and played with Victoria when he visited, and that seemed to make Molly very happy, so Savannah continued to allow his visits. Currently, they’d made entirely too much popcorn and sat on the floor with Victoria amidst couch cushions and bottles of Pepsi watching The Shining. Savannah waited in the doorway until Molly acknowledged her watching and then went outside to check on the newest addition to the family of horses.

Their new sorrel foal had finally made it to standing after a couple hours. Savannah clicked an instant photograph and walked back to the house, waving the developing picture to speed the image along. Once she made it through to the kitchen, she dropped the photo on the table and went to the sink to wash her hands.

Someone pounded on the front door so Savannah grabbed a towel and headed for the foyer. They’d gone a little overboard ordering little dresses and bonnets, so she was expecting a shipment from J. C. Penney’s.

“Wait for me,” Molly called. She fell into step with Savannah, ready to snatch the package of new baby clothes before Savannah could. Every time a new order of clothes or toys came for Victoria it was almost like Christmas.

Savannah pulled the door open and her smile faded so fast the “hello” she was about to say just dissolved.

“Hi,” Witcher said. He pulled a Denver Broncos hat from his head and smiled.

“A ball cap?” Savannah asked, incredulously, eyeing his jean jacket and high tops.

“Hi there,” Molly said. “Don’t mind her. She’s the rude sister. Do you have a delivery?” Molly looked around him for a truck in the drive.

“I’m parked out by the road,” he answered.

“This isn’t a delivery guy, Molly. I’ll be right back.”

“So you know him?” Molly asked.

“Would you hold on just a sec?” Savannah asked.

Witcher nodded. “Of course.” He rolled his hat into a palm and turned to look out into the yard while he waited.

She turned to shoo Molly inside. “He works at the feed store in Woodland, not for the Post Office, Molly.”

Molly stepped back in, mouthing “He’s super gorgeous!”

Savannah ignored her little sister’s statement of the obvious. “I just need a second, okay?”

Molly nodded. “You’re telling me everything.”

“Maybe if you’re a good girl and get lost,” Savannah said.

“What’s his name?”

The word “Witcher” nearly fell out of her mouth, so she slammed her jaw closed and swallowed hard. “Val,” she said, after a moment.

“As in, like, Kilmer?” Molly’s eyes sparked. “He’s even got a hot name!”

“Go away,” Savannah whispered.

“Well, this explains all the trips to town,” Molly teased.

Savannah refused to answer, just turned and quickly pulled the door closed.

Witcher stepped to the side so she could come out onto the porch steps. She kept walking toward the driveway with him in tow, waiting until she was sure they were out of earshot before she stopped.

“I was starting to think you flew off into the sunset, never to be heard from again.” She looked over her shoulder to make sure her sister was still inside. “What do you want?”

“I miss you,” he said.

“That’s ridiculous. You could be anywhere on the planet right now, doing God knows what. If you think for one second I believe you’re back here simply because you miss me, you’re crazy. I didn’t just fall off the damned turnip truck.”

Savannah sighed and looked past him to where a group of magpies squabbled by the driveway. Sunshine illuminated the name on the headgate, “Witcher” glinting bright.

“I like that. Val,” he said, stepping onto the cobbles. He waited for her to join him and continued to stroll. “You’re right about all of that. Having my freedom once again gave me a reminder of what I once had.” He put the ball cap on, messing with it a moment until Savannah reached to snatch it from his head. Witcher continued, ignoring the hostility. “All I could think about was you. This is what I want. To be a man, and that is all, as long as I’m with you.”

“Look, just because that’s what you want, doesn’t mean you’re welcome to crash my life. Things are going well here, and Molly needs me to help her with Victoria. I think you should go back to gallivanting the planet. I don’t want to be with you.”

Witcher looked past her, watching the horses and wind in the trees. “It’s not up to you.” He looked at her with sincerity. “But I think you know that.”

After a moment, she nodded. “Yeah,” she said, with a sigh. “I need your help with something,” she said, moving on before he caught anxiety in her voice.

He grinned, looking more at ease. His hair brushed the collar of the jean jacket, which actually looked pretty good on him. The skin of his face was lit with life, a bit of color beneath his eyes and a smattering of laugh lines crinkling the corners of his eyes. He looked more real than ever.

“Of course,” he said, watching her for direction.

She put her hands in the hip pockets of her jeans and turned back toward the barn. She walked casually with him pacing at her side.

“Molly and Sam are watching a movie in there and I hate to pull Sam away.” She pulled the heavy barn door open wide. Witcher opened the other before she could reach for it.

Inside, the horses erupted in fits of squeals, running in and out of their stalls. They stared at him with their ears cocked forward, pawing. Savannah walked farther inside, knowing Witcher’s presence would agitate them even more. She led the way past a small tractor with a loader bucket attached to the tack area and picked up a box of medical supplies, handing it over with purpose.

“Hold onto this for just a minute, okay?”

Witcher nodded, keeping an eye on the protesting horses that pawed and grew more audacious in their outcry. She milled around, digging through a milk crate of old halters and lead ropes as he watched the antics in the pens. With two hands firmly locked around the handle, Savannah hefted a pitchfork and twisted into him, driving the tines through his right arm and the top of his shoulder, straight into the wooden wall at his back.

Confused, he let the box fall from his grip. Crimson spread along the prongs as she backed away fast. His face contorted with pain and he tried to pull the pitchfork free with his left hand.

Encouraged by the sight of him actually bleeding, Savannah bolted for the tractor and clamored into the seat. If he bled he might actually die for good. The engine cackled to life on the first try and she popped the brake, raising the bucket and roaring the engine to get the wheels turning toward him before he broke loose from the wall.

He yelled for help, wincing and yanking to get free, but she couldn’t hear what he screamed through the sound of the tractor’s engine. She leveled the bucket at his face, then dropped it a couple inches to the same height as his throat. One big romp on the gas and the little tractor lurched forward, right at Witcher’s struggling body.

“Hey!” Sam’s voice cut through the din. He waved his arms to get her attention, looking from her to where Witcher cried for help, pinned to the wall.

“Get back!” she yelled.

“Savannah, stop!” Molly screamed. Sam jumped up onto the deck beside her and grabbed the controls.

“You’re going to kill him, Savannah,” Sam yelled, pulling her hands free.

“That’s the damned point,” she growled. Sam’s hands hooked into her palm, prying her grip free. The tractor rocked, the bucket lunging toward Witcher’s head. Molly ran toward him and grabbed at the hay fork, knocking it loose.

Witcher slid down the wall, grasping his shoulder.

“No!” Savannah yelled. Sam knocked her hands completely free of the levers and the tractor came to a sudden halt. He pushed past her and killed the motor. Dirt and straw settled in the dirt as the bottom of the tractor’s bucket bobbed, inches from Witcher’s horror-filled face.

“Val!” Molly yelled. She hit her knees beside him. “Are you okay?” Blood ran from a neat row of four puncture wounds across his shoulder and arm. She kicked the pitchfork away.

Savannah hopped off the other side of the seat and grabbed the wooden handle, then dove under the bucket with the tines pointed straight at Witcher’s throat.

Witcher swallowed hard and put his hands up, palms forward. “Please—”

“Shut up, you son of a bitch,” Savannah yelled. She leaned in, setting the two middle tines into the flesh above his Adam’s apple a little deeper without punching through his skin. “Get back, Molly.”

“What are you doing, Savannah?” Molly asked. “Stop it!”

“He did it all, Molly. He’s the monster. He made Dad do things. He’s the one who made Mom and Chaz go away.”

“Savannah, there’s no way he did all that,” Molly said, her voice breaking. “I think you’re finally just cracking up a little.”

“No, Molly!” Savannah yelled, without taking her eyes from Witcher, who did his best to feign outright fear for his life. “He did it all. He made the blankets trap you that night. He was the mountain lion that chased us, weren’t you, Witcher?” She leaned in, digging the tines in a little farther.

Witcher shook his head, best he could. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Savannah. Please stop,” he said with a shaky voice.

“Savannah, listen to me. That was a bad dream, is all, remember?” Molly watched her with huge, scared eyes. “We talked about it. And there really was a mountain lion that day. I saw it, too. Please, let Val go. You don’t want to hurt anybody, Vannie.”

“His name is Val-Kryel. He used to be an angel, but he fucked up! Didn’t, you, ‘Val,’” she sneered. “Now you’re just a piece of shit demon.”

“Okay,” Sam drawled. “Put the hay fork down, Savannah.” Sam was at her side. “Molly, go call my dad.”

“No! Molly, you stay right here.”

Molly shook her head, backing toward the door. “I’m sorry, Vannie.” She turned and bolted.

Savannah choked up her grip on the wooden handle, screamed and jammed the fork forward, just as Sam smashed into her. Witcher grasped the base of the handle and flung himself away, nearly losing his footing. Sam tried to grasp each of Savannah’s arms but she beat at his face with her elbows and fists.

“Get him, Sam!” she screamed. “He killed my dad. Please don’t let him get away!” She kicked her legs, trying to get free, but Sam was too wiry and strong. They fell to the ground and he rolled on top of her, pinning her face down in the dirt.

“Don’t hurt her,” Witcher said, coming to stand beside Sam. “She needs some help. There’s no way the sweet girl I love would ever do this on purpose.”

Savannah pushed at the ground, flailing, trying to get out from under Sam’s weight. She managed to roll to her back beneath his legs and free one arm, which she sent smashing into Sam’s temple.

Quick as a reflex, Sam punched her in the jaw in a knee-jerk response.

Her head rocketed back against the ground and every muscle in her body contracted, rigid and flexed.

“No!” Witcher yelled, reaching for her.

“I didn’t mean to,” Sam said. “I just swung when she hit me ….”

Her eyes closed as her frame relaxed. Savannah went to sleep with Witcher’s concerned face burned into her mind’s eye.

***

 

#

Chapter 25

Antiseptic and bleach made each new breath burn like it was laced with acid. Tears pooled inside each ear canal. Her throat was stripped raw from breathing in the chemicals, so when she tried to swallow, pain rasped from the back of her mouth down into her chest. A cough broke loose knots of phlegm that caught in her lungs. She controlled her panic, taking shallow breaths to get around the way her lungs ceased on too much air. The unmistakable sound of her heartbeat pinging on a monitor behind her calmed, from staccato to metronome as she gained control.

Savannah tried to sit up but couldn’t get started off her back. She blinked away a film of oil that clung to her eye lashes. A dim bar of fluorescent lighting came into view on the ceiling. She stared at it groggily, trying to remember which room in the house had such a hideous fixture.

Something cold and smooth rested on the bed at the end of her fingers, but she couldn’t move her hand from the mattress. She took turns pushing and pulling at the rounded object until it finally clanked to the floor and made a racket that shot pain through her head. She stopped moving, waiting out the headache.

Moments later when she felt like she could move without her head splitting in two, Savannah raised up just enough to look beyond her feet at a white-on-white room with a metal door that hung open. Shuffling grew loud, accompanied by the sound of wheels turning, grating against ungreased bearings. She set her head back down, wondering if more sleep would help the way she felt, which was like she’d been hit by a truck.

“You’re awake,” a female voice lilted from the doorway. A hefty woman in a shortsleeved white shirt and matching pants walked to the bedside. “Wanda” was emblazoned in green on a black name tag on the shirt. The woman’s face was round, and sweet and her hair was twisted into a tight bun on the very top of her head. She smiled down with genuine warmth pouring from her blue eyes.

“Your sister is going to be so relieved, sweetheart. She and that beautiful little niece of yours left just a while ago.” Wanda leaned over the bed, squinting at a long line of clear tubing leading to a hanging bag of fluid that Savannah hadn’t noticed before.

“Water?” Savannah grated, hoping her one-word request would come out audibly.

“Good girl,” Wanda exclaimed, a little too excitedly. “We have to get you back up and running. I’ll be right back.” She paced out the door, moving faster than Savannah expected her to go.

Savannah conceded defeat to the throbbing in her head and closed her eyes to wait.

“Here we go,” Wanda called, again a little too perkily. She pulled up alongside the bed with a small cup and put a fat straw to Savannah’s lips.

Savannah pulled a few gulps then let her head fall back again. “Thank you.” She tried to pull some hair back from her forehead, but the motion was jerked to a stop. A thick, Velcro strap held her wrist close to the metal bed rail. She blinked, turning her palm up.

“Why is this here?”

“I never know the details, sweetie.” Wanda held the cup close. “Need a little more?”

Savannah shook her head so Wanda set the cup down and bent to check the IV attached in the top of Savannah’s hand.

“What’s that for?”

“Just a mild sedative to help you rest.”

“I want to go home,” Savannah said, trying not to let her alarm come through her in her words.

“That’s not up to me,” Wanda said. “I’m here to keep you comfortable, fed and watered.” She beamed a grandmother’s smile all over Savannah’s face.

“Is there anyone here I can talk to about getting out of here?” Parts of her body slowly woke up, aching from lying in the same place for too long. She winced, moving her legs the little bit allowed by a large strap across her thighs. Two matching cuffs held each bare ankle firmly against the bed. “I’m stiff here,” she said.

“I’ll set you up.” Wanda went to work at the side of the bed, and a moment later the larger straps around her waist and hips slackened just a little. The bed burst into a hum as the back began to lift. Once Savannah was sitting up, Wanda pulled her forward and settled a new pillow behind her head.

“Better?”

“Yeah. So, is there any way you could call my sister for me?”

“I need to tell the doctor you’re awake. Let’s ask him,” Wanda answered with an eager nod.

“All right,” Savannah said, watching Wanda’s face bounce.

“I just talked to Molly and let her know you’re awake.” Witcher appeared in the doorway with a large man in an outfit matching Wanda’s. He smiled. “She said to tell you she loves you and she’ll be here as soon as Sam picks her and Victoria up from the house.”

Savannah watched his lips moving, wondering why he still spoke when he had to see the way the color drained from her face. She looked at Wanda, who’d managed to paste on an even bigger smile and was looking right at him.

“Hi sweetie,” she said. “Looks who’s up.” Looking from Witcher and back to Savannah, she lowered her voice and put a hand up to cover a mock, whispered secret. “You’re a lucky girl. He is just darling.”

All the air rushed from Savannah’s chest in a gust as she looked past Wanda to where Witcher stood talking with the other nurse. She shook her head wanting to shout a hundred protests at once. Witcher shook the nurse’s hand and came to her side.

“Hi babe,” he smiled down at her and moved the strand of hair that had been bugging her earlier, tucking it lovingly behind her ear. Tears filled her eyes, mixing with the oily junk they’d smeared across them while she was out.

“I’ll just give you two a minute and go fetch the doctor,” Wanda called from the doorway. The big door swooshed closed and clicked with finality.

“Back off,” Savannah growled.

Witcher’s smile turned to an amused grin that showed his dimples. He rested his forearms on the bedrail next to the cuffs that latched down her straps. “Did she tell you you’ll be transferred to Pueblo this afternoon?” He swiped at a tear with a freshly plucked tissue. “You’ll be right up there with Aunt Stella.”

“I’ll tell them you’re not who you say you are. This isn’t going to work,” she said, boldly.

“You’re wrong there. I explained that we’d actually met when you were in the second grade. Molly backed up my story, although she’d never had the pleasure, but she did admit that I knew who your teacher was back then, and that you used to wear those damned pop bottle bottom glasses. Had a fear of thunder … let’s see, what else?”

He stood up, taking interest in the IV line attached to her hand. “That we’d bumped into each other when I got the job at the feed store, just like you told Molly and Sam. We’d been dating for a few months. I’d helped you cope with the tragedy that was Jack Caleman’s disappearance or untimely death. Whatever.” He released the line and bent to lean close again. “I didn’t press charges, by the way,” he said, and popped loose two buttons on his shirt to show her the row of scabs from the pitchfork. “Almost good as new.”

“Mind you, allowing you to stab me wasn’t fun, but it was very well worth it. I mean, here we are.” He pulled his shirt closed and buttoned up, still talking. “I told them you were under so much pressure after the last year, that you lost it briefly. That I know you’ll be fine and back to your sweet,” he paused, gazing at her face and tracing her jaw with a finger, “beautiful self very soon. That’s the kind of guy I am.” He grinned.

Witcher stood and walked toward the door, turning to look at her with his hand on the knob. “It doesn’t have to be like this. Please come home soon. I love you, Savannah. More than anything I’ve ever known.”

***

 

#

If You Liked …

If you liked Witcher Chime, you might also enjoy:

 

Scales Book One of the Fate and Fire Trilogy

***

 

#

About the Author

Amity Green was born in a small town in Colorado in the spring of 1971.

She graduated high school in Kingman, Arizona in 1989. She started taking college courses in the fall of 1992 while working as a raft guide on the Arkansas River. Amity won her first writing award as an essayist in the fall of 1998 and continued college part time while raising her children and working as a haul truck driver in the mining industry. In the summer of 2006, she went to Austin, Texas to continue her education.

She has studied Creative Writing and British Literature, including a stint in London during the summer of 2010, where she toured and studied theater and the history of English Literature. Amity returned to Colorado in late 2010, where she began her first novel, “Scales” which she outlined in Stratford Upon Avon while touring bookstores and playhouses. Since then, many of her short stories have appeared in numerous published anthologies and continue to appear in new publications. In 2014 she moved to Manitou Springs, Colorado, where she currently resides and continues to produce works of Urban Fantasy and Horror. Amity is a proud member of the Horror Writers Association and keeps steady attendance at local writers groups. A lover of animals, Amity is an advocate against animal abuse and assists with lost pets in her community.

~Amity

***


Test Witcher Chime

  • Author: Quincy J. Allen
  • Published: 2016-07-27 18:35:17
  • Words: 88603
Test Witcher Chime Test Witcher Chime