After nine years, Rachel is forced to confront both friends and demons from her past—some scarier than others. But one is out to steal the people she once loved most. One by one.
Saturday, July 30, 2016
He will call you out, make you sweat,
Give you a blessing that you'll never forget.
So revel in the chase and let your heartbeat run:
Blessed are the children of the Horned One!
“Hymn to Herne,” from “Blessings,” by S. J. Tucker
* * *
A big sign on the side of highway I-65 going into Indiana says HELL IS REAL. I hit the accelerator and speed past, cranking the radio as high as I can.
The GPS on my phone stops picking up a signal two hours after that. I’m pretty sure I’m lost, but I’m driving up a twisting dirt road off the highway when I spot an old-fashioned metal mailbox with a sign that says L. WEATHERS.
I make a sharp turn up the road, pushing my Prius up the hill until we’re wheeling into a long round driveway in front of a house that looks like a hunting shack from the 1920s. Yellow paint, a long porch, a broad window with duct tape holding up the cracked glass. High stalks of corn grow in a garden guarded by chicken wire. An outhouse lurks around the corner.
I park next to a station wagon that looks like a relic from the 1980s, cut my engine. and look around. Skinny white birch trees with green leaves cast fluttering shadows over our cars.
Nine years later, it all looks just the same as I remember.
The front door swings open. LeAnn walks across the porch. “Rachel?”
I stand up. The sun blazes down from a cloudless sky, and the air is thick and humid. But it feels good to be here again.
LeAnn grabs me for a strong hug. She’s a big woman with long black hair and wide arms “It’s great to see you! Thank you for coming!”
“Uh, yeah.” I’m not really a hugging person. “It was a long drive.”
She looks me over with a smile. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
I peer at the house. It looks just the same. I take a deep breath, filling up on the scent the scent of long grass and wild flowers. Then I pat LeAnn’s arm. “What’s going on? Your email just said . . . ”
LeAnn sighs. “Emily’s back.”
Oh no. I step away from her. “Who’s she looking for this time?” Not me. Please, please, not—
“It’s Crystal.” LeAnn looks up at the trees. “She told me. Out by the lake.”
Always the lake. “Where is Crystal?”
LeAnn shakes her head. “I don’t know.”
The house has two rooms—a kitchen with a long table, and a big room for sleeping. I carry my backpack inside and try not to shudder, thinking about how much time I spent here when I was just out of college, trying to figure my life out.
A bunch of girls in sleeping bags, taking turns cooking and cleaning up, talking about feminism, reading books like How to Suppress Women’s Writing and everything by Ursula K. LeGuin we could get our hands on from the nearest second-hand bookstore.
We had to wash up in the lake behind the house. Keeping our eyes out for the locals who tried to catch us naked.
At least LeAnn has electricity now—a lamp in the corner of the kitchen shines dim light around the room, and a two-plate burner sits next to a rusty sink. A half-size refrigerator takes up one corner.
But there’s no computer or modem. “How did you send me an email?”
She laughs. “I drive thirty miles to the public library in Martinsburg twice a week. Mostly it’s spam. Every few months I get something from my cousin in Oregon. But I sent you that message yesterday.” She brings me a glass of water. “You’re quick.”
I slump into a wobbly wooden chair. “When did you see her?”
LeAnn sits down and sighs. “Two days ago. She was out by the lake. Like always.”
The water in the glass is lukewarm, but it has a lemon taste. I look up around the room. A calendar from last year hangs from a nail on the wall. A fly buzzes near the window.
I want to punch something. Instead I try to breathe slowly. “What did she say?”
LeAnn crosses her arms. “What do you think? I always ask her why she’s here, but she only says she wants one of us. There’s only a few of us left.” She closes her eyes. “Me, you, Crystal, Alison . . .”
I look over into the other room. It’s so small, and I try to remember how so many of us could fit in there, crowding on the floor, fighting over pillows. Snoring. And yeah, a little making love.
I shoo the fly away. “You used to have cats.”
“Serena died last spring. I buried her near the garden.”
I stand up, my legs still wobbly. “I need—I guess I need to wash up. And think.”
“Sure.” LeAnn heads toward the mini-refrigerator. “I’ll start some dinner. You’re still vegetarian, right?”
Sometimes I eat fish. “Yeah. Whatever you’ve got.”
“Rachel . . .” LeAnn leans toward me. Her breath ins warm on my face. “Are you all right? It’s been a long time.”
I back away. “I’m fine. I have a job. An apartment. Friends. Plants. I might get a fish.”
LeAnn smiles. “I’m happy for you.”
I take the short dirt path down to the lake. The lake is small, maybe a hundred yards in each direction, but the water is cool and clean. Years ago we used to swim here, mostly at night, and when the moon was full it was like a festival of . . .
What? Female empowerment? Or just a bunch of hippie college girls having fun in the water?
I take off my T-shirt and splash water over my face and under my arms. Then I pull my shirt back on and trudge back up the path.
Looking up at the house with the sun setting overhead, I suddenly flash back. It’s a cliché, I know, but I can’t help it, being here now. Again.
It was graduation year—the second or third time LeAnn invited a bunch of girls to the cabin for a weekend. The first night we build a fire outside and sing songs. The second night we build another fire and sit around it, and LeAnn brings out a book. It’s old, with a red leather cover, and she opens it up on her knees. “Listen to this. It’ll open your minds.” Then she starts to read.
The words are ancient, but even though none of us understand them, they seem to burn with mystical power. When she finishes, giggling, the fire flares, and for a moment all of us watch something rise from the flames—a tall creature with big red horns, majestic and handsome, with a broad chest and thick arms and . . .
And, okay, he’s totally nude. A wide grin splits his face. And some of our faces too.
Suzanne giggles. Okay, we’re a bunch of college girls, and some of us have had a lot of sex, but nobody’s seen anything like this before. I shiver.
Then Robyn lurches up, laughing, and starts dancing around the fire. “La-la-la!” She flutters her arms up and down like a bird. “Come on! La-la-lahhh . . .”
The others rise up to join her. Crystal and Suzanne kick their legs high and giggle, like cheerleaders prancing in front of the football team. They join hands with Robyn and Mary, shouting at the sky as they spin around the flames. LeAnn drops the book and pushes her way into the circle like she wants to walk straight into the fire.
I want to join in. But I’m frightened. I feel hot—my body tingling inside and out. It’s not just the fire. The creature is watching all of us. But I look away. Wishing I could dance with them. Why are they all so free? Why can’t I . . .
LeAnn sits down next to me, out of breath. “Did I do that? Oh god . . . “
The creature laughs from the middle of the flames. Then it disappears in an explosion of sparks that sends us scattering, laughing.
“Wow.” Emily whirls around, kicking her sandals off, her long hair flying. “That was awesome! Let’s do it again!”
LeAnn makes a dinner of asparagus and corn from her garden, along with lentils that come from the closest store with organic foods. That’s what she tells me, anyway. I don’t know where she gets her money from—maybe growing weed somewhere far from the house. I’m not sure I want to ask.
The food is good. Bland, but at least she has pepper. I wish for a beer, but I make do with water from a big jug with lemons inside.
We chat about our lives. LeAnn has been living here for the last nine years, ever since that first summer. For a few years we came back for a week or a weekend, some of us, until our lives got in the way.
LeAnn talks about her garden, managing the house, and doing business with the locals. She doesn’t have any problems with them. This is the middle of Indiana—maybe redneck country—but everyone in the nearby town is friendly these days.
“My best friend runs a gun shop.” LeAnn shudders. “He keeps trying to sell me a shotgun. But he’s a really nice guy. He loaned me money last winter. And he never tries to, you know—” She holds up her middle finger. “It’s not like that. They’re good people.” She swallows some water. “They think I’m crazy, but that’s all right.”
I tell her about my job—designing websites and marketing brochures, mostly. I don’t want to talk about the other stuff right now.
After a while we sit quietly and finish our meal. It’s a comfortable silence, even though it’s been years since seeing each other.
We clean up and then go out to the porch. The sun’s down and the half-moon is peeking through the trees. We sit on a pair of folding beach chairs, and LeAnn flicks a cigarette lighter. “Smoke?”
I haven’t smoked weed in years. But right now it feels right. “Sure.”
She lights up. The moon rises. I start to relax. And stop fighting the memories.
My parents got divorced when I was 14. Unfortunately, that was when I first started hearing voices in my head.
Well, not really voices. Just feelings. But I couldn’t always tell the difference.
Was I just bitchy, or did Roxanne Litch really hate me? Did my math teacher actually fantasize about cutting all of us up and dumping us in a landfill? Did my mother want to leave me with my crazy, drug-addicted aunt? Did Ray really love me, or did he just want to get into my panties? And what about that bird that sat in a tree outside my window all night, telling me stories about sailing on the ancient seas?
I was afraid I was schizophrenic. It turned out to be worse—and better.
Here’s the thing: I’m psychic. A little bit. I can handle it now. But at the time? Yeah, I was a little screwed up.
My mom didn’t send me to live with Aunt Cara, but she did get a boyfriend who drank beer all day and tried to molest me whenever she wasn’t around. I had a string of boyfriends all through high school, and most of them were jerks, but I didn’t care just then. There was one counselor who just wanted to put me on drugs, but then I found an English teacher who read my stories and seemed to understand that the voices in my head weren’t all hallucinations. She helped me sort out my thoughts, figure out which ones were just adolescent paranoia and which ones really came from somewhere else—so I could confront them, or ignore them.
Mostly she helped me get into college. With a scholarship. So for the first time in my life I didn’t have to fight my way through what other people thought about me. My mind started to clear. I actually understood what I was reading. I saw a way out.
“How did we meet?” LeAnn passes me the joint.
“Robyn.” I take a hit. “She was in my computer design class. And you invited her here one weekend, and she told me I could come.”
“Oh, yeah.” LeAnn nodded. “That was a good time.”
Six or seven girls in one cramped cabin. We drank beer, smoked weed, went swimming in the lake, read magazines, argued, made up, and then went back to campus on Sunday night. It became a regular thing, every few months. One November we almost froze. The next May we were attacked by mosquitoes and bats.
I think LeAnn’s parents owned the property. Then they died during her senior year, and she just decided to live here. I wanted to go somewhere—a big city, like Indianapolis or Chicago—and do something with my degree in graphic design and my minor in philosophy. But she invited all of us to spend a long weekend after graduation, and a bunch of us showed up. Ready to get out of college, but not quite ready to leave it all behind.
That’s when she brought out the book.
I lean forward, coming back to the present. “Where was Crystal the last time you talked to her?”
LeAnn blows smoke through her lips. “Up in Indy, I think. I might have an address somewhere. I sent her a postcard one time.”
Great. I stand up, my feet unsteady. Suddenly I’m pissed off, despite the weed. At Emily, mostly. But also LeAnn. She talks to Emily, but she doesn’t really know anything, and then she asks me to come down here and straighten everything out?
“I’m going down to the lake.” I stagger off the porch. LeAnn calls after me. I don’t answer.
Down by the lake again I take off my shoes and sit by the water, letting my feet get wet. I don’t really expect Emily to show up. I just want to get away from LeAnn for a few minutes.
I was happy to see her, but now I’m just tired. I’m not a crimefighter. I’m not even a private detective. I’m just a designer with some very vague psychic abilities. And LeAnn expects me to somehow save Crystal from the problem she started years ago?
I throw a stone into the water. I want to go home.
Of course LeAnn doesn’t have anything like coffee in the morning. I wash in the lake again, change my shirt and underwear in the cabin, and jump in my car. Good thing I’ve got a box of granola bars in my backpack, along with my laptop. And a good A/C.
“I need to find a good wi-fi connection,” I tell LeAnn through the window with my motor running. “If I get anything, I’m going up to Indy.” If I don’t—well, I’m not sure I’m coming back.
I’ll try to help Crystal if I can. But this cabin has too many memories. Good and bad, whatever. But I’ve got a decent life now. I’m not sure I want to come back.
“I’ve missed you.” LeAnn smiles. “Thanks for coming.”
I’ve missed her. And maybe the person I used to be, nine years ago. “Me too.”
God help me, I stop in the first McDonalds I see. They have coffee. And wi-fi. I order two basic Egg McMuffins, no meat—I’m vegetarian, but I do eat eggs and cheese—and a bunch of extra hash brown cakes. Then I grab a booth in the corner and open up my laptop.
Crystal is actually Christine Brown. I remember that much. She was a blond-haired, blue-eyed princess in college, although she was never stuck up about it. We were never best friends or anything, but she was smart and decent. Math major, I think.
I search the internet. Crystal Brown, Christine Brown, Indianapolis, math—what else? I find a dozen Facebook pages for someone else. I expand the search outside of Indianapolis. If she’s not in the state, I’ll never find her, but then maybe Emily won’t either.
I get a refill on my coffee and order more hash brown cakes. I manage to get a couple of likely phone numbers. A certain guy I know has resources only a private detective can have, but he won’t share his password with me. Jerk. So I start punching numbers.
The first one actually sounds like Crystal, but it goes right to voice mail. “Hi, this is Christine, we’re not here right now, but you know, leave a message when I stop talking.” Beep.
I haven’t actually figured out what I should say. “Hi, if this is Crystal, this is Rachel Spring. I, uh, think Emily wants to find you. Give me a call.” I leave my number and hang up. And wait.
When she doesn’t call me back, I punch the next number. I don’t like calling strangers, but I know from TV that you don’t usually hit the jackpot right away. The next number is an elderly woman who thinks I’m her granddaughter. The one after that is a husband or a boyfriend. He takes my number, but he’s pretty sure his Christine doesn’t know me.
The next two calls go to voicemail, and neither one really sounds like Crystal, but I leave my name and number anyway. Then I drink the last of my coffee, pack up, and use the bathroom. A real bathroom. Civilization.
I buy another coffee and then sit in my car, trying to decide whether driving up to Indianapolis is really worthwhile considering I don’t know my way around. Crystal could be anywhere, and I don’t really know what to do if I find her. So I sit and wait and worry about all the work piling up for me back home.
The phone buzzes. What? I’m not asleep, I’m just . . . oh, all right. I pick up. “Hi, this is me. Rachel.”
“Rachel who?” The voice sounds pissed. And familiar, even after seven years.
I sit up. “Me. The same bitch who coached you through your final paper for Womens’ Studies, remember? That C+ you got is partly mine.”
Crystal laughs. “Okay. I wasn’t sure. Look—” She talks fast so I can’t interrupt her. “I can’t talk long right now. Where are you?”
I tell her, and she gives me an address. “Be careful.” Her voice is a whisper. “Look for my car, it’s a green minivan. Don’t knock on any doors.” She hangs up.
A minivan? What the hell? I start the car and look at my phone. Come on, GPS, don’t fail me now.
The drive up to Indianapolis takes 45 minutes, and finding Crystal takes close to another hour. I’m sick of driving by the time I spot her green minivan.
Crystal’s a year younger than me. She’s got short curly hair and skinny shoulders. She’s sitting behind the wheel, watching a red brick house down the street.
I walk quickly. A flyer taped to a Stop sign asks, “Have You Seen My Dog?” Parked cars on the street have other flyers bearing pictures of lost cats under their wipers.
Crystal sees me, nods, and pops the locks. I climb inside.
“Hi, Crystal, nice to see you.” I lean forward. “What are you doing?”
She points a finger toward a two-story house with beige aluminum siding down the street. “I think the guy down there is kidnapping pets from around the neighborhood. I’m waiting to see something I can call the police about.”
Oh my god. “Are you a crazy cat lady now? How long have you been staking this guy out?”
Crystal lowers her head on the wheel. “Just a few days. It’s just . . . I live a couple blocks away. Did you see any of those signs? We’ve got a little dog, and my kids love him, and . . .” She bites a lip and looks up again. “This guy creeps me out whenever I see him. I’m not like you, Rachel, but I can feel things, sometimes. Can you—feel anything?”
When we were back at the cabin, Crystal seemed a little bit psychic, and we bonded over that for a while. Then we had a fight about . . . I don’t remember. It was probably stupid. Probably my fault.
I look at the house down the street.
I feel something, but I’m not sure what. My psychic “powers” are hit or miss, and I can’t always interpret them correctly.
“I don’t know.” I lean back, enjoying the soft seat under my butt. This is nothing to do with Emily. I hope. But I’ve got to tell her.
“Look.” I put my hand on her arm. “LeAnn says she saw Emily. And she’s looking for you this time.”
“Oh, terrific.” Crystal grimaces. “Like I don’t have enough problems. Soccer practice and computer club and everything else? Now this.”
How is she not more freaked out? I want to punch her shoulder, but suddenly I realize what she’s talking about. Soccer? Is she a professional woman’s soccer player, or does that mean kids? Computer club?
Huh. I guess I still think of the group as bunch of college students reading feminist novels and playing with the occult. Maybe we all grew up. Whether we wanted to or not.
“Sorry.” I shake my head. “I should have asked—how are you? How’ve you been doing since . . . the cabin?”
“Oh, you know, the usual.” Crystal sighs. “Children, husband, and a minivan. ” She raps her knuckles against the wheel. “Plus, a fulfilling career in marketing. Living the dream.”
Marketing? Yeah. I think of the brochure I should be working on back home. “You want to take a break? I could watch the house for a while.”
She stares. “Really?”
“My boyfriend’s a private detective. I go on stakeouts with him sometimes. It’s a cheap date.” Wait—did I really just call Tom my boyfriend? Oh, hell.
Crystal’s eyebrows rise. “You have a boyfriend?”
“Is that a big shock? You have a minivan.”
She smirks. “Is it serious?”
“No.” I hesitate. “Yes.” Maybe. “Okay, he’s kind of nice. He pays for dinner. Sometimes he even busses both our trays. And, you know, he puts up with my mood swings.”
“Well . . .” Crystal checks the time on her phone. “Felix took the kids to the movies. He won’t be back for another hour. I could take a shower and do the dishes. Maybe vacuum.”
“Pretty domesticated of you.”
She squirms in her seat. “He cooks. Does the laundry. Takes good care of Gretchen and Ben. And he doesn’t think I’m crazy for spying on our neighbor because I have a weird feeling.”
“Sounds like a keeper.” I open my door.
“The guy’s name is Terry Wolford. He’s white, kind of chubby, goatee beard, kind of balding. Drives a white pickup.” She starts the minivan. “One tip? Don’t drink a lot of water. Unless you have a big empty jug and know how to use it.”
I already know that. “I’ll call if I see anything.”
Three hours later I feel cramped and cranky inside my Prius. No sign of Terry Wolford. It’s Saturday afternoon. Shouldn’t he be doing errands or mowing the lawn or something?
I think about calling Tom for advice. But I told him not to call me. If I break the deal, he’ll think he can call me all the time. Which I don’t want. Especially this weekend.
Besides, I know what he’d tell me to do.
Just then a white pickup pulls into the drive and behind the house. Great. I’ve been watching an empty house for three hours. This weekend can’t get any better.
I take a deep breath and get out of the car. It feels good to stretch my legs. Even though I’m walking up to the guy’s front door.
I ring the bell. Wait. Ring again. The door opens, and Wolford looks out through the screen. “Yeah?” He looks me up and down, and his shoulders relax a little. Maybe because I’m a female. “Is there, uh, something I can do for you?”
“Hi! My name’s Rachel.” I do my best to look helpless and a little lost. “I was supposed to meet my real estate agent to look at some houses in the area? But she stood me up. But I was wondering, just in general—is this a nice neighborhood? To live in?”
He frowns, trying to think of something to say. I get a definite vibe off of him—not demonic or exactly evil, but not nice. I try to get a look inside, but the house is too dark beyond the door.
He says something vague about the neighbors minding their own business and nobody bothering him. I break in—“I’m sorry, but could I use your bathroom? I’ve been sitting in my car for hours. I know it’s a lot to ask, but . . .” Again, helpless and lost. Times five.
Wolford hesitates, then unlocks the screen door. “It’s next to the kitchen.”
Inside the house I get a whole different feeling. Not from him, but from something else. The house smells like lemon disinfectant, like a hospital. And the floor feels unsteady, as if something underneath is trying to get out.
Wolford must see my nose twitch. “Sorry. The cats. They have trouble with the litter box.”
I find the bathroom. I actually do need to pee, but I’m not doing it here. I look around. Nothing interesting in the medicine cabinets or under the sink. I flush the toilet and wash my hands.
Just when I open the door, my cell phone buzzes. Damn it. I never remember to vibrate it in movies, either. I pick it out of my pocket. Crystal.
“Oh, it’s my agent.” I press “Ignore” on the call. “Thanks so much. I can get out of here now.” I turn around, as if confused about where the front door was. “So do you and your wife have children? I’m just wondering about the schools.”
His face freezes. “My wife—uh, she died.”
“Oh, god, I’m sorry.” My face turns legitimately red. But I feel something strong when he mentions her. “I’ll get out of here. Really sorry for your loss. Thanks again!”
I run from the house before he can ask me any questions. And I see the green minivan up the street. My phone buzzes again.
“What the hell were you doing?” Crystal’s face is pale with anger when I climb into the minivan again. “I told you he might be dangerous!”
“Just hang on.” I grab her water bottle and take a big swallow. “My boyfriend’s a big jerk sometimes, but like I said, he’s a P. I. and he knows a lot more about this kind of thing than you do. One—” I hold up a finger. “Terry hasn’t been home this whole time. I saw that truck of his come back twenty minutes ago. Two, I don’t think he’s holding anyone prisoner, but there is a weird smell and a strange feeling. Three, he had a wife and she’s dead.”
I don’t tell Crystal that I found out more in five minutes than she has after days of surveillance. That would be mean.
Crystal looks at the house. “Maybe he killed her.”
I don’t want to argue. “I don’t know what else to do. Except . . .” Suddenly I’m getting sucked into this. I don’t exactly like it, but at least while I’m with Crystal I can stop Emily from taking her. Maybe. “How’s your wi-fi at home?”
It’s a ranch house in a cul-de-sac a few blocks away. Felix is a good-looking black guy who shakes my hand with a smile. “Nice to meet you, Rachel. Chrissy’s told me . . . well, absolutely nothing about you.”
Chrissy? I shrug. “She says you cook and do laundry, so you’re the perfect boyfriend. Husband. Whatever.”
He laughs. “Nice to hear it from someone.”
The two children, a boy and a girl—nine? Ten? I’m lousy with kids’ ages— acknowledge my existence briefly before running back outside to chase their dog, a little beagle named Ferdinand, around a big tree in the back yard.
I have a problem with dogs, partly related to mild allergies but mostly because of an incident a few months ago. But this dog seems cute. And harmless.
At least the kids aren’t clogging up the wi-fi with games. I plug my laptop in, ask Crystal for the password, and start hacking the life of Terry Wolford of suburban Indianapolis.
Even without Tom’s resources, I can still find a lot a whole lot about Terry Wolford in a few minutes. He’s got a degree in chemistry from Ball State. The mortgage on his house is six years old. His wife died a year ago. Her name was Eileen. A terse obituary lists her age as 35, survived by her husband Terry and a stepbrother, Earl, in California. No children. No parents. No flowers, please.
I search deeper. I can’t find any sign of a job for Terry outside of an outdated LinkedIn page. Maybe he’s been unemployed, or he just works at a convenience store somewhere. So how does he pay the mortgage? Or does he? I know a few sites to check, and then I find the answer—his house is in foreclosure. He’ll get kicked out in a couple of months unless he comes up with . . . well, a lot of money.
And then something else comes up. Terry Wolford is listed on a bunch of animal rescue sites as a donor—and an adopter. In the last two months he’s adopted seven cats, three dogs, and a ferret.
Wolford mentioned cats, but I didn’t smell any animals in the house. Or sense them, for that matter. Usually I’m aware of pets, and not just because of my allergies.
I stare at the laptop screen for a long time, trying to think. Then Crystal tells me she needs to set the table, and I can stay for dinner. I realize I never ate lunch, and I’m starving.
Dinner is beans and rice. Crystal remembered I’m a vegetarian. She’s right—Felix is a good cook. I help clean up and get ready to find a motel, but Crystal and Felix both insist I stay. They have a guest room. It’s small, but it’s better than a sleeping bag at LeAnn’s cabin. And I should keep an eye on Crystal.
The sun’s going down and the kids are playing in the yard with the dog again before bedtime. I sit with Crystal watching them through a wide sliding door while Felix does some work in his home office.
“He’s a professor.” Crystal rolls his eyes. “There’s always work to do.”
We’re drinking wine. I’d rather have a beer, but Crystal just gives me a glass without asking. We sit at the table chatting about work and stuff. Then, as if she’s been thinking about it all day, she finally asks, “What do you think Emily wants?”
I sigh. “I don’t know. LeAnn says just shows up at the lake and asks where someone is. Does Felix know about her?” I sip my wine. Actually, it’s not bad.
“He doesn’t entirely believe it, but . . . yeah. I told him about the cabin.” She grimaces. “Of course, he wanted to think it was all lesbian sex orgies all summer. I didn’t want to tell him the truth—that we mostly just read books and argued with each other—but finally it was the only way to shut him up.”
I nod. “Men.”
She pours herself more wine. “It was the best time in my life. You, and LeAnn, and everyone else. We all had fun. But sometimes I wish I’d never gone down there. Other times—”
The girl suddenly knocks against the glass. Hard. “Mom! There’s a lady out here!”
Crystal rears up like a warrior. “Felix!” She’s opening the sliding door while I’m only halfway to my feet. “Inside, honey. Ben! Get in here! Ferdinand!”
The girl runs past me, followed by the dog, barking. I lean over Crystal’s shoulder.
“Oh no.” Crystal groans. “Is that—”
“Yeah.” It’s Emily.
She’s skinnier now, her blond hair even more pale than before. She’s in a gray shift that droops down to her knees, and she’s barefoot, standing in the center of the grass. Smiling.
Ben almost knocks me over getting past Crystal’s legs, running after the dog. “Chrissie? What—” Felix is right behind us. “Who’s that? How did she get there?”
“Her name’s Emily.” I’m whispering. “She wants—”
“She wants me.” Crystal shudders.
“Stay here.” I push past her. “Shut the door. I’ll talk to her.”
“I’m calling the police.” Felix reaches for their phone.
I leave Crystal to have that discussion. I figure—hope—that Emily won’t bother me if she’s here for Crystal. But I don’t know that for sure.
Now I know how what’s-his-name feels when he has to confront a vampire or something. I don’t feel brave. I just don’t want to run away in front of my friends. Even if I haven’t seen Crystal in years, and I’ve only just met Felix and her kids. And Ferdinand.
The backyard has a swingset, a wading pool, and a thick tree with a tire hanging from a low branch. Also a hot tub, covered up. A wooden fence hides the next house, which is probably good under the circumstances.
Emily watches me coming. She cocks her head, puzzled. “Rachel? Is that you?”
I stop ten feet away. I have to remember to breathe. “Hi, Emily.”
“It’s so good to see you.” She smiles. “I’m here for Crystal. But maybe you’ll be next.”
I shiver. It’s not just the evening air. “She’s not coming with you.”
Emily shakes her head. “She will. All of them do. I don’t take anyone who doesn’t want to come with me.” She plants her legs wide in the grass. “And they all want it.”
“It’s the demon from that night, isn’t it? The one LeAnn called with that book.” Damn it. We should have burned it in the fire.
“Shall I tell you his name?” She licks her lower lip. “You’d like it.”
“Just go away.” I don’t know much about demons, but I do know their names can get inside you. Dig in until you can’t think straight. I step away from her. “Crystal has a family now. Kids. A home. A dog.”
“And a fulfilling career in marketing.” Emily spins around in her bare feet, the bottom of her shift fluttering in the air. “I live every day in pleasure. And power. Can this suburban home compare with that?”
I hear the door slide open behind me. “Crystal, stay inside the house!” I shout.
But it’s Felix. And he has a pistol. “Get off my property!”
“Felix . . .” I move out of the way. “Felix, I don’t think bullets will hurt her.”
He looks as nervous as I feel. But he swallows and raises the handgun. “Let’s find out.”
Crystal is right behind him. “Felix! No . . .”
We stand in a triangle—me, Felix, and Emily. I can hear the dog barking inside. What a cliché.
Then Emily lifts a hand. “No. I’ll go now. But I’ll be back for you, Crystal. Don’t forget.”
She fades into the darkness like the Cheshire Cat, her upraised hand the last thing to vanish.
Felix lowers the pistol, his arm trembling. Inside the children are crying.
He looks embarrassed. “It’s not loaded. I couldn’t work the clip. My hands—” They’re shaking.
Crystal carefully takes the handgun from him. “Come back inside. We need to help the kids.”
We eventually get the children calmed down and into bed. I hear a whispered argument in their bedroom that finishes with a promise. When Felix comes back the handgun is gone.
He pours himself a big glass of whiskey. A few minutes later Crystal emerges, wiping her eyes, and pours more wine for both of us.
“So that’s Emily.” Felix takes a deep breath. “Wow.”
I’m impressed he’s not yelling. I guess there’s a reason they got married.
Then Felix looks at me as if it’s all my fault. “How did it all start?”
He’s got a right to know. So I tell him about the campfire. And the horned demon. “We were all pretty shaken up—most of us. LeAnn put the book away. Emily kept saying she wanted to do it again, but we ignored her, and eventually she shut up.”
Felix glances at his wife. Crystal’s face is buried in her hands. He sighs. “So what then?”
I try to get the events straight in my head. “The next year we came back—most of us, a few new girls. Most of us had jobs but we could get away for at least a few days.” I was working at a drugstore, mostly running the photo department while I was trying to get freelance jobs in graphic design. “Emily was there. You were there—” I look at Crystal. She shakes her head.
I take a breath. “Anyway, Emily found the book and wanted to read the spell again, but LeAnn didn’t want to do it. So we just talked, and smoked some weed, and went to bed.”
I close my eyes. “The next morning Emily was gone. She left a note—it said she had to get away and think. We were all kind of freaked out, especially since she left all her stuff. She didn’t come back at the end of the weekend, and LeAnn said she’d look for her. But I never heard anything. I guess I figured she was okay.”
“Me too.” Crystal looked at her feet. “Oh god.”
“There weren’t a lot of us the next year—maybe six or seven girls.” I had a real job then, designing newsletters and brochures and stuff, and it was harder to get away from work. LeAnn, me, Suzanne, Robyn . . . I can’t remember any other names right now. I should.
I close my eyes, trying to remember everything. “The second night we were all down by the lake, swimming. Not skinny-dipping.” I glance up at Felix, and he looks away quick. “Just swimming, because it was so hot. And this half-moon comes up, and suddenly there’s Emily, standing in the water. Same clothes she was wearing two years ago.”
Her gray dress is dripping wet, and bats are flying over our heads. She walks toward the shore.
“Hey there!” Emily laughs. “Want to dance?”
“Emily?” LeAnn stares at her, along with the rest of us. “Where have you been?”
“Somewhere great!” She leans down to splash water at us. “You have no idea! It’s free! It’s . . .” She licks her lips. “It’s wonderful. Don’t you want to come?”
We stand around her in the water, flicking the flies and mosquitoes away. Then she reaches a hand out. “Connie? Don’t you want to come?”
Connie’s just in her bra and panties. She looks at the rest of us, frightened, but then she lurches forward, the moon shining on her face. Emily grasps her hand and kisses her cheek.
“W-what’s going to happen?” Connie’s legs are shaking as Emily pulls her into the water.
“Everything.” Emily strokes her hair. “Don’t be afraid.”
They turn away, Emily holding Connie’s hand. “I’ll be back for all of you. You’ll love it.”
Then they drop beneath the water. It’s two feet there, but both of them are gone, not even a ripple on the lake.
“We called the police that time.” I run my hands over my hair. “Mostly because we knew we’d have to say something about Connie’s car. But the police—well, it was just the sheriff and a deputy, and they took one look and figured us for lesbian hippies getting high and hallucinating. And there wasn’t any trail to follow or send dogs after. The worst thing . . .”
I cringe, thinking about the next morning. Overcast skies and mosquitoes everywhere. “Connie’s parents showed up when we were packing up and getting ready to go. They didn’t even talk to us. They just took her car and drove away.” I can’t blame them now, but they looked at us like we were vultures, feeding on their daughter. The dirt blew behind them as they drove Connie’s car down the hill.
“And the others?” Felix crosses his arms. “Couldn’t anyone do something?”
“Like what?” Crystal’s crying now. “We didn’t know.”
But we did know. Sort of. Mary dropped from the radar. Then Suzanne. LeAnn sent emails asking about both of them. Robyn was one of my best friends in college. I sent emails that never got any replies. I just thought she didn’t care anymore.
Felix puts a hand on his wife’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, babe.”
“We should have done something.” She’s sobbing now. “More.”
He looks at me for help. “Is there anything you can do?”
I gaze at my wine. “I don’t know.”
I’m awake at 8:00, already on my laptop, amazed I got any sleep at all, although the pullout bed was reasonably firm and the Star Wars sheets and comforter were fresh and cool. I email everyone I can think of about Emily, but I’m also tracking down a theory about Terry Wolford. My mind works on two tracks. Sometimes three or four, depending on how many projects I’ve got going and how much caffeine I’ve had.
The little girl—what’s her name?—bounces out of her bedroom in blue pajamas. “Are you playing a game?”
“I’m working.” I turn my screen away so she doesn’t catch what I’m writing about.
“Oh.” She sits on the floor, crossing her legs. “What’s your name?”
I’m sure Crystal told her. But then I’m pretty sure she told me her daughter’s name too. “I’m Rachel. What’s your name?”
“Gretchen.” She stands up. “Who was that lady in the back yard last night?’
I swallow, not sure what to say, or how much Gretchen saw and heard. “Her name is Emily. But she’s not coming back.” I hope.
“Dad got his gun.” She pointed a finger at the sliding door. “Ka-pow!”
I shudder. “He only wants to protect you. Your mom and dad probably told you never to touch it. Right?”
“Oh yeah.” She nods as if everyone in the world knows that. Then she puts a hand on my arm. “You’re different.”
I sigh. “Yeah. Everyone says that.”
Two hours later the kids are watching cartoons in the other room while I munch a bagel.
Crystal sits down next to me and swears under her breath. “I told myself I’d never let any kids of mine sit in front of the TV on a Sunday morning. It’s not like we go to church every week or anything, but what am I doing?”
“They’re great kids.” And I don’t even like kids. “We talked about Harry Potter for an hour, and I only ever watched one of the movies. Although that kid who played Harry did grow up to be kind of hot, you know? I didn’t mention that.” I sip my coffee. “How’s Felix?”
“Oh, he gets to sleep late on Sundays. Even after last night, it’s his one day.” She scoots her chair close to my computer. “Do you have anything?”
“Well . . .” I look out through the sliding glass door. But it’s daylight, the sun streaming over the yard. “Not about Emily. Yet. But I might have something about your neighbor Terry Wolford.”
She blinks. Wolford is far back on her list of priorities right now, but after a moment she leans in. “Like what?”
I show her the site. “This.”
Crystal screeches her chair back. “Oh, my god. Really?”
“His wife died last year. It’s like that guy Renfield in Lord of the Flies. He ate flies, and then he—wait, that was Dracula.” I always get movies mixed up. “Anyway, I researched some of it one time . . .” I shiver, remembering Lulu Hess and her zombie son. “But one thing people try is animal sacrifice—draining the blood from a dying animal and using it to, uh, sort of jump-start a body. That’s what this looks like.”
“So you think he’s trying to—”
Gretchen runs in from the living room. I push the screen down. “Mom, can we have some more waffles? Please?” She drops to her knees, giggling, and holds her hands up as if she’s praying. “Pleeease?”
Crystal looks at me. I nod and stand up. “I’ve got to go make a phone call.”
Making an anonymous phone call is a lot harder than it used to be. Apparently pay phones used to be in every diner, 7-11, and corner drugstore, at least in the movies. I’ve got an app to hide my location, but I don’t trust it now. So I drive around until I spot a gas station with a phone next to the pumps.
I need gas, but I park a block away to avoid the security cameras. I’ve got a big pair of sunglasses and a baseball cap from Crystal’s house. I slouch as I walk, trying to look a little drunk but mostly harmless until I reach the phone.
How much does a pay phone cost these days? I just punch 911. A stern voice answers. “Emergency services. How can I help you?”
“There’s a, a guy.” I try to pitch my voice higher than it usually goes. “His name’s Terry Wolford.” I stammer the address. “I think he’s got a dead body in his basement. I think it’s his wife. And a whole bunch of dead animals. I think he’s . . . I don’t know. But there are all these pets missing around the neighborhood, and I think there’s something going on.”
“Are you in danger?”
“No. I’m just scared. Sorry . . .”
I drop the phone and walk away. Once I’m pretty sure I’m out of sight I push the sunglasses and hat into a garbage can.
I’m walking slowly so I don’t attract attention. But I’m trying not to laugh. For this one moment I’m 19 again, running from the campus cops in my underwear.
Okay, alcohol might have been involved that time. But I got away, and that’s all that counts, right?
Ten minutes later I’m back at Crystal’s house. Felix is awake, in sweats and a black T-shirt. The kids are arguing over a board game on the floor.
Felix pours me some coffee. “She’s taking a shower. Everything okay?”
I hope so. “Thanks.”
He’s halfway through a waffle. “Can I ask you something?”
I stiffen. “Sure.”
He leans forward, serious. “Where did ‘Crystal’ come from?”
I stifle a laugh. That’s what he wants to hear? But I get it, kind of. Maybe he’s seeing a side of his wife that he’s never heard before. And he’s curious. But he doesn’t want to push too hard.
I run my fingers through my hair. I need a shower too. “When we were at college, she collected them. All kinds. She was sure they’d help her connect with people. And the world. She had kind of . . .” I hesitate. “She could feel things, and she wasn’t always wrong. I’m not saying—I mean—”
“You’re psychic.” Felix nods. “She told me.”
“I can sense things.” It feels better saying it to a stranger. “Crystal—Christine? Chrissy—your wife—she had some of the same feelings. But I don’t know if she’s psychic or just good at picking up stuff. You know, body language, breathing, that sort of thing.”
“Yeah.” He looks down at his waffle and then picks up a fork. “She can sure read me. Good thing, too.” He grins.
“What are you guys talking about?” Crystal emerges from a hallway in jeans and a long plaid shirt. “Did you . . .”
I shrug. “I made a call.”
Crystal leans down to kiss her husband’s neck. “Are you okay?”
He strokes her hand. “Any more waffles left?”
An hour later Crystal drives us a few blocks over to check out Wolford’s house.
Two cop cars block the driveway, and an ambulance is parked at the curb. After twenty minutes, we see two ER workers roll a gurney through the front door, a black bag strapped inside. They draw up the wheels and slide it into the ambulance.
A white van drives up and parks as the ambulance pulls away. ANIMAL CONTROL. A man and a woman step out, bags slung over their shoulders. They talk briefly to a uniformed cop at the door. Then they go inside.
“I guess they got him.” Crystal starts the minivan.
“Yeah.” Bastard. I’m just sorry we didn’t see him get pulled away.
But I’m sort of sad for him at the same time. Brian Wolford just wanted his wife back. That kind of thing never goes well, but I can understand the need. It makes you do strange stuff.
Maybe he’ll get help. Maybe he’ll get better.
But it’s not my problem now.
The sun is high but starting to settle into the west as Crystal parks the minivan in her driveway. I jump out and follow her into the house. Part of me just wants to get into my Prius and drive back to Chicago and forget all this. But I know I can’t. Damn it.
The little Scottie licks my feet as I walk through the front door, as if he’s decided I’m a friend now. Gretchen pulls him back by his collar. “No, Ferdinand! Bad dog!”
“He’s fine.” I crouch down and scratch his neck. “You’re a good boy, Ferdinand. Just don’t—” I cough. Damn allergies. “Just take good care of them.”
“Gretchen? Homework.” Crystal points toward the living room.
“Oh-kay.” Gretchen groans.
Crystal pulls another bottle of wine from her refrigerator. “I know, I know.” She sits down and pulls the cork. “What are we going to do about Emily?”
The question I wanted to avoid. I try to think of a good way to answer. “I think we have to go down there. To the lake. And . . . talk to her.”
Crystal turns in her chair to look into the kitchen. She’s tired, her face pale. “I know.” She doesn’t even pour herself a glass of wine—she just plugs the cork back in and rubs her face. “I don’t know how to tell Felix.”
I can’t help her with that. “Well, I’ll go pack up.” My backpack’s in the guest room. I don’t really need to pack anything. I just want to give her some space.
I hear them arguing in their bedroom. Felix has been nice so far, but right now he sounds like he wants to punch a wall. Or maybe shoot it. I bring my backpack out to the table and wait for them to finish, hoping I don’t end up in the middle of a huge domestic meltdown.
Ben runs into the kitchen and opens the refrigerator for a squeezebox of grape juice. He turns around and looks at me, scared.
“Hi.” I wave.
He clutches the squeezebox with both hands. “Is my mom going away?”
Oh god. I shake my head and force a smile. “No. I mean—maybe for a few hours. But I’ll bring her back. I promise.”
He stares back as if he doesn’t believe me. Then he jabs the pointed straw into the box and takes a big swallow. “Okay!” He races back to the living room.
Crystal emerges from the hallway. “Let’s go.”
I stand up. “Is everything okay?”
“No.” Her voice is blunt and tense. “But I have to go now. Or else I’m not going. All right?”
“Mom!” It’s Gretchen, running from the living room. “I finished my homework! Can I have ice cream now?”
“Ask your father.” Crystal leans down to kiss her head. “I’ll come back soon. Be good.”
Gretchen squirms, then darts over to hug my legs as I hoist my backpack onto a shoulder. “Good-bye!”
I pat her head. “Uh, so long. It was nice seeing you.”
“Come on.” Crystal opens the door. “It’s a long drive.”