Saturday, July 30, 2016

Emily's Back, Part Two

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.”

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