Blue lights flashed once, twice, in Tamsyn’s rearview mirror. She froze, every muscle in her body going tight and hard from fear. The static grinding forth from the radio speakers was as gray as the sky overhead. She flicked the dial and silenced the radio. One hand fumbled for her wallet. Her fingers touched the cold brass box that held her salvation, her chemical normality-inducer. She pushed it deeper into her purse.
She chomped down on her bottom lip hard enough to hurt and pulled over. The patrol car pulled up behind her, angled slightly on the shoulder of the road. The deputy shifted behind the wheel, barely visible through a particularly bright reflection of the sun opened the door.
I’m so frickin’ high, he’ll know the second he looks at me. She ate pills to stay normal, most days, but today, she took more than ever. Some days, existing just hurt too much. Twelve years of lies cut pretty deep, left too many wounds. Way more than time could ever heal.
I’m high and he’ll know.
The deputy adjusted his aviator glasses—corny idiot, she thought—and sauntered to her door. She rolled the window down. The crank took all her strength to force around, down.
The tall, lean cop braced one hand on the roof of the car and stared at her. She couldn’t see his eyes through the dark glasses, but she felt his glare.
He knows he knows he knows!
“You know how fast you were going, ma’am?” He spoke with the stereotypical ominous drawl all movie bad-guy cops adopted.
“Few miles over the limit, I think.” She spoke carefully, even though she knew exactly how fake it sounded. The cop’s eyebrows twitched, lowered. She still couldn’t see his eyes, and that freaked her out more than anything. His thin lips tightened into a white slash.
“Step out of the car, ma’am.”
Tam’s stomach dropped to her feet. The cop backed away from the car so she could push it open. She rose from her seat and stepped out, to the side. The cop slammed the car door.
He flicked his glasses up so they sat on the top of his head. Bright blue eyes pierced through the haze of Tam’s thoughts. “Do you have any weapons on your person?”
“Why don’t you check and see?” she challenged. The cop’s right eyebrow perked up. He gripped her shoulder and spun her around, pushing her against the side of the car. He stepped up close, his body heat biting through the nipping cold. His hands started at her shoulders and moved down, squeezing, kneading, taking way too many liberties. Over her hips, down her legs, between her legs—
He pressed against her, wrapping his arms around her chest and slid his hands underneath her shirt. His hot, moist hands against her cool skin triggered a shiver she couldn’t suppress. Close, he chuckled, a low sound that vibrated in her ear. Electric sensations shot through her body, heart to groin, bringing layers of goosebumps to her skin.
“Sean, somebody could see us—” she gasped, breaking the rules by using his name. His lips, hot and damp and busy kissing the back of her neck, paused.
“Babe, we’re on a semi-private road in the middle of nowhere, that only leads to two places. Our house, and the Estate.”
She twisted around in his arms and braced her forearms on his chest. She squeezed his shoulders lightly, tugging him closer so she could whisper in his ear.
“The dashboard camera, doofus.”
He dodged away from her, cursing. “Damn it. You know what, it’s fine. It’s all right.”
Tam crossed her arms over her chest and cocked her hip. “Yeah, it’ll be fine when you get written up again. You’ve had your probation extended how many times now?” She licked her lips, tasted him. “Come here, Sean.” She held out her arms. “They know we’re married and they know we’re having…trouble. If anything, you can play the psychological distress card and ask for counseling. Or whatever.”
Sean shook his head and stalked back to his cruiser. “Just make sure you’re waiting for Kev. I don’t want him walking home.”
Tam heaved a sigh. A numbing slosh of medicinal calmness dampened her irritation. Love those Oxys. Time-release, yeah baby! “Yeah, yeah, I know. Some boogeyman from the Estate might get him.”
“It’s a long walk for a ten-year old.”
“He’s almost eleven.”
“Once again, it’s a long walk.”
“Don’t worry, Sean. I’ll be right there waiting for your—” She clamped her lips shut on the word bastard and said instead, saccharine-sweetly, “son when he gets off the bus.”
He gazed at her suspiciously. He opened his mouth to say something, but his radio interrupted him. “I have to go. Just be there, okay?”
“Dude, I’m there every day. I’ve never missed in the however-flippin’-many months we’ve been here.” She flounced back into her car and gunned the engine, pulled back on the road. All around the car, the wind gusted hard enough to make it shudder. With clenched teeth, Tamsyn worked the brake pedal. The wind made her nervous.
She flicked the radio knob. “...with wind chill around twenty-five degrees, it’s going to be a coooold night!” The DJ rambled on about the low chance for rain. “Don’t pack the shorts away yet, folks, it’s going to warm up with highs in the low seventies.”
After almost a year in Railley, she still found the DJs and newscasters unfamiliar. The same with the layout of the local Wal-Mart, the way grocery stores always seemed backwards. Sean shrugged off her homesickness and told her she would get used to it. And she knew she would, eventually, but that didn't stop her from missing the little town where she grew up, on Florida's West Coast. The worst part of it was the not-so-subtle, slow, withdrawal of the man she had loved for the last twelve years.
Tam sighed and glanced at the dashboard clock. She had spent longer than she intended to in the art supply store. In twenty minutes, Kevin would be getting off the bus at the foot of the private road that wound past the massive old Wraithborne Estate to their house, the renovated overseer's house.
Maybe it wasn't nutso. His fears were well-founded. When he was sixteen, some psycho had viciously murdered his uncle, three teenagers, and nearly killed his best friend. Sharla, who grew up as twisted as they could come, ended up seducing Sean into an eleven-year-plus affair. She offed herself a year earlier, but not until she'd dropped a lil' present on their doorstep.
Kevin. Nearly eleven. Holding folded, rumpled, waterstained paternity tests results that confirmed Sean was his father.
Her buzz began to wear off. A good high from the Oxycontin would last a good six or eight hours. Should last more, but taking twelve or so a day upped her tolerance. Wouldn’t hurt to pop another.
“Wait for Kevin.” Tam rolled her eyes. “Kevin, Kevin, Kevin.” Her fingers slipped into the open mouth of her purse and touched the cool, textured surface of the pillbox. Thinking about Kevin just made her sick.
She pulled out the little metal box and flipped it open. Seven pills lay in the bottom, vibrating slightly from the movement of the car and the subtle pulse in her leg.
She picked one out and held it at her lips. Sean hated the pills and she'd sworn to him she was off of them. So she lied...it was his fault she was on them, anyway. Not that he believed her, when she said she was off. He knew what she acted like when she detoxed, and then when she was off.
She rolled her eyes. Deputy Hawkeye there didn’t even notice how blitzed I am!
At home, she crushed and snorted the powder. The high hit quicker, though it didn’t last as long. But she saved that for the days when the mess of her life seemed too tangled to sort out.
Tam opened her mouth, ready to let the narcotic drop to her tongue, when a figure in a bright red jacket caught her eye, standing just inside the rusted remains of the cast iron fence that separated the Wraithborne Estate from the rest of the world.
She slammed on brakes. The pillbox flew off her lap and the contents scattered all over the driver's side floorboards. Cursing under her breath, she tucked the pill she still clutched between her thumb and index finger into the pocket of her jacket, and drove the car onto the shoulder of the road. The wind threatened to tear the car door from her hand as she stepped out.
“Kevin!” she screamed over the roar of the wind. The kid in the red jacket took off away from the fence, lacing his way through the sparse woods. “No, Kevin! Get back here!” She hit the fence with her palm and ran a few steps down, hands fluttering over the ornate iron rods, seeking a way in. Whip-thin weeds slapped at her ankles. Brambly growths snagged her capri tights. What the hell is the kid doing in the woods, on the main Estate grounds?
If the bus let him off early, he knew to head down the road to the renovated cottage. He knew Sean didn't want him out here. Even talking about coming out to the main house started trouble.
A big brick pillar protruded from the overgrown woods and brush. Tam tore away the biggest branch, relieved to see enough broken bricks in the pillar to allow her to scale it. She wedged the toes of her foot into the crevice of some broken bricks and hauled herself up. The old, grainy bricks dug into her fingers. Her knee scraped against the surface. The skin ripped and blood ran down her leg, cooling in the chilly air. The wind whipped, demon-driven, around her, catching in her jacket and hair like icy hands.
“Kevin!” She could still see him, dodging through the trees, running even deeper into the woods. The wind blew harder, slapping branches into her face and tangling in her hair. Just as Kevin disappeared from her sight, the bricks she clutched with her left hand crumbled and gave way, dumping her to the ground. Shards of brick rained down on her. Before she could raise her arms to shield her face, a chunk of red brick sliced her cheek.
The wind tasted her blood and died away after one last, sharp gust left her gasping. Shivering, she pushed herself upright.
“Kevin,” she puffed. “Kevin!”
Sean would hate her if something happened to him. She would hate herself if she hurt Sean by not taking care of his child. Before she could dwell on that new can of worms, she forced herself back to the present. Past hurts were past hurts. What did she have the drugs for, if not to dull everything, to make her forget?
She levered herself to her feet and ran back to her car. With the pedal to the metal, she hauled ass for the main gate. Although Sean had made her swear she wouldn't ever go onto the main property--
As if he actually cares!
--she didn't hesitate to park outside the gate and squeeze through the narrow gap between the two sides. Although someone had tried to fix the gates a few times, they couldn't get the two wings to meet perfectly. An off-duty cop guarded the place on Halloween and certain pagan holidays. A reputation for being some great spot to contact spirits clung to the Estate like a parasite.
Skeletal shadows thrown by long-dead oaks fell over the long driveway beyond the main gate. Patchwork pieces of pale sand and black dirt surrounded crunchy dry grass. A tiny brown bird swooped down out of the dead trees and snatched a worm from the grass. The sudden burst of movement startled Tam.
“Kevin! Where are you?” Her voice echoed back to her. “Come on, kid! Your dad is going to kill us!”
“You have no idea...”
Stifling a short shriek, Tam whipped around. The unfamiliar voice sounded right over her shoulder. She stared into the thin shadows formed by the wide boles of the trees and the dense, overgrown shrubbery. Crows cawed from the bare treetops.
Chills raced up and down her spine. Overhead, thunder rumbled. Two cold drops of rain splattered on her left cheek. She touched the moisture with her fingertips. The wind gusted, cold and sharp. Shivering, she wrapped her jacket tighter around her body. Stupid, wearing the knee-length skirt and my thinnest jacket in this weather! As cold as the air felt on her exposed skin, she figured no way the temp rise to high-sixties tomorrow, like the forecaster promised. This is Florida. I don't know crap about cold weather.
“Kevin, I swear, I will ground you for the rest of the year if you don't answer me!” She stomped her foot. “I mean it!”
The kid's usual answer floated up out of her memory. “You're not my mother!”
“Thank God,” she said aloud, even though she only said the shameful mantra it in the sanctity of her mind before now.
Something big crashed around in the woods to her right. She jerked sideways, staring into the trees. Adrenaline shot through her body like a wave of ice water. Her muscles tingled and went numb from fear. Cold sweat broke out on her body, chilling her even further.
On the left side of the driveway, a branch fell from the top of a tree and a murder of crows took flight, swirling and dipping around her head in a frenzy. Crying out, Tam covered her head and ran back toward the gate.
“Mine.” The voice stopped her dead in her tracks. The crows vanished, dissolved into a lazy drift of leaves that fluttered to the ground around her. “They're both mine.”
With her heart nearly flatlining from the adrenaline flooding her system, she turned around. In the middle of the path, just a few yards away, a woman stared at her with huge, bloodshot blue eyes. Long blond hair parted in the middle fell around her face, all the way to her ribs. Red streaks glimmered vibrant in the gray afternoon. Bright crimson droplets fell from the ends of her hair and soaked into the fraying fabric of her vest.
Tam caught her breath when she realized the stuff on the girl’s short denim skirt and faded pink tights was blood. Handprints, splotches, splatters, streaks. So much blood! Tam stared, morbidly fascinated. The neon-pink vest's white insulation, grayed from exposure and age, hung out in matted clumps.
“A-are you okay?” Tam asked, backing up a step. The girl, a teenager, sixteen, eighteen at the most, looked like death. Ice blue lips stood out against skin the same gray color as the sky. Tam couldn’t look away from the dull, dry eyes. She aged as Tam watched. The lines around her mouth deepened, just like the crow's feet at the corners of her eyes.
Tam took another step back. “My husband's a cop. He's just down the road. I-I'm going to get him and be right back. Just stay here.”
This is a hallucination, Tam. Turn around and it'll be gone. Blink, breathe. Just your head, screwing with you.
The girl took a step forward. “I already had him,” she said with a voice like velvet on sandpaper. This was no hallucination. Tam knew hallucinations. She'd been plagued with them since her first trip down the rabbit hole. The girl standing in front of her aged in a split second. The lines around her mouth deepened. The crows' feet at the corners of her eyes darkened. In seconds, she transformed into the woman Tam despised most, the woman Tam blamed for everything wrong in the last twelve years.
Tam turned and ran, forgetting about Kevin, thinking only of getting away from a woman who had been dead for a year.