“Mom, I’m scared.” Tyler’s voice was scarcely louder than a whisper. Curled up in his bed with one arm wrapped around his favorite stuffed bear and the other tucked beneath his head, he was a small, thin boy who hardly made a dent in the covers. His black hair was still damp from the bath she had made him take just before getting into bed and smelled, just faintly, of baby shampoo. The expression in his blue eyes proclaimed his absolute conviction that she could keep him safe from all harm. Samantha Jones looked down at her four-year-old son and felt a pang in the region of her heart. She was a twenty-three year old single mother with a precarious job situation, very little money and absolutely no experience raising kids, and she was all he had. Probably she wasn’t going to get mother of the year any time soon, but she was doing her best.“Close your eyes and go to sleep, and I’ll be home before you wake up,” she promised. Like Tyler, she was slim and fine-boned, with unruly black hair – hers reached the middle of her back – and blue eyes. She sat beside him on his twin bed in the pool of lamplight cast by the room’s only illumination, the small red lamp on the night stand. Her back rested against a pillow tucked against the headboard and her knees were bent to prop up the book she’d just finished reading to him. Dressed in jeans and a well-washed blue uniform shirt, all she needed to do was pull on her boots and she would be out the door and on her way to work, which was where she was going just as soon as she finished her nightly ritual of putting Tyler to bed. “Mrs. Menifee is here.”??The sound of the TV in the living room confirmed it. Cindy Menifee, a fifty- something widow who lived alone in the duplex next door, had a key and let herself in as needed. The first thing she always did was turn on the TV. Mrs. Menifee worked days as a bookkeeper for a tire store. Like everyone else Sam knew, she lived from paycheck to paycheck and was glad, for the little Sam could pay her, to stay with Tyler at night while Sam worked, saying that since she was right next door anyway it was almost like getting paid to stay home.??“I know.” Tyler’s voice was even smaller. His skin was fair, like hers, but unlike her he had freckles scattered across the bridge of his nose. His eyes beseeched her. “Couldn’t you stay home this once?”Sam’s stomach tightened. She knew that feeling guilty because she had to go to work to earn money to support them was a waste of time, but Tyler actually was a little extra needy tonight. He’d had a bad day at pre-school: his friend Josh had invited two other boys from their class to a sleepover, but had left Tyler out. To make him feel better, she’d rented a movie he’d been dying to see, and he and she had spent the evening eating popcorn and watching it, which was why he was still awake. Almost she hesitated. Almost she gave into the impulse to say, just this once, and stay with him. But she had to work, or they didn’t eat or have a roof over their heads or anything else. She had tried to arrange things so that she and Tyler spent as much time together as possible. During the mornings, while he was in pre-school, she took classes, with the eventual goal of becoming an Emergency Medical Technician. As an EMT, she would make enough to one day maybe be able to buy a small house, and pay for things like a bicycle and braces. At night, when he was sleeping, she went out and repossessed cars. She was tired and stressed out a lot, which she tried her best not to let Tyler see, but they were making it.“Big Red’s waiting out front. He’d be sad if I didn’t come out.” Big Red was Tyler’s name for the (big red) tow truck she drove. Sliding off the bed, putting the book down on the night stand, Sam kept her tone light.??“Did you use the monster spray?” Tyler’s lower lip quivered. Sam felt another of those mommy-guilt heart tugs. Tyler had been having nightmares lately, nightmares that the pediatrician said were perfectly normal and part of a developmental phase and yada yada. Still, they worried her terribly. She’d come up with the idea of filling a plastic spray bottle with water and telling Tyler it was a potion to keep bad dreams away. He loved the idea of it, called it monster spray, had her spray it under his bed every night before he went to sleep – and continued to have nightmares anyway.??Sam couldn’t help thinking that if he had an older, more experienced mother, if he lived in a house in the suburbs and had a dad who was actually a part of his life and all the good things he should have, he wouldn’t have nightmares. “Tyler, do you want me to sit in here with you while you go to sleep? I can sing to you,” Mrs. Menifee said from the doorway. Mrs. Menifee knew the drill: Sam was supposed to be at A+ Collateral Recovery by eleven p.m. to receive her assignments for the night. It was twenty minutes until eleven now. She had to go.“Okay,” Tyler said.??“Thanks.” Sam smiled at Mrs. Menifee with real gratitude as the older woman pulled the red rocking chair that Sam had carefully painted to match the lamp and the headboard up beside the bed and sank down in it. Mrs. Menifee’s tightly curled hair might be a little too red and she might wear a little too much makeup and her blouses might be a little too tight and low cut over her ample bosom in hopes of attracting husband number three, but she was kind-hearted and good to Tyler and absolutely reliable. In the year since Sam and Tyler had moved into the duplex next door to her, they’d all three developed a comfortable friendship in which Sam did things like water her plants and feed her cat when she was away visiting her grown daughter in Chicago, and Mrs. Menifee watched Tyler.“See you in the morning.” Still keeping it light, Sam headed for the door.“We’ll be fine,” Mrs. Menifee said comfortably.Pausing, Sam took one last look at her son. He was perfectly fine, cozy in his own bed in his own room, with Mrs. Menifee rocking beside him.His eyes were wide open and tracking her. “I love you, Mom.” ??Her heart gave another of those mommy-pangs. “I love you, too, baby.” As she left the duplex to go to work, Mrs. Menifee’s slightly off-key voice singing “Camptown Races” followed her.
If Charlie Stone hadn’t drunk the Kool-Aid, she would have died.
But in the random way the world sometimes works, the seventeen year-old did drink several big tumblers full of Goofy Grape generously mixed with vodka, courtesy of her new best friend Holly Palmer. As a result, she just happened to be in the utilitarian bathroom off the Palmers’ basement rec room, hugging the porcelain throne when the ?rst scream penetrated her consciousness.
Even muf?ed by ?oors and walls and who knew what else, it was loud and shrill and urgent enough to penetrate the haze of misery she was lost in.
“Holly?” Charlie called, lifting her head, which felt like it weighed a ton and pounded unmercifully.
Okay, her voice was weak. Probably Holly hadn’t heard her. Probably the scream was nothing, Holly’s little brothers ?ghting or something. Seeing that it was around two a.m., though, shouldn’t the eleven- and thirteen-year-olds have been asleep? Charlie had no idea: she knew nothing about tweenie boys. God, she should have followed her instinct and just said no to the booze. But as the new girl in Hampton High School’s senior class, Charlie hadn’t felt like she was in a position to refuse. From the first day of school, when they’d found out they were sharing a locker, sweet, popular Holly had taken Charlie under her wing, introduced her around. For that, Charlie was grateful. The veteran of seven high schools in just over three years, Charlie knew from bitter experience that there were a lot more mean girls out there than nice ones.
A late August Friday night in this small North Carolina beach town meant the movies. Four of them had gone together. The other two had moms who were reliable about picking their daughters up after. When Charlie’s mom hadn’t shown (typical), Holly had invited her to spend the night. They’d wound up sneaking out to meet Holly’s boyfriend, Garrett—a total hottie, who had to work till midnight, which was past Holly’s curfew—and go for a ride in his car. Since he’d had a friend with him—James, not quite as hot as Garrett, but still— it had actually worked out pretty well, except for the whole toxic Kool-Aid thing.
They’d driven to the shore, plopped down in the sand, and shared the concoction Garrett had mixed for them while they talked and watched the waves.
The good news was, Charlie might actually have gotten a bead on landing her own boyfriend. The bad news was, as soon as Garrett had dropped them off and they’d crept back down to the basement where supposedly they’d been watching TV all along, Charlie had had to rush straight to the bathroom. She’d been in there for what felt like forever, being sick as a parrot.
She’d be lucky if Holly ever invited her over again.
The second scream de?nitely did not come from one of the boys. High-pitched and shattering, it smashed through the ordinary sounds of the babbling TV and humming air-conditioning and thumping dryer in the next room like an axe through Jell-O. The fear in it was enough to make the hair stand up on the back of Charlie’s neck. Until it abruptly cut off, she forgot to breathe. The ensuing silence pulsated with . . . something. Tension, maybe. An electric kind of heaviness. Shooting to her feet, she swiped her long brown hair back from her face with one hand and headed for the door. Knees weak, battling a disorienting attack of the woozies along with the worst taste ever in her mouth, she grabbed the cold-from-the-air-conditioning brass knob. “Teach you to ignore me . . .” The words were followed by the
sharp sound of a blow.
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