A night: crickets, tree frogs, shifting lace shadows on the grass, tussle of branches, the damp growing cold and settling in. A nameless, ageless, onyx absence of the sun like all the others. It felt like the first cool fingers of October; tasted like the last strawberry bite of July; fell somewhere in the middle with a smell of burning leaves. It was just a night…
Until it became one of those nights that stops time. Until it gained the power to alter lives and shred psyches. Death walked into that night, dragging through the wood, rending the quiet with its inhuman hot breath: panting and poised and terrible.
Deer crashed through the underbrush; round yellow eyes watched. And Death left its offering on a bed of soft white sand, scalloped and pocked as beach dunes. Under the great black bowl of the sky, a face tipped to the stars, sightless and waiting, washed in light flickering with moth-dance, almost alive if you squinted, just sleeping.
Deep down, Ben had never expected to end up with a sister-in-law. His brother had been the sort of non-restless, wholly satisfied bachelor for so long…right up until it hadn’t been enough. It had been sudden. Chris had gone from indifferent to invested in just a few short months, acquiring a stepkid and impregnating his honey before the rest of the family had even been introduced to her.
“Cheesecake, Ben?” Jess asked him from her kitchen counter. Her tone was a coolly polite, detached reminder that the two of them would never be friends; he couldn’t blame her, he guessed, after he’d all but called her a slut. She turned to regard him over her shoulder, expression removed; she was in little white slip-on sneakers and a pretty blue cotton dress. It hugged her hips in just the right way; provided a backdrop for the thick spill of honey blonde hair down her back. The line of tension down her bicep made him think she could have used the knife in her hand for something more sinister than slicing cake if he gave her a reason.
“No.” He reached for his coffee and remembered his manners. “Thanks. But I should head out.”
“Here.” Chris rolled a cellophane-wrapped cigar across the table to him and stood. “Smoke before you go?”
Ben stood and shrugged into his jacket – a lightweight, dark canvas number he wore off the job – and watched his brother go to the counter and settle a hand on his wife’s waist just low enough to be indecent. He kissed her temple and drew a diagram through the air with his finger of the giant slice of cheesecake he wanted; she smiled and her face softened, lit, and sparkled. She was a gorgeous girl when she wasn’t scowling. The way she looked at Chris almost made Ben think…
Nope. It didn’t make him think of anything.
“Bye, guys.” He offered a lame wave to Jess’s son Tyler and the baby in her high chair, Maddie. Tyler watched him like he didn’t trust him. And babies – with their unabashed staring and bi-polar mood swings – had always unnerved him; Maddie was no exception.
He followed Chris down the back steps off the kitchen to the paved patio; Chris was constantly improving the house – inn – where he and Jess lived, putting his contractor’s license to good use. The patio was a new addition, there was a fire pit and a low stone bench, a few white wicker chairs. Ben propped a boot on the bench and waited for Chris to finish with the lighter.
“How’s work?” Chris asked.
Ben took the lighter and clamped his cigar tight in his teeth, speaking around it. “You already asked me that.”
“Yeah.” Chris gave him a level look through the dim light cast by the backdoor’s coach lamps. “But I figure I got the kid-friendly version inside.”
“Oh, so I’m a liar?”
Chris grinned. “I renovate bathrooms for the Real Housewife crowd. You solve murders. Which one of us is more likely to need a PG cover story?”
“Dunno. I hear those Real Housewives like a little handyman action now and then.”
“Stop being an asshole.”
“Well that’s not gonna happen.” He turned and sat down on the low stone wall. Across the drive, the skeletal framework of the addition Chris was putting on the guest cottage gleamed white as bleached bone. Jess’s sister was having another kid and didn’t have a place to put it – or, it seemed, the will to move out and find a place of her own. Not only had Chris taken on a woman and kid, but a brother- and sister-in-law too, and their kids. “Why’s marriage turned you into the older brother?” he asked.
“That bad?” Chris asked.
He sighed. “It’s been keeping me busy.” Chris’s brows twitched; for a homicide detective, “busy” was never a good thing. “Atlanta’s creeping into the ‘burbs,” Ben explained, “and with it comes coke and H and even more meth than the hillbillies are flooding into the high schools. Murder,” he said for emphasis, “is more common than most people in Cobb County want to think.”
A shadow moved across a curtained window of the cottage: a slight, feminine shape that must have been Joanna, Jess’s sister.
Chris murmured a note of agreement. “Well, if you ever need to get away from it, Jess always makes more food than we need.”
“The last thing your wife wants is me hanging around.”
“I don’t think…it’s just…okay, she doesn’t want you hanging around.”
Ben twitched a fast non-smile.
“She thinks your ‘evil’ is gonna rub off on the kids,” Chris admitted with a chuckle.
“She’s probably right.”
It was a cool night for early autumn; layered between the chirrups of insects, a sharp promise of frost crackled in the air, heady with the scent of faraway snow. It stood the fine hairs up on the back of Ben’s neck; sent a nameless, useless thrill humming along beneath his skin. “Nights like this,” someone had told him, not so long ago, “feel like the world’s waiting for something.” He was sure, in hindsight, that on that night on a back step with a shared bottle of grocery store Pinot Noir, the girl beside him had wanted the two of them to be that something special the world was waiting for. She’d been breathless and flushed from kissing, eyes little moons set in the statue-perfect lines of her alabaster face; and she’d been fizzing from a magic he hadn’t understood or wanted to feel. Every time a night turned prickly and uncertain – waiting, as she’d said – he’d think of her, and that was never a welcome train of thought.
He took a fast, too-hard drag on his cigar and felt nausea ripple through him; he wasn’t a smoker by nature.
“The offer’s there all the same, though,” Chris said, which didn’t help his stomach.
Ben was forming another lame-ass stab at little-brother-going-big-brother when his phone came to life in his jacket pocket.
If he’d only known what waited on the other end of the line, he would have let the damn thing go to voicemail.
“You look nice.”
Jade smoothed her hands down her hips, over the clinging black cotton/spandex of her skirt. She’d spent half the week planning her outfit for tonight, all the way down to her toenail polish – a drug store shade of pink called Get Juiced. “Nice?” She lifted her brows in question. “Just nice?”
Jeremy and Clara made for an adorable picture: snuggled back in the corner of the love seat, draped in a chenille throw, yaupons dancing on the other side of the black window glass, Disney movie throwing leaping blue shadows across their faces. Clara was bundled in the crook of Jeremy’s arm, sucking her thumb, hugging her favorite stuffed rabbit, Oatmeal, around the neck. Jeremy had showered after his last lesson of the afternoon and not bothered to dry his hair; it was soft and sticking up in places
Jeremy grinned at her – a devastating flash of white teeth – and amended his previous statement. “You look hot, babe. Absolutely edible.”
“Thanks. Thank you for that in front of the K-I-D.”
Clara popped her thumb out of her mouth, staring at the TV as she said, “Kid. That spells kid.”
“Smart girl.” Jeremy gave her a squeeze.
Jade sighed. She was a smart girl, which made this whole Mommy-on-a-date thing so much more difficult. “Are you sure you two’ll be alright?” she asked and earned an eye roll for it. “I’m serious, Remy. I can call Asher and cancel.”
“Cancel?” Jeremy breathed a laugh. “And do what? Sit at home and watch Cinderella?”
“You’re just nervous. Understandable: Asher is the first adult human male you’ve been out with since…ever.”
She gave him a warning look and he grinned again.
“Go on your date. Have fun. Leave some sort of undergarment in the back of his car. Chickadee and I are going to princess it up and do night check. Right?”
Clara spared him a fast, adoring glance before the TV sucked her back in again. “Right.”
Jade opened her mouth for further protest…
And the doorbell rang.
Jeremy gave her his sternest look, one made less than threatening by the graceful Michelangelo lines of his brows. “Go.”
Her stomach rolled. “Fine.” She went to the sofa and dropped a kiss on her daughter’s warm cheek; raked her fingers through her very best friend’s hair, smiling when he ducked away. “I’ll call you.”
“Undergarment in the backseat,” Jeremy reminded.
They had been in the den – one of those cozy, wood-paneled, stone fireplace numbers sunk down at the back of the midcentury farmhouse they’d called home the past five years; it had been some man’s trophy room in the past and Jeremy had helped her turn it into something tasteful and retro, with overstuffed furniture and subdued knickknacks – and she spent the walk to the front door doing last minute adjustments: a nail through an eyebrow, a straightening of her top, a fluff of her hair. Warm beams from the porch light streamed in through the glass-paneled front door, falling across the glossy brick of the foyer floor, limning her date’s profile in gold.
You can do this, she reminded herself, and took one last deep, shivery breath before she opened the door.
Mid-thirties, sandy-haired, handsome in a soft, unathletic way, Asher McMahon had been reaching for a paint swatch in Home Depot alongside her. Their hands had brushed, Jade had pulled back, apologizing, and he’d grinned at her in a sweet, boyish way that had prompted her to ask about his painting project; Clara had been with her, but it had seemed a harmless enough topic. Discussing their living rooms had led to number-swapping, and his assertion that yes, he loved horses and, of course, he’d love to come take a lesson from her. Five minutes on top of Pokey – her aptly-named school horse – and he’d been forced to admit defeat: he was terrified of horses, but he’d love to take her out sometime if she’d let him. They’d been on four dates. This was their fifth and, for some reason she couldn’t name, their phone calls the last few days had smacked of expectation, on both their parts. It had been a long time, Jeremy had reminded, since she’d had any “action,” and Asher was sweet, and more than smitten.
He greeted her with one of those easy smiles she was beginning to think she could get used to. “Wow.” His eyes skipped from her face to her toes and back again. “You look amazing.”
He was in a tasteful checked shirt, khakis, navy blazer; she smiled. “You look good, too.”
Because it was starting to feel natural, she pressed her palms to his chest and stretched up for a kiss: a quick, open-mouthed peck that didn’t make any sound, fast, safe smiles traded afterward. Jade pulled the door to behind her, shouldered her purse, and slipped her arm through his offered one.
The night was boldly crisp, the wind tossing the trees together with almost human sighs. The Mondo grass hadn’t died back yet and flapped in variegated tendrils over the terraced front walk as it narrowed and curved around the slope of the front lawn. Jade suppressed a shudder and felt gooseflesh pebble her skin beneath her light jacket.
“Cold?” Asher asked.
If she was honest, there was something thrilling about a cold, slapping breeze on a date night. It pressed them together: two people seeking shelter against one another. It was a silly thought – one that hadn’t crossed her mind in years – and she chased it away with an internal headshake; she had no room for anything silly in her life anymore.
The sidewalk curled round the house and joined the drive where it forked; the right branch fed into the drive-under garage at the back of the house, and the other continued down the hill to the parking pad beside the barn. Security lights at the garage and down by the barn – around the arena and over the double front doors – anchored a property black with night and liquid with shifting shadows. It was eerie: long fingers of branches, bowing stalks of pompous grass, rattling of a loose chain somewhere.
Asher used his remote to unlock his 4-Runner and Jade took one last moment to take visual inventory of the farm – what she could see of it – before she left. It was an old habit that she and Jeremy shared, this unending obsession with crossing Is and dotting Ts. Horses, she swore, made a person OCD. She checked that the garage doors were down and the water dish for the cats was full; she checked that the barn doors were open a crack and that the gate leading through the side paddock to the arena was closed; she looked –
Something was in her arena. A dog. A thin, lanky, fluffy-tailed thing snuffling along the ground. Not a dog – a coyote.
“Hey!” She shook her arm loose from Asher’s and took three long strides down the driveway, clapping her hands. “Get! Get outta here!”
Asher said, “What?”
The coyote lifted its head and went still; she could tell he was staring at her, even all this distance away. There was something else, she saw, something down at its feet, whatever it had been smelling.
She took another few steps, smacking her palms together. “Get lost!”
“Jade,” Asher said behind her, “what is – shit! Is that a wolf?”
Later, she would think to roll her eyes about him thinking there could possibly be a wolf in Georgia, but for the moment, she was riveted by the uneven shape in the middle of the arena. The coyote went flitting away, more light-footed than any dog, squeezing between the fence boards and disappearing in the woods. But his prey hadn’t stirred. It was too large to be a possum or rabbit, and not the right shape for a deer. His dinner? she wondered. Had he been eating…?
“Jade!” Asher called, and his voice sounded far away because she had, to her surprise, gone halfway down the drive and was closing in on the barn at a fast clip. Her pumps rapped against the asphalt, the sound echoing against the trunks of the old oaks that shaded the drive and played havoc on her depth perception as their shadows weaved together. Asher’s flat-soled loafers started down behind her.
For reasons she didn’t understand, curiosity had become too big to ignore inside her mind, and she had to know what poor thing lay under the lights on the arena sand. If it was a grisly coyote kill, she’d need to warn Jeremy; she didn’t want Clara seeing it when they went down for night check. If it was still alive – whatever it was – she’d need to put it out of its misery.
Her heels went through the turf like aerating spikes when she left the drive, so she walked on her tiptoes; felt the grass slap at her ankles. There was a pedestrian gate that accessed the paddock behind the barn and it squealed as she pushed it open. There was path – a worn track in the grass where she and Jeremy and their students had passed hundreds of times.
Asher caught up to her. “Jade, what’s going on? What if that animal’s still down here?” He sounded more than a little frightened by the prospect. “You’re gonna ruin your shoes.”
The arena – 100x200 and filled with natural white sand – gleamed pale and eerie in the lamplight. Her eyes went straight to the center, to what she’d thought must be the coyote’s meal, and her brain registered the image before logic would allow her to believe it.
She’d seen this before – the outstretched arms, the sunken hollows of prepubescent hips and chest, the gangly legs curled – so many times in arenas: a child thrown from a horse, gathering their breath before they sat up, bawling over their most recent spill.
Only there was no horse.
There was an empty stretch of sand, a figure too still to be real, and all she heard was the thunderous leap of her own pulse cutting through the static whisper of the wind.
“Is that – ” Asher started.
Jade wet her lips and fought the panicky bile rising in her throat. “Call 911.”