To catch up, here's Part I, Part II, and Part III. Part IV is out Dec. 19th, which is scary-close at hand. I'm so excited.
Part IV: Follow You Home
Part IV: Follow You Home
Copyright © 2014 by Lauren Gilley
Fourteen Years Ago
A man’s face. Peering at her through the screen of hollies that formed a rough fence between their yard and the neighbors’. A pale round moon of a face, as the gloom of evening settled over the neighborhood, and the streetlamps began to flicker on one at a time, and the clouds pressed at the horizon, squeezing out the first fat drops of rain.
“Ava Rose,” Mercy had said, his tall thin frame filling up the lighted doorway, and she’d forgotten all about the face. It was time for dinner, just her and Mom and Mercy at the table, Maggie testing some new recipe and Mercy entertaining them with stories of the swamp where he’d grown up hunting alligators with his father. Then it was a bath, and her pajamas, and then Maggie folded the covers up under her chin and kissing her forehead.
As the light clicked out, she remembered the man’s face, the strange, plastic quality of his eyes as he’d stared at her. He’d put his finger up to his lips. Be quiet. Like he thought she might listen to him. The rain smattered against her window and the wind rushed along the eaves and she shivered. She should have told someone about the man. She was smarter than this; she should have reported it to her mom and Mercy right away.
Her bedroom door was open, and she rolled her head toward it. There was Mercy, stepping away, his big hand falling away from the doorframe.
Fear made her throat tight. “Mercy?”
He halted and came back, filled the threshold again. “Yeah?”
“I saw someone.”
“Where?” His voice changed, the velvet gentleness hardening and rising. He sounded aggressive and tightly-wound, as he came into her room, charging toward the window to gap the blinds and look through them, just a tall shadow in the glow from the streetlamps.
“In the bushes,” she said. “Before dinner. I saw him and I…” She took a deep breath. “I forgot to tell, but I should have.”
His head turned toward her. She couldn’t see his expression, but his voice softened again. He wasn’t angry with her, just worried. “That’s okay, fillette. Where exactly did you see him? Tell me everything you can remember.”
She recounted the moment, his moon-shaped face, the raised finger to his lips, the strange look on his face that she didn’t know how to describe properly.
Mercy nodded as she finished, and stared out the window a long time. Then he came to the bed, and his hand found the top of her head in the dark, the gesture familiar, comforting, affectionate. “Don’t be scared. It was probably just some pervert.”
Ava smiled. How wrong that, at eight, she not only knew what a pervert was, but she knew that “some pervert” was much less frightening than the monsters from which Mercy had been charged with protecting her.
“Okay,” he repeated, dropping a kiss on top of her head, his face pressed into her hair. “I’ll be right out here.” And in the half-lit hallway, he took up a posture sitting with his back to the wall, legs stretched out in front of him.
Ava rolled onto her side, so she faced him, hand tucked under her cheek, eyes fuzzy with fatigue and filled with the warm image of Mercy sitting in the puddled light from the open bathroom door. “You’ll stay there?” she asked, hopeful, not sure if it was wrong to want him there, but wanting it anyway.
“Yes, fillette, right here.”
Fillette, she thought as she closed her eyes. I wonder what that means.
They stopped at the first Walmart they came to, and bought two prepaid cellphones, and then turned their own phones off, took the batteries and SIM cards out and stowed them in an interior, zippered pocket of Mercy’s cut. No chances: that was their motto. They had no idea who would be chasing them, but there was no doubt there’d be some major tech involved.
At a Shell station in Calhoun, Georgia, Ava sat in the shade of the gas pump canopy, sideways on the seat of the bike, and texted her mom from the new phone.
Stopped for gas. Everything fine.
She glanced down at the plain gold band on her left hand and her stomach leapt with a frenzied kind of excitement. She had champagne in her veins, and a head full of marshmallows. She was breathless, giddy. Almost four hours on the road, and she was too ecstatic to be sore or wind-beaten.
Yeah, everything was fine. Everything was spectacular.
Great! Love you both. Be safe. Text me later, came Maggie’s immediate answer. Ava knew her mother would then delete their text exchanges.
As Ava stowed the phone in her pocket and zipped it shut, she heard boots behind her on the concrete, and then a massive arm wrapped around her, across the fronts of her shoulders, tops of her breasts. Mercy’s face in her hair, like always, since the beginning, one of those gestures he’d kept, would always keep, no matter how old she was. He kissed her head. “Sitting out here smiling to yourself like a crazy person,” he scolded with a low laugh.
“I’m pretty sure you can’t call your wife crazy.”
He laughed. “That’s one of the perks of being married, sweetheart.”
Married. The word zinged through her, sang in her bloodstream. He was her man – he’d always been – and he was her husband, too, and she didn’t know if she wanted to cry or laugh, or maybe both, because she was so purely happy.
She tipped her head back, as his face lifted, so she could look up at him with a wry smile. His face was upside down to her, and the sun struck his high cheekbones, tanning them a rich gold. “Any other perks?”
He kissed her, his chin against her nose, the stubble tickling her skin. His tongue played between her lips and she brought her hands up to frame his jaw, holding him down against her as she opened her mouth.
The guy gassing up his truck at the next pump over cleared his throat loudly and Mercy lifted his head, shooting him a glare.
Ava bit back a laugh. “We are obnoxious,” she said. “We’re like those handsy people waiting in line at the ferris wheel.”
“Which ferris wheel?” he asked, distracted as he murder-stared the truck owner back around to the other side of his pickup.
“Every ferris wheel in the entire history of state fairs.” She tugged at the front of his sweatshirt. “Don’t scare the man.”
He made a snorting sound, but backed off, stepping to the pump and pulling the nozzle off the rack so he could fill the bike. “Did you talk to your mom?”
“Yep.” She swung her legs around so she faced him.
“Did you…?” His brows went up and she understood.
“No, I didn’t tell her.” Her eyes went to the ring. The fingers of her right hand went to the ring too, the tips running across the smooth gold circle. “I just…” She shrugged. “Want to enjoy it first for a little while, I guess.”
“Enjoy it while it lasts, you mean?” There was a bitter twist to his smile.
“No.” She was firm. “I mean, if this is our honeymoon” – she gestured to the gas station, the customers filling their cars, the two kids screaming over dropped ice cream sandwiches at the sidewalk – “then I don’t want to hear my dad bitching us out over the phone for half of it.” She gave him a wide, bright smile, too full of exuberance to let his doubt about her sincerity slow her down.
He studied her as the pump ticked, ticked, ticked.
“Don’t look at me like you’re waiting for me to regret it,” she said. “Because that’s not going to happen.”
His smile was small, but more true this time. “I know.”
Ava didn’t want him going down this rabbit hole any further than he’d already gone. “So where are we going from here?”
“Cartersville,” he said. “We’ll get something to eat, catch a few hours of sleep, and head out while it’s dark.”
She nodded. “The people we’re staying with – they’re club-friendly?”
He nodded. “Guy went to London with us. I trust him.”
And he didn’t trust easy. His word was more than good enough for her.
Ava stood and put her back to the gas pump, so she stood alongside him.
He watched her. “What?”
She slid her arm around his waist, inside his jacket, leaning into his side, breathing the smell of road and wind off of his clothes. “I needed to do this,” she said, smiling against his flannel-covered chest.
His free hand came up, settling against the back of her head. There would always be something reverent and paternal about the way he touched her, her little girl self always in his conscience. His voice dropped to the barest whisper. “Do you wish–”
“No. Hush,” she admonished, the way he always did with her. “I don’t wish anything but this.”