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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Chasing Nightmares by Deb Donahue

Romantic Suspense


Lee Taylor watched the second hand travel toward the twelve. Then, for the first time, he moved. With a stealth nearly equal to the movement of the clock, he lifted his arms up off his bed and held them in front of his eyes.
White swathes of gauze circled his wrists.
Memory returned in ebony waves. The ride in the night, the scream of tires, sparks from the scrape of steel across asphalt, the blade of the knife as he slit through white skin to dark blood. All the scenes played back in slow motion. He fought the memories. His tensed arms shook until he no longer had the strength to hold them up.
He became still again, wishing he could turn off all awareness. The door opened and footsteps entered the bedroom. Still turned away, he knew someone looked down on him.
A cold finger tilted his face toward his visitor.
“There seems to be a little improvement in your color this afternoon,” Charles commented. “How does it feel to be alive?”
For an instant, hate flared within Lee. Buried deep, the ember of emotion glowed red but he would not allow it to gather fuel. Deliberately, he willed his body to relax, inviting back the apathy of before.
As Charles examined his injuries, Lee did not flinch. Eyes on the ceiling, he endured the inspection until the removal of the blood pressure cuff split the silence with a tearing noise.
“You’re healthier than you deserve to be.” Charles gathered his instruments and walked to the door, pausing before he stepped out. “You must have inherited your father’s damnable luck as well as his disturbed mind.”
The suppressed fires of Lee’s rage exploded in the now empty room.
Anne’s stomach lurched as the jet lifted off the runway. She had to be crazy. She had lied to her employer, nearly depleted her small bank account and alienated the only close friend she had ever had.
As she remembered Pat, Anne felt suddenly very small and alone and frightened. Pat had created quite a scene when she found out about Anne’s decision.
“You are not going to do this,” Pat had said firmly. “I won’t let you.”
“You don’t have to let me, Pat. You may be surprised to hear this, but I’m an adult. And you are not my keeper.”
Pat had been hurt, that much showed in her face, but she was angry also.
“Adults don’t fly to Colorado to chase nightmares,” she had retorted.
Which was true. Now that she was actually in the air, Anne realized she had acted foolishly. She felt like she had stepped from narrow confines into a vast, dangerous zone. She almost wept when she thought about the feeling of safety she had thrown away.
Still, she remained convinced her dream meant more than just an unconscious upsurge of her childhood nyctophobia.  The panic attack she’d had six months ago had been a natural response to the city-wide power outage.  It had nothing to do with the image of Lee Taylor slashing his wrists under the crescent moon.  That felt more like a premonition, a vision.  Why else would she be so shaken by a dream about a fellow art student she’d barely noticed before?
Anne shivered as she remembered the motorcycle flying over the hilltop, the shriek of metal when he crashed, the way he pulled himself into the shadows and flipped open the pocket knife.
“First time?”
Anne looked across the aisle at the stranger who had spoken.
“Is this the first time you’ve flown?” he repeated.
She nodded.
“I thought you looked kind of scared. If you like, I can sit next to you and talk. It makes the time go faster.”
He smiled and Anne relaxed a little. When she nodded, he moved to the empty seat at her side, introducing himself as John Wayland. He stayed there for the whole trip, talking and even making her laugh a few times. She found herself relaxing. Soon the flight attendant came for their empty glasses.
“Will you be staying in Denver long?” Wayland asked.
“No.” Her voice was hesitant. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Too bad. But maybe we’ll have a chance to get together anyway.” He reached for his seat belt. “Better buckle up.” He nodded to the lit notices above their heads.
“I told you talking would make the time go faster.”
Anne frowned. The time had gone too fast. She had no plan of action, no answers to the questions that began to crowd her mind. As they approached the airstrip, Anne grew quiet.
Her thoughts, however, were far from silent. The decisions she should have resolved before now clamored for immediate solutions. Where should she spend the night? Where could she find transportation? And the most disquieting—should she fly back home on the next available flight?
None of these questions were answered as she stood later, waiting to pull her suitcase off the revolving rack of luggage. She almost missed her shabby bag and reached for it belatedly only to find another hand picking it up. She looked up, startled, to find John Wayland’s grinning face.
“You’ve got to be quick around here,” he said.
“Right now, I’m too tired to be quick.” She gazed out toward the window and the night beyond. “I wonder—” She looked back at him. “Do you know a hotel where I could get a room? Not too expensive,” she added, her cheeks heated.
“Why don’t you ride with me to where I’m staying? It’s a comfortable place, good service. There’s even a whirlpool to soothe your tired bones.”
“Sounds too expensive.”
“Guaranteed to be within your means. If I’m wrong, I’ll pay the difference.”
They started walking toward the doors. “Well, I suppose one night won’t break me. I think I’ve decided to head home first thing tomorrow.”
“Really?” He held open the door for her. “Pat will be glad to hear that.”
She stopped on the threshold.
In the artificial light, his complexion grew patchy.
“Oops,” he said sheepishly. “I guess I blew it.”
“Excuse me,” an elderly woman said impatiently from behind them.
Anne stepped aside. John held the door for the annoyed woman before he rejoined Anne.
“You know Pat?” Anne asked through stiff lips.
“I was one of her teachers last semester. We became friends. Look, Anne.” He smiled and put a hand on her arm. “There’s no reason to get upset. Pat was worried about you because she cares. She knew I was heading to Denver tomorrow anyway, so—” He shrugged one shoulder.
“Did Pat tell you why she thought I needed a watch dog?”
“She mentioned a nightmare.” He hesitated. “She also told me about the difficulties you had some time ago.”
“I’m sure she filled you in quite thoroughly.” Anne switched her suitcase to her other hand. “Abandoned childhood, disrupted foster homes, a severe phobia. If I go back, there will probably be a nice starched jacket waiting for me. Well, no thanks, Mr. Wayland. I don’t need that or your special attention.”
He put a hand out to stop her, but she brushed past him. Mouth set in a straight line, she didn’t bother to look back as she jerked open the door of a taxi.
“Where to, lady?” asked the driver.
Anne fell back in her seat, her face still hot.
“Anyplace with a vacancy sign.”
But beneath her anger throbbed an ache for the vacancy that had opened in her life once again.
Dawn was hours away. Lee sat up and removed the gum from his mouth, quickly replacing it with a fresh stick. The spearmint cooled the delicate tissues of his mouth. He suddenly needed an icy drink of water and a picture of Silver Creek flashed through his mind.
The rush of clear water filled his brain. It tumbled over rocks and foamed and sparkled.
He jumped up to turn on the light, then placed a prepared canvas on the high table against the wall. From among the jumble of oil paints, he chose colors and mixed until he had the exact shades he wanted. He raised the brush…
Hand suspended, Lee stared at the pure canvas and tried to project the stream onto it with his mind. He frowned and a flush began to spread coral fingers across his cheeks.
With a jerk, he threw the paintbrush across the room. Losing control, he began throwing jars of tempura paint. The glass exploded in brilliant hues, making the wall a mad mural of red, yellow and blue. Shards dripped their colors onto the carpet.
Lee flicked off the light and stepped to the window. In the night, the driveway remained only a black line through dark tree shapes. Moonlight glinted on the carefully planted wilderness of the front garden.  Lights from the closest neighbors looked like stars dotting the slope in the distance.
He could not see the creek behind the house, but as he leaned further out he could hear the running of the water.
On the hill, a white bulk drew his gaze. At this distance, the abandoned building looked more like a ghost than a scarred and decayed farm house. He stared at it with eyes as blank as its curtain less windows.
He looked down to the cement of the patio. The before-dawn humidity left a cool breath on his face. He leaned further…
An owl hooted a warning and caught Lee’s attention. Once again, his ears tuned in to Silver Creek.
If he’d been given Susan’s room, he could have seen the water.
“The bastard probably did it on purpose,” he muttered as he pulled his head back.
He tried to avoid his work table when he turned the light back on, but the pull proved irresistible. He ground the palms of his hands together to still the urge to pick up a paintbrush.
Instead, he reached for the pile of uncompleted projects—the badly started, the half-finished, the rejected works—that were all he’d been able to create lately.
The frustration returned with a sense of worthlessness. He cursed raggedly and dumped the paintings back on the table. Abruptly, he turned toward the bathroom, hesitated, then walked close enough to see the reflected light in the medicine cabinet mirror.
He stayed there, motionless, as the night outside the window shaded into the rosy colors of dawn.
The young girl perched her toes along the edge of the pool. Knees bent, she put her arms over her head and leaned forward. Her body angled toward the water, taut and smooth, the hip line just beginning to grow fuller, small breasts proudly mounding the floral print of her bikini. With a push, she sliced into the water.
From the kitchen, Hector watched Susan, his bulk no more than a darker shadow behind the screen of the door. The girl reached the far end of the pool and hauled herself, dripping, from the water. The man did not blink or give away his presence by any movement. Only his eyes followed her.
“Finished so soon?” Charles asked from behind him.
Hector whirled around, his lip curled.
“The car looks disgraceful after our expedition the other night,” Charles said. “I suggest you tend to that now.”
Hector pushed through the door and Charles stepped forward to the vacated observation point. He watched as the Cadillac was backed out of the garage—as close to the swimming pool as possible.
Charles turned his attention to Susan. She would be a beautiful woman someday. Athletically inclined, her body was trim and well-toned, immature as yet but apparently adequate to arouse Hector’s interests.
Dangerous interests, Charles reflected.
He explored the loose metal stripping of the threshold with his shoe and frowned. That would have to be taken care of before someone had a nasty fall.
“Lee,” Susan called from outside. Head thrown back, she directed her smile at the second floor. “Come on down and swim. It’s beautiful out already.”
Charles could not hear the reply, but as he stepped out into the sunshine, Susan ran up to greet him.
“Why not get your suit on, too, Uncle Charles?” she invited. “Then the three of us can have a race.”
“Lee is going to join you?”
“Sure, he said he’d be right down. So how about it?”
He declined, using the difference in their ages as an excuse. He lowered himself into a yellow-cushioned chaise lounge, one eyebrow raised, to watch the back door.
As he suspected, when Lee did arrive, he did not wear swimming trunks.
“Where’s your suit?” Susan asked as her brother approached.
“I don’t feel like swimming,” Lee answered, choosing a metal armchair to sit in.
“But it’s so hot,” Susan protested. “How can you stand wearing a long sleeved shirt?”
“Perhaps because necessity is the mother of invention,” Charles intervened.
Charles did not answer her perplexity, but smiled as Lee pulled uncomfortably at the concealing cuffs of his shirt.
The young man looked drawn with sleeplessness, his hair dark lank across the paleness of his brow. His fingers, Charles noted, rubbed together in an endless gesture.
“You missed breakfast,” Susan said. “I’ll make you something. There’s ham and eggs and jam for the toast. I hope you like scrambled because I always seem to break the yolks when I—”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You’ve got to eat. Breakfast is the most important—”
“I said I’m not hungry,” Lee snapped.
Susan’s mouth clamped shut and she blinked rapidly.
“I just meant—” she started weakly.
She turned away and Lee made a half-formed move in her direction. His fists clenched, he settled for awkward words. “I’m sorry, Sue. I guess I’m just nervous. Irritable.”
Susan stared at her brother, her eyes huge. She seemed to have forgotten Charles.
“I remember,” she said, “when Daddy was alive. You used to be—nervous—then, too. But never with me.”
“God, Sue,” Lee said, pressing fingers to his eyes. He stood up. “I said I was sorry. I can’t—”
He broke off, leaving them without another word. A silent Susan waited as he headed across the yard, toward the hill and the white house that sat just beyond the crest.
“Why does he go there all the time?” she asked. “The only thing left is bad memories.”
Charles watched the diminishing figure on the hill. As Susan walked slowly back to the house, he closed his eyes and leaned his head back. With his face relaxed in the warmth of the sun, the corners of his mouth turned gently upward in a smile.

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