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Authors: Molly M. Hall

Reckoning

BOOK: Reckoning
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Reckoning

By Molly M. Hall

 

Text copyright ©2012 Molly M Hall

All Rights Reserved

For Liam. Because.

 

THEN

The man stands silent and unmoving amidst the cluster of pine trees, his dark eyes locked on the small girl playing in the sandbox several yards away. His eyes miss nothing – the children scrambling and shouting on the jungle gym to her right; a young boy rising higher and higher on the swing set, his long, thin legs, bronzed from the summer sun, thrusting forward and back, a band-aid across his right knee; mothers, clad in tshirts and shorts, perched on picnic tables and benches, talking in scattered groups, hands clutched around oversized paper cups filled with coffeehouse latte; random joggers, exhaling with short, labored breaths, the soft soles of their running shoes making muffled thumps along the paved pathway running around the perimeter of the park.

But none of them matter. They are like extras in a movie scene – necessary but inconsequential.

His eyes remain focused on the girl. She plays quietly, absorbed in her own activities, the gold and red strands of her hair shining brightly in the morning sun. She glances up occasionally, always looking in the same direction, a questioning look in her striking eyes, before returning her attention to the sand.

Scooping sand into an orange and green plastic pail, she fills it to the brim, before lifting it and dumping the contents onto her bare feet. She wiggles her toes, then swiftly kicks her legs, freeing her feet from their grainy prison. She waits until the sand settles then begins the whole the process again.

Growing bored, she sets the pail aside and curls her short, pale legs beneath her. She begins digging deeper, searching for the sand that is still moist enough to mold into hills and tunnels. With quick efficiency, she forms two squat towers, followed by a third that she carefully places above the others. Digging a narrow, moat-like trench between each, she connects them all into the shape of a triangle.

The man continues to watch. The wind blows steadily through the trees, making the branches lift and sway, but nothing on the man moves – not the hem of his loose, black tunic or a single strand of his long, nearly white hair. He is so still he could be nothing more than a statue, artfully placed within the concealing branches of the trees.

Not that he needs concealing. He could be standing in the middle of the soccer field on the other side of the running path, and no one would notice.

Except her. Which is why he’s chosen the shelter of the trees. The time will come for them to meet. But not yet.

He glances to the side. Children pass in excited, noisy groups. A woman, her belly round and distended from pregnancy, stops while her dog urinates onto the grass. A teenage boy passes, making a wide berth around the dog as he punches buttons on his iPod. A football bounces off the end of a long branch, landing with a soft
thump
inches from his feet. A burly young man, with broad shoulders and a thick waist races forward and grabs it, then hurries on.

The man’s thin lips turn up at the corners. But there is no warmth or humor in the smile. It is cold and calculating. He watches them with disdain, knowing he could eliminate all of them. Instantly. And no one would have any idea how it had happened.

His eyes shift back to the sandbox. The girl pauses in her digging, brushing a strand of hair from her eyes. Looking up, she peers toward the trees again, her head angling to one side.

His eyes narrow, watching her closely, the intensity of her gaze filling his body with heat.

A curious expression crosses the girl’s face. After several moments, she asks,

Who’s that, Mommy?” She points, grains of sand falling from her clenched hand.

The girl’s voice, small and quiet, carries across the open expanse between the sandbox and the trees. The man tenses, wondering if she has seen him.

He moves an inch to the right with the subtlety of leaves stirring in the breeze. His eyes, dark and penetrating, look to the left then dart to the girl’s mother, seated on a bench beside the sandbox.

“Where?” her mother asks, trying to follow the direction of the girl’s pointing finger.

“Over there. Dressed in white.” The girl makes jabbing motions with her finger, her brows drawing together in frustration.

The man relaxes, his momentary tension evaporating. It’s not him. It’s the other one. The pale shadow to his left.

Her mother leans forward peering closely through the trees, then shakes her head. “There’s nobody there, honey. Maybe you just saw somebody running on the other side of the path.”


No!
” The girl protests, dropping her arm and looking at her mother in confusion. “She’s standing right there!” She points again toward the trees.

Her mother pauses before answering, as if gathering the scattered shreds of her patience. “There’s no one there,” she responds firmly, her own expression hovering between exasperation and anger. She turns to a woman sitting next to her and shrugs her shoulders. “The imaginations these kids have. It’s amazing.” She laughs lightly, but casts a worried look at her daughter. Taking a sip of her coffee, she reaches into her purse, extracting her cell phone. Setting the cup aside, her fingers move rapidly over the keypad. Shaking the hair from her face, her thumb hovers over the red
Send
button, her chest rising and falling slowly. Her thumb drops to the button.

The little girl looks at her mother then back at the trees. Clenching her jaw, her bottom lip thrusts out angrily. She pounds at the sand, the small mounds she built earlier crumbling into damp clumps that slowly tumble into the trenches. Sighing, she begins the process of rebuilding. She moves her head to the right, as though preparing to look up, then stops. Sucking in her lower lip, she keeps her eyes focused on the sand.

The man remains still for a moment, eyes passing between the girl and her mother. Silently and swiftly he steps back, moving unnoticed out of the park.

So this is how it is
, he muses.
Interesting. And not what I expected.

Several hours later, he passes by the window of the little girl’s bedroom, the setting sun casting dark shadows into the corners. Pausing, he peers inside. The girl is curled into a ball on her bed, her shoulders shaking with silent sobs. A wave of energy and emotion rolls out, rushing through the glass and brick that separate the two, sweeping over him like an incoming tide. He breathes deeply, eyes narrowing to slits as he watches the little girl wrap herself in a purple comforter, rolling over to face the wall.

He wishes he could forget about her. Ignore her existence. But he can’t. Because his future is irrevocably tied to hers.

Maybe he should just kill her now. It would be easy enough. On the other hand, it might be more fun to wait. Offer more of a challenge. He’d waited so long already, what were another few years? She was hardly a threat, after all.

Turning away, he disappears into the dusk.

NOW

CHAPTER ONE

I thrash on the bed, trying to escape the clutches of the dream, but it pulls at me, sucking me further in.

The fog rolls through the trees, thick and cold, coiling around dark trunks and branches as it snakes its way through the forest. It brushes against my skin with ghostly softness, icy beads of moisture clinging to the hairs along my arms.

Sobbing frantically, I run, shivering with cold and fear. My lungs sear with pain as I gasp for air. I can hear it behind me, growing closer with each step.

Stumbling over the dense undergrowth, I thrust my arms out in front of me. Twigs and branches snap against my hands, breaking with sharp cracks that echo in my ears like gunfire. With rising panic, I surge forward, my scalp throbbing painfully as spiny tree limbs lay claim to strands of hair. The toe of my shoe catches the edge of a rock, barely visible beneath the thick layer of decomposing leaves and bits of broken branches littering the forest floor. I stumble, falling sideways against a tree, the rough bark ripping the thin cotton of my shirt. Pain shoots through my arm, and I clap a hand to my shoulder. Warm blood oozes between my fingers.

Tears roll down my cheeks as I look around desperately for somewhere to hide. The fog has become thicker and I can barely see my hands in front of me. Completely disoriented, I rub a trembling hand across my forehead, trying to ward off the gut-wrenching feeling of vertigo. I have to stay calm. There is a way out. There has to be.

With no concept of direction, I blindly lunge to the right. Whipping my head around, my eyes scan the fog.

Nothing but white - impenetrable and terrifying.

Turning back, I dart forward, colliding with a large boulder, its sharp edges rising stark and gray in the mist. The jolt knocks me to the ground and I push myself unsteadily onto my hands and knees. From somewhere within the whiteness, I hear the underbrush snap and crackle, the fog absorbing the sound like a thick cloak. My head snaps from side to side, my ears straining for even the slightest noise, but I hear nothing beyond the heavy silence. I feel a small glimmer of hope. Maybe it’s gone in the other direction. But the sudden heavy breath that drifts through the fog with terrifying clarity immediately eclipses that brief spark.

With mounting terror, I scramble to my feet and creep forward, one hand clamped over my bleeding shoulder, the other sweeping the area in front of me, searching for obstacles. My head pounds and I fight a sickening onrush of dizziness. My stomach clenches and I swallow hard, fighting against the nausea.

Keep moving. Just keep moving, I tell myself. You’ll find the way out.

But I have the hopeless sensation I’m doing nothing more than moving in random circles.

I peer intently through the thick shroud of white, but I can only make out bits of branches and leaves when they are right in front of me. My fingers touch something sharp and prickly and I immediately recoil in fear. Holding my breath, I reach tentatively forward again, sighing with relief as my fingers curl around the branch of a spruce tree. Squeezing tightly, the sharp scent of pine wafts through the air. In desperation, I drop to my knees and crawl beneath the low-hanging branches, curling myself into a tight ball. Shaking with terror, I try to control my breathing.

Please, God, it won’t find me here. Please…

A twig cracks sharply, and my eyes widen in terror. Slow, measured steps draw closer, then stop. I squeeze my eyes shut, willing it to go away.

Silence.

Panicked, I look around frantically, scanning the area behind me and around the massive trunk. Looking up, I peer into the branches. Maybe I can climb it. It isn’t an escape, but maybe it will at least provide refuge.

Temporarily.

Moving carefully and silently into a squat, I reach one arm up, looking for an opening. But it’s hopeless. The branches are too thick. There’s barely enough space to thrust an arm, let alone my entire body. I strain my head back. The dark branches spiral upward, twirling in ever-smaller circles before disappearing into the white fog. I feel as though I’m being pulled toward them, the ground dropping away as I rise higher and higher. I watch as thin tendrils of mist began seeping through the tree limbs, making their way slowly toward me. A feeling of weightlessness creeps over me, and the dizziness and nausea increase, overriding my earlier fear. From somewhere in the distance I hear what sounds like a scream and I vaguely wonder if it came from me or some other innocent victim. The edges of my vision start to go black. I know with absolute certainty that if I let go, and allow the blackness to enfold me, it will be over. A part of me wants to. It would be so easy, such a relief to stop running…

But I can’t. I have to hold on. I don’t know why, but something vital depends on it.

I force my gaze back to the ground and drop my head between my knees. Breathing deeply, I try to regain my sense of balance. My fingernails press blood-tinged arcs into my palms.

Minutes pass with the agonizing slowness of hours. Listening intently for any sound, I slowly uncoil myself. Terrified of what I might find, but knowing I have to look, I creep to the edge of the branches. Shaking with tension, I reach out one hand.

And freeze.

My ears pick up the tiniest sound, barely audible between the fog and dense branches: A brief, almost indistinguishable snap that would have gone unnoticed except for the overwhelming silence. Not quite a movement. More like the popping of a joint. Or a jaw closing on bared teeth.

BOOK: Reckoning
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