Heir to the Underworld

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For as long as Frederica can remember, there’s been something odd about her family. Secret conversations she isn’t supposed to hear, separate bedrooms for her parents, and a terrible fear in her father’s eyes that she doesn’t understand. She used to worry her parents were on the edge of divorce. If only…

Then a strange boy–mysterious but irresistible–comes to her town. Paranormal danger follows him everywhere and, the closer Freddy gets to her crush, the weirder her life becomes. She is sucked into a perilous world where myth and legend are real. And the ancient gods are at war with one another.

Freddy finds herself caught between the feuding pantheons. Now she must fight her way home and defeat a ruthless new enemy who will stop at nothing to see Freddy dead.

A fun fantasy adventure with a romantic twist, this book should appeal to fans of butt-kicking female leads and hot guys with a supernatural secret.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The agony of geometry class had ended at last, and Frederica Fitzgerald shot out the back gate of her high school, beating the swarm of her fellow students to freedom. Freddy trudged uphill to her house without stopping to hang out with her friends. The Dreaded Math Homework would not wait.

The road didn’t have a sidewalk, but it wasn’t used much by cars. Keeping well to the side anyway, her thigh occasionally brushed the rusted metal of the road divider as she walked. She glanced over the divider now and then, gazing down the incline at the hillside dotted with pine trees and frosted with their needles. The smell of the needles prickled deep in her nose, chalky and dry.

The promise of a storm loomed in the sky and she pulled the hood of her sweatshirt over her hair with a sigh. Yesterday was gorgeous. Sunny. Warm. Now the world looked like a sludgy dish drain.

She dug her MP3 player out, tucked her earbuds in, and cranked the volume on an old Regina Spektor album, resigning herself to a long–and potentially wet–walk home.

As the music blared in her ears, Freddy’s nerves prickled, a bizarre tension gripping her. The air itself seemed wrong, too thick, sparking with power that weighed her lungs down as she breathed in. She whipped her head around, worried someone was following her, but the road remained empty.

A black horse appeared beside her, almost on top of her, in the road. She careened away from the huge, bucking animal, and backed into the guardrail so hard she toppled over the side. She slammed into the ground; the air whooshed out of her lungs with an aching pain. Pine needles crunched beneath her body as she slid down the slight incline.

Laying there gasping and shaken as she stared at the canopy of pines, Freddy tried to understand where the horse had come from. Even with her earbuds in, she should have heard the animal coming, should have seen it on the road ahead of her.

Had a freaking horse materialized out of thin air?

The horse whinnied and she bolted upright, irrationally scared the animal would jump the guardrail, but then she noticed the animal’s rider. The rider’s muscles strained in his bare arms as he brought the horse to heel with a sharp tug of the reins.

Freddy gulped, and her heart stopped trying to batter its way out of her chest.

The rider dismounted, leather soles slapping on the pavement as he landed. A floppy straw hat screened his face from view, and he kept his back to Freddy as he soothed his stallion.

The rider wore some kind of historical costume, a molded leather breastplate over a short-sleeved blue tunic. A woolen cloak in a darker blue draped over his left shoulder and fastened to the right one by an ornate plant-shaped pin. He didn’t have any pants on under his tunic. Seriously weird. Sturdy leather sandals laced to mid-calf completed his ensemble. Freddy wasn’t an expert, but she thought he was going for a sort of Greco-Roman look.

Why he’s wearing his costume out and about, trampling people on a monster black horse, I do not know.

After a minute more had passed, with the rider still crooning to his now-calm horse and ignoring her, Freddy snapped out, “Oh, don’t bother about me. I don’t mind that your horse nearly killed me.” Nerves still shocky after the close call, her voice broke. Embarrassed, she swallowed the lingering fear, not wanting this rude stranger to see her so scared.

The rider turned to her, mouth open, eyes wide. He half-stepped toward her, his voice harsh and low. “Who are you?”

As far as heartfelt and concerned apologies went…this one was somehow lacking.

If he’d apologized or, hey, asked if she was all right, Freddy would have been fine. But his total lack of concern nearly undid her control, causing pointless, immature tears to pool in her eyes. Deciding that anger was more soothing than bawling, Freddy glared at the shadowed face under the bizarre hat. “What are you wearing?”

He blinked. “Beg pardon?”

“Your clothes.” She gestured up and down to indicate his whole outrageous outfit. “You’re going for a Roman solider, right? Is there a reenactment around here or something?”

Wariness sprang into the boy’s eyes, and another flash of annoyance zipped through Freddy. If he was that embarrassed by his hobby, why was he riding around in public wearing a costume?

He spoke slowly, scanning the ground with his eyes. “Yes. There is a gathering of reenactors up the hill.” He had the faintest trace of an accent, nothing she recognized, but the formality of his words and the precise, clipped way he talked showed he wasn’t from SoCal. That made sense, not too many Roman reenactors in America, after all. “I was running late, you see.”

Figures. She clenched her teeth in irritation. “Is that why you were riding your horse like a freaking idiot?”

The rider laughed suddenly, a sincere, bone-deep rumble. “Yes, I am an idiot. Beg pardon. But you should learn to look where you are going.”

You ran me over, pal.”

“Are you injured?” He moved forward and pushed his hat off his head.

To call him attractive would be a modest assessment. Basically…the guy was hot. Tall. Dark. So handsome it made her teeth hurt. She stared at him, suddenly aware that pollen and dirt covered her, that pokey pine needles clung to her clothes, that she was grubby and sweaty and totally not hot just then. Hiding her embarrassment, she straightened her spine and met his stare.

His eyes glinted, an odd amber color that caught the light and made her stomach flutter. The charming smile broadened as she stared at him. Leaning over the guardrail, he offered her his hand.

Rolling her eyes, Freddy forced herself to stand unassisted and clambered over the guardrail, still pissed about the ‘look where you’re going’ remark. “Enjoy playing dress-up!” she tossed off as she stalked past the rider and his stupid horse with her chin high, intent on continuing her interrupted walk home. She had geometry homework to do, and this guy–hot as he was–seemed a little too arrogant for her tastes. Even if he was a stone-cold fox.

The rider followed her, towing his horse behind. “Where are you going? Perhaps I can escort you there to make amends.”

I am going away from you.” Freddy redoubled her pace, feeling the first stirring of alarm that maybe the boy was dangerous somehow. Why was he following her?

He fell easily in step beside her. “Do I know you?”

Freddy turned so her hood shadowed her face, hoping to signal she was not in the mood to be flirted with. “No, you don’t.”

“Perhaps I know your father.”

Freddy looked over at the boy, especially at his meticulous historical costume. Her dad used to perform on the local Renaissance Faire circuit, and this kid seemed like a good candidate for a RenFaire fanboy. “Do you go to the SoCal Renaissance Faire?”

He smiled, absently reaching behind to stroke his horse’s nose as the animal shifted from foot to foot, looking antsy. “I do. Your father works there, yes?”

“He used to perform in the jousts. Then he made swords. He’s retired now.”

“I think I remember his booth. And you. You helped him run it.”

Freddy stopped and gave a slow nod. “Yeah, but I was younger then.”

He gave a self-deprecating snort. “So was I, and far too shy to talk to the pretty girl with dimples at the sword booth.”

Heat splashed over her cheekbones. She fought not to smile and flash said-dimples at him now. This adorable boy had thought she was cute as a gawky eleven year old? So…what did he think of her now?

Oh, jeez, Fred. Just because Mr. Roman Armor was gorgeous, didn’t mean she had to go all gooey over him and turn into a fluttering nitwit. Right?

Right. Duly chastened, she still let him fall in step beside her as she walked home.

He tugged the reins of his reluctant horse but somehow managed to match her long strides. “Does your dad still sell swords? He did excellent work, I recall. And I could actually afford one now.”

At those words excitement flared along Freddy’s nerve endings, but she kept her face bland. Her parents had said they couldn’t afford to get her the new laptop she wanted for her birthday. But her dad’s swords sold for really good money. Darting a look over to her new friend, at his well-made and thoroughly authentic looking outfit–not to mention the bit of fine horseflesh he dragged behind himself–plans for her new laptop hatched in her mind.

How old was he? He looked about her age, maybe a year or two older, but she didn’t know anyone near her own age with several hundred dollars to burn on an ornamental sword. This dude probably had a rich mommy and daddy.

She pasted the friendliest of friendly smiles on her face, ready to lay the groundwork for a sword-selling push. “What’s your name?”

“My name is Smith.”

“Smith?”

“Yes.” He beamed at her. “Guy Smith.”

“Right.” That is a made up name if I have ever heard one. Her insides twisted with uneasiness. Mr. Smith, Guy Smith was bigger, stronger, and he seemed to have no trouble keeping pace with her.

Still smiling, she swung her bag around and palmed her pocketknife while she also fished out some gum to cover the action. Her dad liked weapons the way most dads liked baseball, and he’d given her the knife as soon as she grew old enough not to lose a finger. She popped the gum into her mouth and hid the knife in her sweatshirt sleeve. Just in case.

Mr. Guy Smith fell in step beside her again. “And who are you? What are you called?”

She glanced at the sky to buy time to think. A murder of crows stared at her from the power line, their beady eyes following her progress. Creepy. Shaking herself free of the odd moment, she smiled big at her unwelcome companion. “I’m Jane Jones. Nice to meet you, Guy.”

He narrowed his eyes, but matched her grin with one of his own. “Jane Jones is not your real name.”

She scoffed, annoyed that he was calling her on her lie without acknowledging the whopper he’d just told her. “My parents aren’t very imaginative.” She pivoted on her heel to face him. But she misjudged her timing and nearly bumped into him when she turned. Stumbling in surprise, she lost her balance. Guy reached to catch her, his hands going around her arms.

She stared at him as he steadied her, her brain going fuzzy as she tilted her head back to see his face. She hadn’t realized he was so tall. He was taller than her–a new experience for Freddy, who, at nearly six feet, had always been taller than most of the boys of her class. Even now she was in high school, she was taller than everybody–girls, boys, teachers. But Guy Smith topped her by a few inches.

As he continued to hold her, she couldn’t help noticing how nicely his arms fit around her, how exactly the hollow of his cheekbone would press against hers, how accessible his lips would be for kissing…

He seemed to have a similar idea, as his arm banded around her waist to pull her against him.

Tingling all over, conflicting signals riddled her body. Half of her screamed to push him away, the other half cried out to embrace Mr. Smith. Stalemate.

Freddy put a hand out to stop him pulling her any nearer. His heart beat a tattoo beneath her palm that she could sense even through the leather breastplate. Could he feel the way hers thundered against her rib cage? He’s gonna kiss me. She stared at his full lips, at their sardonic curve, and wasn’t sure what she would do if he tried.

But he only pushed back the hood of her sweatshirt to uncover her hair. He coiled one of her red curls around his finger. “I suspected you for a redhead. Your temper, after all.” His gaze met hers, and a soft, intense heat flared inside Freddy.

Abruptly, he dropped her hair and, swifter than her gaze could follow, his hand shot out to pull the knife from her sleeve. He released her and moved to examine the steel pocketknife with an approving eye. She tensed her muscles and waited with wary attention for his next move. When he flicked the blade open, Freddy flinched in fear, prepared to bolt.

But almost as soon as he’d opened the pocketknife he snapped the blade closed then grinned at her. “Cold iron. Very clever, and a fine weapon. Though a trifle inadequate for big game hunting.” He tossed the blade back to her.

She caught her knife out of sheer reflex and gaped at him. How could he have seen me palm it?

Guy darted another grin at her then walked around to mount his horse, presenting his back to her.

Off-balance and wildly confused, emotions tumbling, brain fumbling, Freddy remained speechless. Who is this kid?

He swung easily into his saddle, leather creaking as he settled his weight. “Meet me tomorrow, dear Jane? I should like to make recompense for that unfortunate close call.” Riding in close, he offered his hand to her. “I wish to further our acquaintance if you will let me. If you would care to.”

Hesitantly, she shook hands with him, his palm smooth and warm as it slid against hers. Feeling silly, she tried to keep her voice flat, even as she nodded. “I guess we can hang out for a bit.”

“Tomorrow? After school?”

She chewed her thumbnail. “How about you meet me at Biaggio’s? It’s a little Italian place. I can walk there from school.”

“Certainly.”

And there will be lots of other people in case you’re a nutcase. She jerked her chin at the black brute he was sitting on. “Leave the horse at home.”

“Balios does not like Italian at any rate.”

She stifled a smile. “Well, have fun with your Roman…stuff.”

“Yes…I will.” He gave her a grin, but the expression didn’t warm his eyes. “You should hurry to your home, dear Jane. Now’s no time for innocent maids to be about.” With no other goodbye, he rode off around a curve in the road.

Freddy jumped as the cawing crows shattered the bubble she’d disappeared into with Guy. One large bird soared away from the power cable, disrupting all its companions as it flapped into the clouds.

She shook her head, trying to rattle her thoughts into some kind of order. Every step toward home made her less certain she hadn’t imagined the whole encounter. Guy appeared too good to be true in many ways–not the least of which was the fact he was attracted to her.

 

Chapter Two

Freddy arrived at her house soon enough. A squat, one story stucco her parents had bought cheap. Her family lived in a good neighborhood, but the Fitzgerald house was a fixer upper that, in the sixteen years her family lived there, had never managed to get “fixed.” She let herself in and crossed to the kitchen.

While Freddy pummeled away at her math homework, Freddy’s dad made dinner. Her mom came in from her art studio in the garage still wearing her painting clothes–an old sweater and tight black leggings. Mom had twisted her wavy brown hair around a pencil, and random pieces escaped to frame her pale face and sleepy brown eyes. Freddy sighed. She could spend hours laboring at her appearance and never be half as gorgeous as her mom.

Her dad set dinner in the center of the table as they all took their seats. The fried chicken, greasy and crisp, burnt at the edges, smelled so good Freddy fought a desire to drag the whole bird onto her plate. Sudden movement at the window made her pause, but it was only a large crow taking off from the fence.

Her dad, Colin, watched the crow until it disappeared before he joined them at the table. He flipped a piece of ashy blond hair away from his eyes and smirked at Freddy, a dimple under the curve of his mouth.

With a blond, a brunette and a redhead, her family was a joke waiting for some kind of punch line, and Freddy was constantly amazed how many people asked her if she was adopted. Freshman biology had finally supplied her with the lovely information that red hair was a recessive genetic trait, which was how the blond and brunette could end up with the redhead daughter.

Her dad swallowed his first bite and tapped his fork on Freddy’s plate to get her attention. “Fancy some training, kiddo?”

Mom immediately set her fork down with a sharp clink. “She has a C in geometry. She needs to study.”

Spirit sinking, Freddy’s body instinctively braced, already anticipating the coming fight.

Dad’s lips turned back in a stretched, stressed smile. He stared at Mom but said nothing. The too familiar tension between her parents built higher with every passing moment, and it echoed inside Freddy, locking her muscles, making her nauseous.

The moment stretched until Mom lowered her eyes. “Go ahead and train if you want to, baby.”

Freddy glanced suspiciously at both her parents. “But homework always trumps training.” What about the rest of the fight?

Mom dug a bit of white meat from the chicken bones, pretending nothing was weird. Dad finished his drink in one long swallow then rose and tossed his soda can into the recycling bin with a muted clunk. With a sigh, he stepped into the garage.

Hey.” Freddy threw the remains of her dinner in the trash. “I think the obtuse triangles can wait.”

Dad sighed with what sounded like relief. “Quarterstaff or archery?”

Freddy so didn’t feel up to hefting a quarterstaff. “Archery.”

Mom stood. “Are moms welcome, or is this daddy-daughter time?”

Grinning, Dad held the garage door open and beckoned to Freddy and Mom. He carried the homemade wooden target to the backyard, Mom dug out the bows, and Freddy counted the arrows.

The house might be disheveled and run-down, but her parents maintained the backyard. A riot of red roses swirled with peachy accents nestled against the fence. An aged nectarine tree huddled in the far corner. Dad put the target in front of the stubby tree and walked back, counting out fifty paces to mark the firing line. All chivalry, he offered Freddy the first shot.

She fell into her shooting stance as she stepped over to the firing line. She raised her bow and pulled her string back in a textbook move, her drawing hand level with her chin, the arrow’s fletching inches from her face. She relaxed her drawing fingers and let fly. A delighted glow started under her skin as each of her arrows struck the target just shy of the second ring. A Good Archery Day.

Dad patted her shoulder. Sticking his six arrows in the ground, he stepped up to the firing line. Falling into a perfect T-stance, he cradled his arrow between his fingers. A true master, her dad nocked his arrow and fired all in one fluid movement–a maneuver Freddy herself was still trying to perfect. His shaft sailed home short of a bull’s-eye, but he tsked and tutted, never happy with anything less than center hits.

As Mom moved forward, she smiled at Freddy. “Did you invite everyone for the party Saturday?”

Freddy nodded, her mind humming. Her seventeenth birthday three days away. How could she have let that slip her mind? Visions of her coming party danced in her head, and she bounced on her heels.

As Mom cursed, Freddy snapped out of her giddy haze. Her dad leaned on his bow and pondered the sky. Usually he helped Mom when she shot with them. Today he seemed too preoccupied. Mom’s second, third, and fourth shots all missed the target, and Freddy waited for her dad to step in, the tension building in her muscles as he continued to stand there staring at the sky. Was something wrong with him? Or was he still pissed at Mom?

Dad’s head at last came down, but Freddy’s nerves still strained with anxiety when he made no move to help her mom. He just looked at Mom under his lashes, so she stopped mid-draw, frowning.

Freddy tried to decipher the unspoken, taut signals they sent each other. No good. She gritted her teeth as she watched her parent’s interplay, a sense of powerlessness clawing at her insides.

Mom lowered her bow arm to her side, shifting uneasily on her feet. Dad took a breath. “Freddy, we have to…there’s something–” He broke off and simply stared at her, his eyes hollow with grief.

Freddy wanted to shake her head, even run away, anything to stop the next words that might come out of her dad’s mouth. But she froze, paralyzed by the desolate looks on her parents’ faces. Oh, God, they’re getting a divorce.

Mom’s hand darted forward to grip Dad’s arm. He met Mom’s eyes, and she shook her head, a strange, pleading look on her face. Freddy’s skin seemed too tight, suffocating her, making her itchy and anxious.

He frowned and looked skyward again. After a minute, he turned to Freddy with brittle cheer, “How’d your day go, kiddo?”

Freddy almost fainted in relief. The divorce wasn’t real. It wasn’t happening. She nearly ran over to bear hug her mom for making Dad change the subject. Dad gave Freddy an expectant look, tilting his head to the side. “Your day? Good? Bad? Ugly?”

Not ugly. Guy Smith’s gorgeous face materialized in her mind, and Freddy’s finger spasmed around her arrow. The point jabbed her finger, but didn’t break the skin. She sucked on her smarting finger to stall for time. A little embarrassed by her silly reactions to Guy, she didn’t want anyone–least of all her over-protective dad–to know about Guy Smith yet. “Nothing interesting.” She shook the sting out of her hand and avoided Dad’s gaze as she stepped up to loose her next set of arrows.

~~~

Freddy’s arms turned to putty as the sky got too dark to see, and her stomach started gnawing at her, growling loud enough that her mom noticed and raised an amused eyebrow. After Freddy’s last turn, Dad sent her inside while he and Mom put away the archery supplies.

Freddy made herself a peanut butter sandwich to take the edge off her hunger. Mom came in, declaring herself shower-bound and kissed Freddy goodnight on her way.

Dad returned from outside and wolfed down the leftover chicken, finishing it in one hearty helping. Freddy sensed her dad watching her, but she avoided eye contact while she ate, hoping she could avoid whatever confrontation was coming. As she drained the last of her milk, she met Dad’s eyes across the table. He frowned at her.

She frowned back, shifting in her seat with guilty energy. “What?”

Dad set his fork down with a click. “You’re not where you should be on your sword work. You’re good, but beatable.”

She flushed with relief, even as a niggle of worry plucked at the back of her brain. Her body ached, her muscles erupting in hot pain when she was foolish enough to move them, trying to lift something or, God forbid, walk. If she agreed to spar, she’d be lucky to have the use of her arms tomorrow at all. “What does it matter if I’m beatable?” she asked.

“You need to be able to defend yourself.”

“I can.” She pushed aside the memory of how she’d frozen when Guy grabbed her. “Look, why are we becoming so fanatical about training? I thought training was for fun. Family bonding.” She laughed, trying to keep the mood light, to discourage Dad from any confession he might want to make. “I mean, c’mon, Dad, how likely is it someone’s ever going to try and kill me?”

At the sound of breaking china, she half-rose to her feet, her nerves raw and jolting with the noise.

Dad had only dropped one of the plates he was cleaning. “Damn. Stay put while I get the vacuum.” He returned and cleaned up the broken dish with jerky, strained movements. A small worry-line creased his forehead.

He’s seriously concerned about something. Freddy clenched her hands under the table to keep them from shaking. Something to do with me.

Her parents had kept separate bedrooms her whole life. She’d have to be an idiot not to have realized before this that her parents didn’t have the strongest marriage. But she’d always hoped, selfish or not, that she was enough to keep them together.

Dad’s anxious look at practice, his aborted confession, this frantic bid for quality time with her…it would be naïve not to let her mind wander toward divorce. Oh, God, were her parents splitting up?

A chill flooded through her blood, tingling along her veins and down to her stomach, hollowing her out, making her sick with worry. It was very childish of her, self-centered and wrong even, to want her parents to stay married if they weren’t happy. But she’d still do anything to keep her family together. I’ll even endure more sword practice to make Dad happy.

~~~

Once Freddy agreed to sword practice, Dad kept her at sword work with a dogged intensity he’d never had before. Freddy couldn’t figure out why he was pushing her so hard. If he wanted more time with her, then this was a crappy way to go about family bonding. If he really thought he was trying to make her combat ready, then why train with swords?

Still, in order to be a good daughter, she spent three hours doing drills in the garage with him. He didn’t speak except to give her directions when she assumed the wrong stance or to direct her to a better move for a certain situation.

Eventually, her arms went numb, refusing to obey her brain when it ordered them to lift her sword. Dad almost knocked her head off with an overhead swing but pulled back in time. She collapsed in shock and ended up with a bruised butt instead of a bloody head.

He panted, red-faced and ragged, his shirt stained in sweat. Freddy dripped with sweat, too, and couldn’t get off the floor unassisted.

Mom banged through the garage’s screen door at that moment with a load of dirty laundry. She paused in the entry with her laundry basket and frowned when she saw Freddy. Setting her laundry down, Mom tugged Freddy to her feet, glaring at Dad all the while.

Freddy cursed herself. Here she’d been trying to make Dad happy and all she’d managed to do was set another fight to brewing. If she could’ve made her body move, she would have bashed her forehead against the floor to punish herself.

Insides writhing, Freddy decided to retreat and see if that calmed her parents down. She turned to Dad, weary to the soles of her feet and the roots of her hair, gut churning with worry. “Dad?”

He tapped her shoulder. “We’re done.”

She made good her escape, only pausing in the kitchen to drink a glass of water, each delicious, metallic tasting gulp soaking into her parched throat.

“My lady, please, her birthday is this weekend.” The sound of Dad’s voice, the pleading tone in it, stopped Freddy in her tracks at the kitchen’s threshold.

Freddy’s dad sometimes called Mom that–“my lady.” The nickname grossed Freddy out, but just then she was so keyed up with worry over their marriage, her dad could have called Mom “Sugarlips” and Freddy would’ve jumped for joy.

Dad never used “my lady” in front of Freddy–only when he thought she wasn’t around. Creeping back through the kitchen, she peeked through the garage’s screen door, ready and willing to be relieved of her divorce fears.

Dad sat crumpled on the floor, arms resting on his bent knees, head sunk to his chest. “Sooner or later we have to tell her.”

No. No. Catching her own lower lip and biting down was all that kept Freddy from screaming at her parents to shut up. She didn’t want to know, but she needed to all the same, so she kept herself quiet even as inside she howled.

Mom stood over Dad, hands on her hips, her mouth tight. “Let it be later.” Dad clamped his jaw, but she kept talking. “She’s happy as she is. Happy. Carefree. Normal. The truth–it’ll destroy her. I can’t. I won’t.”

Freddy shivered, pressing tighter to the door and scrunching her spine so they wouldn’t notice her. She had no intention of missing the rest of this conversation–even if she wasn’t technically a part of it.

He gaped at Mom. “What are you talking about? You have to tell her. It’s happening on Saturday. You’ve known about this for sixteen years.”

So I was a mistake. Freddy had always suspected her parents had needed to get married. So…her dad had agreed to help raise Freddy but now she was almost grown-up, almost out the door to adulthood, he was leaving Mom, his duty fulfilled. Emotions simmered and boiled inside Freddy, anger tingling and tensing in her muscles even as her throat clotted with grief.

Mom approached Dad and sank to the floor next to him. Her voice was so soft Freddy had to stop breathing to hear. “Colin, listen. I don’t want it to happen. I want us all to stay here.” Mom looked at Dad, and wet her lips. “Together.”

Something flickered over Dad’s face, his brows drawing down in an almost pained look. The quick flash of emotion stopped Freddy’s breath. Dad’s tempted. Her dad did want to stay with Mom. With us. Dad looked at his feet, concealing his expression with shadows. His fists tensed as he sucked in a deep breath. “You do not wish to return to your old life, my lady?”

Huh? Mom’s “old life” pre-Freddy consisted of dropping out of high school and playing hippie for two years. Why would Mom want to return to that?

 “I don’t want to go back. I haven’t for a long time.” Mom touched his arm lightly–as if afraid he would flinch away. “Could you stop it from happening?”

“It?” The divorce? The hungry, desperate look on Mom’s face made Freddy’s spine prickle. Are my parents talking about their divorce? Suddenly, she wasn’t so sure, but the thought did nothing to comfort her.

“Colin? Could you?”

Freddy watched Dad as intently as her mom did. He finally looked up and his eyes flashed, fierce and somehow frightening. “Yes. I think I can.” His voice sounded dull, and his face had emptied of all emotion so he seemed cold, not like himself.

Stop what? Freddy wished she had gone off to shower like a good little girl. She didn’t want to know what her parents were talking about; she didn’t want to know they were in danger, she was in danger.

And from what? Maybe Freddy didn’t really know her parents. Maybe what she thought she knew was only lies. After all, what kind of deadly peril could an artist and an EMT get themselves into?

Dad stood and paced the garage in restless strides, raking his fingers through his hair. “Nothing should happen until Saturday. We have enough time; I can get proper protections around the house before then.”

Those words confirmed Freddy’s worst fears, sending a spiral of pain and grief outward from her gut. My parents are lying to me. And they have been for a long time. She hugged herself and leaned against the doorframe, as emotionally drained by that brief moment as she’d been physically drained by the hours of weapons training before.

 “It’s been so long,” Mom said. “Do you really think it will happen?”

Dad let his breath out in a hiss. “Yes.” He patted Mom’s cheek in reassurance. “But I intend to keep Freddy safe.”

Safe from what? Safe from what? Freddy clenched her fingers around the doorframe, swallowing her screams and her emotions down, her chest tight with everything she was holding captive inside it.

“Good.” Mom walked past Dad, toward the door. Toward Freddy’s hiding place.

Freddy hesitated, toying with the idea of confronting the two of them. But as her mom approached, Freddy’s heart clenched, making her catch her breath on a sob. What aren’t you telling me?

Freddy retreated, scurrying as quickly as she could to the bathroom then easing the door shut. Turning the hot water on full, she switched it to the shower at once, then stood there for a long time, letting the water run.

Thoughts cascaded through her mind, nearly drowning her.

Maybe I misunderstood. Maybe they were talking about Dad moving out. She held the edge of the sink for support, resting her forehead against the cool glass of the mirror. Or maybe they were talking about something else entirely. Every other option she came up with failed to comfort, because no matter what her parents were really talking about, one thing seemed crystal clear–her family was in trouble.

She didn’t know what to think. Or do.

Once the bathroom mirror had fogged entirely with steam from the shower she wasn’t using, Freddy finally stripped and climbed in. The scalding water soothed her aching muscles, and with the release of that pain, some of her emotions settled as well. Her parents–whoever they were, whatever was wrong–loved her, that unshakable knowledge was as much a part of Freddy as her right arm and as solid a foundation for her soul as bedrock. Whatever revelations they dish out on Saturday, I’ll deal. Even if Dad leaves, we’ll still be family. Always.

Comforted, she settled in for a long, hot shower and belted show tunes into the echoing chamber, blotting out her own thoughts…

So she wouldn’t have to think about what she’d heard. So she wouldn’t have to think about the fact her parents were lying to her.

So she wouldn’t worry what might happen on Saturday.

~~~

Later that night, Freddy thrashed and turned under her covers, her mind spinning in a relentless rerun of the day’s events. Sometime after midnight, she fell into a fitful doze, but as the sky lightened toward dawn an odd slosh and suck noise outside her window woke her.

The watery noises continued for several long minutes, until she impatiently threw off her comforter and walked to her window. The window remained half-open to let air circulate, and Freddy eased it the rest of the way open. She leaned out to look at the backyard, scanning for a running hose or something.

An old woman hunched by the back gate, a bucket of water at her feet with a washboard propped against it. Freddy clutched the window edge, her breath catching on a startled gasp. The strange woman scrubbed a shirt against the board in a steady, hypnotizing rhythm, sloshing water onto the lawn. The whole situation was weird enough, but the woman herself plucked at Freddy’s senses, something just not right with the strange figure, her very presence caused Freddy’s skin to rise in goosebumps.

Half turning from the window, Freddy braced to run for her dad, but somehow she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the woman. Almost as if someone physically held Freddy in place there. She faced the window again, tense and jittery, her fingers digging into the wood grain of her windowsill.

The washerwoman had pasty skin, gnarled and sagging with age. The remnants of her once-green dress were torn at the bottom and stained a dirty brown. Her long, gleaming white hair swung to cover her face while she worked. The sight was soothing, peaceful, and Freddy’s eyelids drooped, her body swaying drowsily.

A high-pitched wailing started, and Freddy jolted awake, nerves firing to attention.

The woman’s hands still moved in a steady rhythm, washing clothes in her decaying bucket even as she screamed and cried like her heart was breaking.

Longing to run to her dad, Freddy still couldn’t move, her body stuck tight to her window, her eyes glued to the woman in the backyard. The wailing redoubled, climbing higher and higher in pitch and volume until the sound became indistinct, a high-pitched screech that made Freddy long to slap her hands over her ears and push the noise out.

The woman had been working on one piece of washing, scraping the piece of clothing against the board over and over as she sobbed in hopeless agony. The single garment arrested Freddy’s gaze, she recognized it now–her own old blue sweatshirt. The one she had been wearing earlier that day.

Fresh blood covered it.

Freddy squinted outside, her heart thundering inside her. “What the–“

The woman’s face snapped up.

She had no eyes, only two dark holes, fathomless, bloody depths without end. Deep red pits locked onto Freddy.

Gagging and shaking, Freddy looked away, down to her carpet.

A body lay on the floor, dressed in the bloody clothes–Freddy’s body. She stared down at herself and froze, shock numbing her. Light-headed, quivering with fear, she couldn’t stop herself from studying her own dead body, even as she knew it couldn’t be her.

The corpse was laid out on the ugly orange shag, limp and broken, red hair fanned out to mirror the bloodstains on the floor. Eyes open and staring, her expression frozen in absolute agony, her body pale, bleached almost white…at her neck, a vivid slash of red, blood still warm with life poured out to pool in her hair…

Freddy shook off the vision, squeezing her eyes shut. Her horror and fear blotted out all thought. She stumbled back, frantic, eyes still shut, so disoriented she collided with her bureau, painfully jarring her side. Ignoring the hurt, she tried to lurch away, out of the room, anywhere but there.

Someone grabbed her, pulling her toward the window. Panic shredding at her insides, Freddy screamed, lashing out with her fists, pounding into something soft and fleshy.

The hands holding Freddy let go, and Mom’s voice cried out.

Mom. I just hit Mom. Freddy sank to her knees, sobbing and trembling.

“Baby?” Mom’s hand slid onto to Freddy’s shoulder, and Freddy fought not to flinch away.

Hugging her knees to her chest, Freddy rocked back and forth, all her muscles tense and shaking. “Is she still there?”

Who?

“The laundry woman. Is she still out there?”

Frowning, Mom stood to look out the window. Freddy held her breath until Mom turned back, uncertain whether she wanted the washerwoman to be there or not–to be real or not.

“Nothing’s out there,” Mom said. “What happened?” She gripped Freddy’s shoulders, staring at her like the world might fall down.

Freddy dodged free of her mom’s hands. Freddy would have crawled out of her own skin to hide if she could have just then. She shook her head until the world lurched and tumbled around her, and she had to remind herself to stop. Gulping in a deep breath, Freddy uncurled from the carpet. “I’m fine, Mom. Bad nightmare, s’all.” Forcing herself to smile, Freddy padded back to her bed and climbed under the covers. Mom lingered, but after one last look out the window, she left, rushing out so quickly she slammed the door.

Freddy flinched at the sound and dug in deeper under her blankets. Her dark room seemed suddenly echoing, dangerous. Heartbeat thundering in her ears, she pinched her eyes shut. It was all a dream. Don’t be a baby. But the visions lingered. The ominous promise of her own dead body on the floor.

Brush crunched under her window and Freddy bolted upright, but when she stared outside, it was only her dad walking through their yard, heading for the back fence, probably to investigate. Freddy slumped down in bed, wrapping the blankets and her own arms tight around herself. She forced herself to be as small as possible, trying to find some position that made her feel safe.

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