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There had always been something uncomfortable about Sunday afternoons. Jash had never liked them; even as a boy living with his grandmother, he would crawl under the bottom bunk bed which he shared with his older brother as soon as they came home from 8 o’ clock morning mass and hide with flashlight and Wolf-Man action figure clutched close. It was like all the demons of his young, frightened mind would gather and discuss his demise within his hearing.
This Sunday was no different, except for the facts that he no longer lived with his family, he hadn’t visited a church since his marriage 15 years earlier, and his bed was now a mattress on the wood floor of his bedroom, therefore presented no hiding place. Of course, he still had the Wolf-Man figuring which his eccentric mother had given him before she had died.
Jash’s knuckles were white against the arms or his love-seat. His pale blue eyes stared widely at the wall. It was originally red, but somehow had turned tangerine.
Dawn had painted the house with her boundless patience before . . . she had lost it.
Jash forced himself to sit forward. He flexed his fingers, bringing the blood back into them as he closed his eyes and took a deep, calming breath. That’s it, Jash-o, just breathe a little.
Satisfied for the moment, he stood. His knees popped. His gaze wandered to the dust-covered digital clock resting on the fireplace mantel. Its orange face stared blankly at him, as if to say: Missing something? He shook his head and came forward.
When he was within range, he saw that it was 3:20 pm. The clock sat squarely next to the one-armed, more-grey-than-brown Wolf-Man statuette. Jash smiled wanly and held it between his thin fingers.
Sighing quietly, he set Wolf-Man’s feet back into the slots amidst the mantel’s dust; not a particle fluttered.
The phone’s ring interrupted his silence. Turning slowly, Jash made his way to a table beside the front door. Upon it stood a brown lamp with a sterling silver stand, a picture frame of wood surrounding a snapshot of 2 children on a swing set, and the telephone. It was red: Dawn’s favorite color.
It rang three more times before he picked it up.
“Hello,” he said quietly, eyes drooping closed. Not many people called him after the accident. This would be the second this month, and it was the 26th of February.
“Hey, Jash!” The loud voice bellowed—almost yelled—into his ear.
He winced and sighed. “How are you, Carson?”
“Fine, just fine. How’s er, Donna? She still watchin over you and the kids?”
Jash swallowed the cotton in his mouth and tightened his hand around the phone, following the twisting cord with his free index finger. “She’s not here anymore. Grandma didn’t tell you?”
There was a pause. Hardly one, but it was there. “Oh, she did, but I was just . . . y’know, checkin up on my kid brother. Everything alright? Want me and Julie to come by? We’re driving to Louisiana, figure we could take a little detour to catch up with you.”
Carson and his fiancé, Julie, lived in New Mexico. Jash had moved with Dawn to Austin, Texas a year after they had been married. She had said it was a wonderful place to raise children.
“No, that’s okay,” Jash said a little too fast, turning the cord around his finger. “It’s too far out of your way . . . What are you doing in Louisiana?”
Another pause. “Oh, Julie’s sister lives north. You didn’t know that?” He was distracted, though. There was an increasing amount of static coming from his end of the line.
“No, I don’t think you mentioned—,”
“Hey! I’ve got to go. I’ll, uh, keep in touch, yeah?”
“Okay, see you—,”
Jash held the phone close to his ear, lips twisting in pain. He must have been hoping that there was more hiding behind that dial tone. It was only when the pre-recorded woman’s voice sounded, telling him to please try dialing this number again, that he set it down. He turned, watery eyes shifting blindly over the hardwood floor.
Clenching his jaw against the angry swelling in his throat, Hash decided that now was the time to be spontaneous. His eldest daughter, Cathrine, had always encouraged road trips. They would all pile into the car one random Saturday morning, cash in Mommy and Daddy’s latest paychecks, and take whichever roads looked promising. Once they had shown up in some antique-store town north of Houston. It was a growing medical town, as well, and so when Jamie, their youngest daughter, had slammed her hand in the car door, they had been in the perfect place.
That had been the start of it, hadn’t it? Dawn had started getting a whole lot more protective of HER GIRLS. That’s how she referred to them: HER GIRLS. One was 12 and the other was 5.
Jash snatched his coat from the only chair standing in his kitchen, stepped into his lace-less sneakers, grabbed his wallet and stuffed it into his back pocket, and left without bothering to lock the door. He kept a brisk pace all the way to the nearest park, which was actually a playground of dead grass and wind-tossed leaves. The drone of traffic filled his ears, pulling at his dusty blonde hair like the breeze twirling through every blade of brown grass. He stopped abruptly at the sidewalk, his eyes scanning the sparsely populated play area for two children whom he would never find.
His lips pressed into a thin line before he bowed his head, hands stuffed into the weary pockets of his dark jeans. He walked slowly around the park, just soaking in the smell of melted ice cream and burnt rubber.
A bike whizzed past him, a thin boy in dark clothes sitting astride its wide seat. Jash skipped back a step, his heart screaming in astonishment.
The kid slammed the brakes, his skeletal arms bending to a point with the effort. He threw his black-haired head around to glare at the man.
“Waduyu want, dude?”
Jash blinked in amazement. Dude? He caught himself and walked up to the boy, who was probably about fourteen and way too small for his bicycle.
“Uh, can I rent your bike?”
The boy narrowed his brown eyes and looked him up and down, obviously trying to see if he was joking or not. “How much and how long?”
Jash smiled and fished out his wallet. “How about half an hour? I’ve got . . . a 20 . . . that okay?”
The kid grinned and swung himself from the bike. “Sure, sure. Keep it for 45 minutes. Just bring it back around here, aight?” He took the crisp bill from Jash’s outstretched hand and promptly walked off.
The man took hold of the handlebar to keep it from falling over and fumbled to stick the wallet back into his pocket. He hadn’t ridden one of these things in what felt like years, but was actually only 3 months. With an eager smile lighting his pale face, Jash swung his leg over the center of it and settled his bony butt on the black seat, then proceeded to wobble off down the sidewalks.
Forty-five minutes passed too quickly.
Jash rode circles around the park, finding his rhythm within the first five minutes. He wove through the people, feeling his spirits rising for the first time in weeks. The last time, he recalled as he rolled to a stop to wait for the kid who was $20 richer, had been on his birthday, when his neighbor had surprised him with a video of his children from the year previous.
Her name was Michelle. She was a strawberry-blond (just like Dawn) and couldn’t seem to keep a smile off her face. Jash had come home from a long day of fruitless labor in front of the local library’s typewriter. When he came home there had been a small box on his porch, with a nice blue bow. That was his favorite color.
He had gotten out of his dying car and come up to stare at it, wondering if there were new neighborhood kids who had decided that the broken-hearted man who never smiled would be a perfect target for their endless pranks. Jash had taken it inside. He had dropped it on his chair and not opened it until after he had eaten his meek meal of frozen lasagna and soggy broccoli, and the doorbell had rung.
The boy came up to him, then. There was a sour look in his eye which told Jash to just fork over the bike and be on his way. He did so with a nod of thanks and a pat on the bony shoulder.
As he walked, he reminisced.
The door had opened to reveal the berry-blond woman standing with her hands hidden behind her back.
“Can I help you?” he had asked, lifting a hand to wipe some sauce from his unshaved chin.
The woman’s eyes had followed his hand’s motions, and she had blushed. “I’m sorry for interrupting your dinner, mister, but I was wondering if you got your present?” She wasn’t old enough to know his last name, but also not young enough to know how to skip the point.
“I beg your pardon?” He took a moment to look her over.
Her white blouse was low enough to show her cleavage, but Jash didn’t notice that in particular. It was the idea that she had shorts on, and was dressed for warm weather when it was in the middle of January. This woman was peculiar.
“No, I don’t believe I did,” he replied, his eyes finally finding their way back to hers.
She immediately grew flustered. “I left it on the porch. I bet those kids across the street took it, and they’re going to take one look at it and—,”
“Oh, you mean that? Yes, I got it. I wasn’t sure what it was . . . I’ll go get it.”
And so, less than five minutes later they had both been sitting on the floor, chins tilted so that their faces might be bathed in the light of two sisters celebrating Christmas, in the very living room in which they now sat. By the time it was over, Jash had pushed the heels of both hands to either eye and was shaking with breathless sobs.
Michelle took his shoulder, bewildered that something she had bought at his own garage sale could have such an impact on him.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Jash! I didn’t think . . . Why are you crying?”
When he lifted his head, he saw pure and utter astonishment on her face. He had taken her into his arms, burying his face in her mane of strawberry-blond hair. She had smelled of violets.
“Thank you,” he whispered as she returned his embrace. He had smiled and tightened his grip. “Thank you so much.”
Now Jash was coming up on his street. He lifted a hand to ghost trembling fingertips across his eyes. They came away glittering with tears. When he passed in front of Michelle’s well-groomed but small yard, he took the turn and went to her door. He knocked. No answer came. He pressed the side of his hand onto the window next to it and looked inside through the shade. There was a pile of clothes, most likely dirty, sitting in the center of the dark front hall.
Shrugging, he turned and went to his own door with his head down. Michelle had been a very good friend over the past weeks. Jash had no idea how he’d not met her earlier.
When he lifted his head so that he might see the doorknob which would let him into his humble home, he stopped. The door was open a few inches. At first this seemed odd, but then he remembered that he hadn’t locked the door. Maybe Michelle had come over to help him make dinner? It wouldn’t be the first time she had taken pity on his frozen-food-eating soul.
He chuckled and let himself in.
Silence was his answer. A thrill ran up his spine. He assumed it meant he was excited; Michelle was never one for games, but this might turn out to be fun. He went into the living room and was pleasantly surprised to see the fir warming his hearth. He hadn’t lit it since the previous year’s Christmas.
“Michelle, did the electricity go out at your house?” His voice seemed to echo through the room. The clock on the mantel was out. He hadn’t realized it before because he had made a habit out of using sunlight, but all the other lights were out as well.
His hand found the light switch. Nothing.
He saw a flash of strawberry-blond hair in the corner of his vision.
Jash turned just in time to be hit on the cheek by something hard, cold, and shiny. He fell into the table with the phone, sending it tumbling. The picture’s glass shattered, cutting his finger as he tried to grab hold of something. His jaw throbbed; his left eye felt like it was swelling.
“Hello, baby,” a velvet voice whispered from above.
Cold fear settled into his stomach. “D-Dawn?” It sounded like he was holding an egg in his mouth.
“Who else?” The woman bent down. Up until then she had been a shadow. The light from the window fell like an angel beam across her face.
Her lips were chapped. The glowing crimson in her auburn hair glittered like fairy dust. Her nose, broken in an accident during their honeymoon, fit perfectly on her beautiful, [i]terrifying,[/i] face. Her bangs stuck to her forehead in sweaty crescent moons.
But her eyes. Oh, her [i]eyes[/i].
They were burning amber coals set deeply into her features. They looked sane . . . but there was something wrong. Some bolt not screwed tightly enough; a gleam which wasn’t meant to be there. One of these things is not like the other, can you guess which, Jash-o?
“W-what are you doing here?” Her face, or more specifically, her eyes, wouldn’t let him look away.
Here was the woman he had met (and later fallen in love with) in Denver over a late pizza. Here was the woman he had lost his virginity with. Here was the woman to whom he had proposed while drunk and yet still remembered in the morning. Here was the woman who had killed—no, [i]murdered[/i]—his children. Their children. Her children.
A spark of a smile started in her almost-there eyes. “I’m cleaning up your life, babe.” His sterling silver lamp was held, without the shade, in her hand, like a club in the clutches of a rabid ape.
Dawn turned a disdainful eye over her shoulder.
“You didn’t touch their rooms?”
It was less a question than a statement. Of course he hadn’t—what kind of a father would he be if he cleared his home of their memory?
Dawn nodded to herself, seeming to get something. “MY GIRLS are better now, though.” Her burning gaze found his, paralyzing him like nothing else. “You know that.”
Jash swallowed his fear. It was worse than inhaling needles. “No, Dawn.
She blinked. “No what, darling? I can’t read your mind.” A freakishly shark-like grin flashed across her face. She would gobble him up, no doubt about that.
He told himself not to hyperventilate. She was just trying to scare him so he couldn’t protect himself when she bashed his head in.
[i]And it’s working.[/i]
“NO!” He bit his lip, wincing at the volume of his own voice. “I mean . . . no. No, Dawn. They’re not better.” He grunted and stood, supporting himself on the door. She stayed on her knees before him, her shark grin now hibernating. Tears brimmed in his eyes. “They’re much, much worse.”
Dawn let go of the lamp and stood on her knees, her hands taking a gentle, but firm hold on his hips. Amber eyes peered up at him from behind a curtain of blonde hair. She smiled.
He swallowed thickly and pressed away from her. “I thought you were gone,” he whispered to her.
She laid the side of her face against his tender underbelly. He couldn’t help but shudder, like a lamb being nuzzled by a lioness.
“But I’m here,” she purred, her fingers walking up his chest.
Jash pushed her away and made a dash for the fire place. He could get a piece of ember; throw it in her face . . . anything! Dawn hadn’t made a noise, until she caught hold of his ankle, right before he reached the fire. He fell forward, his head slamming into the mantel. The clock almost fell. Wolf-Man took a dive.
Dawn was on him in seconds. She was clawing at his face, trying to straddle him so she could do terrible things to him.
He cried out, wishing the white stars swimming in front of his eyes would go swim in someone else’s eyes. His arms flailed in front of him, hitting her across the head and shoulders. She cut through his defenses and snaked her slender hands around his throat.
“You’re endangering yourself!” She screamed, spittle flying from her dry lips onto his face. “Stop being dangerous! Jamie, stop running in the street!”
Jash stared up at her with bulging eyes. This woman was insane; she meant, with all her heart, to kill him. “D-Dawn,” he hissed, feeling blood swell in his face. Her grip only tightened.
“Don’t go with boys, Cathrine! They’ll rape you in the backyard! I’ve raised you better!” Tears were streaming from her broken eyes. “Dear God, you’re so unsafe.” She hunched over, her foul breath coming within range. Not that Jash could smell it. He was already losing it. “I’ll save you,” she whispered. “I’ll save you, MY GIRLS. I won’t let the world have MY GIRLS.”
There was a knock at the door. Jash heard it. Dawn was too out of it to notice.
He blacked out for just a moment. A blood-curdling scream drove him back into consciousness. The weight was gone from his body. He hacked and coughed, one hand flying to his throat as he tried to catch his breath. When he sat up, his heart stopped.
There were two reddish-blonde women wrestling before him. He couldn’t tell which one was who.
“Michelle!” He cried, though it came out sounding more like a rainmaker than a word.
Neither of them looked at him. One was on her back now, the other over her with a snarl etched into her features. Her hand suddenly shot out, snatched the one-armed Wolf-Man figurine, and shoved his hand into the bottom woman’s eye.
Another scream, this one of agony. There was a splash of blood. Jash fainted.
When he woke up, there was the gleam of strawberry-blonde hair above him. He whimpered and scuttled away, thinking it was Dawn, it had to be Dawn, who else would save him, babe, but Michelle’s voice surrounded him.
“It’s okay, Mr. Jash . . . the ambulance is on its way.” Worry creased her brow as she looked on him. It was then that he realized that the seat cushion of his chair was under his head and shoulders.
“Michelle . . .” He looked up at her, horror overtaking his features when he saw three long, angry red gashes running parallel from her temple to the corner of her mouth. “Jesus Christ, did she do that to you?”
The woman nodded. “If you don’t mind me asking, Mr. Jash—,”
“Please, for the love of God, call me Jash.”
She smiled slightly, though it pained her. “Okay. Jash . . . who was that woman?”
Sirens came loudly towards them. He glanced at the window to see the red and blue flashes, then at Michelle. He sighed quietly and lifted a hand to the knot forming on the right side of his forehead. “She was . . . the woman who slit my children’s wrists while they were asleep, to ‘protect’ them from waking up.”