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"No mom, I'm fine, really." I insisted, balancing the phone between my cheek and my shoulder as I lifted another cardboard box.
"Nicole, I'm feeling very uneasy about this. I mean, a young girl, alone in a big house out in the country. Why couldn't Dexter be there tonight?"
I sighed, setting the box on the floor by my feet. "He's got one more meeting tomorrow morning, and then he's on the first flight to Georgia. I'm okay for one night, I promise. All I have to do is get my last two boxes in from the car, and I'm in for the night. Okay?"
"Well, okay. But just promise me to lock all the doors, and all the windows. It's a big house. I'd feel better if I knew you were completely safe."
I nodded, immediately feeling stupid when I realized she couldn't see me.
It was a pretty big house.
Dexter had insisted that when we were finally married, we would live in a big house in the country. This was all fine and dandy, minus the fact he was gone four out of seven days on business trips. So I'd be alone. All by myself. In a house with six rooms and no neighbors within at least a mile.
But it was his dream. And he was mine.
So I would deal.
I stared out one of the giant windows looking out across the front lawn. The house we had bought was at the base of a hill. Trees speckled the slope, and by the top there was a full-blown forest. Across the road, and a few yards after that, there was a small creek. It was beautiful. It was breathtaking. It was terrifying.
"No problem, I'll lock everything up. You don't need to wo-" my voice trailed off as I heard a loud car engine approaching. I leaned towards the window to see farther down the road. A rusty old pick-up was driving down the road, sending dust flying. My brow furrowed when the car slowed, and parked in front of the house.
"What, Nicole? What is it?"
"Someone stopped in front of the house. It's probably just some neighbors coming to say hello."
"Just neighbors? Honey, I thought you said your closest neighbors were a good mile and a half away. Who would bother to come that far to say 'hello'?"
One side of my mouth turned up, "Ever heard of southern hospitality, mom? Things work differently down here than in Chicago. That's why Dexter wanted to move down south." My eyes followed the man, maybe mid-thirties, as he got out of his truck. I saw a mop of brown hair, but he was too far away to identify anything else. "I'll be fine. If he gets creepy, I'll kick him out."
"I don't like this. Not one bit. I'm calling you in ten minutes, if you don't answer, I'm calling the cops."
I sighed, and rolled my eyes. "Fine, mom. But I gotta go. He's coming to the door." I snapped the phone shut, and glanced at the man once more through the glass.
He looked nice enough, with a friendly smile already on his face as he sauntered up to the door. His hands were shoved in the pockets of a flannel hunting jacket. Which shouldn't have surprised me. The realtor had told us that this was a huge hunting town. His eyes were an icy blue, and were just as unsettling as they were beautiful. The side of his face that I could see was scarred, a nasty pinkish gash that stretched from his temple to his chin. A shiver went through me as I imagined the pain that no doubt came from the wound. Ever since I was little, cuts and bruises and blood sent me running.
He saw me through the window, and smiled wider, waving. I returned his smile, moving to open the door.
"Hello, Miss. I'm sorry to bother you, but I heard there were some newcomers, and I thought I would make myself useful and introduce myself. I'm Leif Jacobs, I live just a few miles down that way." He said, pointing into town. I could tell by his think accent that he'd lived in Georgia his whole life.
"Hi, nice to meet you, Leif. I'm Nicole Marrow, my husband and I just moved from Chicago." I shook his outstretched hand, surprised when I felt that it was softer than mine. How strange for a hunter...
"We're glad to have you two in Barney. Is your husband here?" His eyes flicked to behind me, looking at all the boxes. Again, I was struck by how disconcerting his eyes were, how they seemed to see everything.
I cleared my throat, bringing his eyes back to me. "He'll be home any minute." I lied.
I wasn't stupid. Since the day I was old enough to be left alone, one rule had been drilled into my brain, 'To all who ask, they're almost home'.
"I'd love to meet him, ma'am, if that would be alright." How could I say no to a southern drawl and a friendly smile? People worked differently here then they did in the city. That's what I'd been told at least. However, he would be a bit put off when he found he'd have to wait until tomorrow afternoon.
"Oh, well I'm sure he'd love to meet you, but I really need to finish getting the boxes inside..." before I had even finished, he was walking towards my car. "Oh, I'd love to help." He said over his shoulder.
I sighed, no one warned me how pushy 'southern hospitality' was. I hesitantly followed after him. "Thank you, but it's really not necessary. If you come back tomorrow around noon, my husband and I would be glad for you to join us for lunch." I said, hoping he'd take the hint and leave. But he just smiled and shook his head, grabbing the box marked Fragile.
"It's no problem at all, ma'am. I'm glad to help." My phone buzzed in my pocket, and I glanced at caller ID. It was mom again.
"Hi mom." I said, keeping my eyes on Leif as he walked into the house.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah mom, I'm fine. A neighbor of Dexter's and mine stopped by. I'll call you later tonight."
"Alright, just be careful."
"I will, love you, bye." I hung up, stuffing the phone back into my jeans. Leif had disappeared into the house, and hadn't emerged yet. I grabbed the only remaining box, and walked through the open door.
The living room was empty, and I couldn't hear him moving about anywhere on the first floor. "Leif?" I called out, setting the box with all the others.
A chill went through me as a specific box caught my eye. It was marked Kitchen Utensils. And it was open. I rushed to it, kneeling, and started to rifle through it. Oh s***.
I couldn't find one of the knives.
I was so stupid. Fear racked my body, and I held my breath, listening for movement. A step, a creaking floorboard, anything to alert me to where Leif had gone. I blindly reached in the box again, pulling out the sharpest knife I could find.
I held it out in front of me, backing up into a corner, and sinking to the floor. I shook uncontrollably.
"Sorry about that ma'am, but I had to use the restroom somethin' fierce." Leif rounded the corner, taken aback when he saw me hidden in the corner. "Ma'am? Is everythin' alright?" he asked slowly, approaching me with his palms out.
"Why is that box open?" I asked breathlessly, nodding to the Kitchen Utensil box.
"Oh, I don't know, ma'am. Maybe the tape peeled off." He glanced in the box, his eyes going wide when he saw what was in it. "Oh, no, you think that I-" he trailed off, shaking his head, "I'm so sorry, how inconsiderate of me. You're all alone here, and the last thing you want is a strange man comin' in and roamin' the house. I'll leave right away, ma'am, I'm sorry I scared you." He said earnestly, and I stood up uncertainly.
"Thank you." I said, still gripping the knife.
"Well, it was nice to meet you, ma'am. Again, I'm sorry." He nodded at me with a sad smile, and headed outside.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I watched him walk down the driveway, and into his truck. I turned away from the window, running my hands through my hair.
I don't think I've ever been so scared in my life.
I dropped the knife back into the box, pressing the tape back down so it would stay shut. I took a deep breath, rubbing my palms on my jeans.
For the first time in a while, I wished my mom was here.
I jumped when there was a knock at the door. I looked out the window, to see Leif there again, looking uncomfortable.
I opened the door a crack, "Yes?"
He shifted from foot to foot, and said, "I am so sorry; ma'am, to have to bother you again, but I must ask a favor of you. My truck won't start, and I was hopin' I could borrow your phone to call my mechanic. It'll take all of two seconds, and then I'll be out of your hair." I sighed, contemplating slamming the door in his face.
But that wouldn't be right.
He just needed a tow.
I nodded, pulling out my phone and handing it to him. "Thank you so much," he said with a nod, turning away from me to dial.
He mumbled unintelligibly into the phone, glancing back at me and smiling.
"Thanks, Jed." He said, hanging up. I held my hand out, waiting for him to give me back the phone. I was feeling extremely vulnerable without it.
"Here you go ma'am." He said kindly, holding out the phone as if he were going to drop it into my palm. But then he crushed it.
With his bare hands.
My breath caught up in my throat, and all I could do was watch as he let the broken pieces of my phone fall to the ground.
"Oops." He whispered, that friendly smile still plastered on his face.
I just stared at him, horrified, until common sense rushed back to me, and I tried to slam the door shut. The door caught on his foot, and he clicked his tongue. "Well that was rude. You don't want to be un-hospitable to your neighbors, now do ya?" I just shoved harder. But, un-swayed, he pushed the door open with his arm. I backed up quickly, my mind racing with escape tactics as he walked in the house, shutting the door behind him.
"Well... Natalie was it?" he paused looking at me for confirmation. When I just stared at him, my eyes wide, he continued, "Well, Natalie, I must say, I'm glad I stopped by. You're much more accommodating than most." He finished the sentence with another grin, turning to face me head on. "When was your husband coming home, did you say?" he questioned, taking a step closer to me.
I gulped, shrugging. "H-he could be home a-a-any minute, now." I muttered, a pathetic tremor in my voice. Leif sighed, disappointed, and shook his head with a small smile. He pulled a gun from the waistband of his jeans, and I whimpered. "I guess I'll have to be brief then."
His words spurred something in me; a need to survive. Pure terror is the best way I can think to describe it.
I bolted to the left, into the empty kitchen. I nearly fell to the ground as I skidded on the tile, swearing as I regained my footing.
I screamed, screamed for dear life as I tried to yank the back door open. It shook violently, but remained shut. I kicked it, ignoring the sharp pain in my foot as a petrified scream built in my throat. I choked it back, though, as I spun around, surveying my options.
I could hear him slowly making his way through the kitchen, whistling.
I ran, as quietly as I could, into the laundry room. The lights were off, and I hid between the wall and the open door.
His footsteps gradually grew nearer, and his whistling suddenly cut off. I peeked through the opening between the door and where it met the wall.
He looked down the hallway, then turned around and stared at where he had just come. His eyes passed over the laundry room, and I swear our eyes met.
But a split second later, he continued down the hallway. I couldn't stop the relieved sigh that escaped my lips.
My hand flew to my mouth as he spun around, his eyes narrowed. I prayed to any and every god out there that he would pass me by.
If I was only that lucky.
He stalked forward, entering the room at his own pace. When he stood in the center of the room, leisurely glancing around, I did the first thing that shot into my mind.
I leapt at him.
I grabbed onto his back, pulling his hair, jerking his head back. I reached for the gun, trying desperately to hold on as he stumbled. For a second I thought I had it, my fingers barley touching the cool metal, when his other hand wrapped around my wrist, and flung me to the ground.
I landed hard on my back, my breath leaving me in a whoosh. I couldn't do anything but lay there for a moment, as everything got blurry, even in the darkness.
He knelt beside me, his hands closing around my neck.
"You should learn to be a bit more obligin', ma'am." His grip on my neck disappeared, he swung his gun at my head, and I passed out.
My head was pounding. I tasted blood in my mouth, and I'm pretty sure my hands and feet were bound. With a groan, I attempted to sit up, and discovered, I was, in fact, tied up.
It was pitch black, but as I moved again, leaves crunched beneath me, so I figured I was outside. There was no moon tonight, but thousands of stars speckled the sky. My eyes wandered some more, and I was puzzled for a moment as I saw thousands of more stars on the ground, just a few feet in front of me. Realization dawned, and I remembered the relater mentioning a popular fishing lake, a few miles into the woods.
I knew I should be terrified. I knew I should be crying, screaming, begging for mercy.
But I just felt cold. Cold and empty.
With a shaky sigh, I tried to stand, stumbling a few steps before falling roughly against a tree. I closed my eyes, trying to block out the pain as the rope rubbed my ankles raw.
A dark chuckle came from somewhere in the darkness.
My breath caught, and my eyes flew open. My head turned to the direction of the voice. Leif was leaning nonchalantly against a tree, a few yards away.
"Why are you doing this?" I asked him, my voice coming out as a strangled whisper.
He took a deep breath, "Why did Shakespeare write? Why did Picasso paint? To make the world a better place, ma'am. I'm just doin' my duty to mankind." He ended his statement with a friendly smile.
"Why me?" I questioned desperately.
He shrugged listlessly, but said, "You answered the door."
I began to sweat, and my body racked with violent sobs. He sauntered slowly towards me, and I screamed, attempting to hop away, only to land face down in the leaves and sticks. I cried out as he picked me up, throwing me over his shoulder. He continued his leisurely pace as he walked into the lake. My screams were cut off as he dropped me into the water.
My body was consumed by a burning cold. I thrashed wildly about, opening my mouth to scream, only to have the freezing water fill my lungs. I felt his hands holding me down, not that it made a difference. I couldn't tell which way was up.
As the world began to grow dark around me, only one thought floated through my clouded mind.
Screw southern hospitality.
The vineyard was nice. Big. Good and spacious. Exactly what Mark and I had pictured when we decided to move out of the big city.
The sound from the TV drifted into the kitchen as I unpacked the last of the boxes.
"Finished." I said to myself with a proud smile. Mark would be happy to return from his high school friend's bachelor party to a fully furnished home. Before I could pull out my phone to call him, the doorbell rang.
I furrowed my brow in confusion. We hadn't been in town long enough to make any friends, and Mark wasn't due home until tomorrow.
I opened the door to find a man probably in his mid-thirties. He had a friendly smile, and a standard Californian tan. A gnarly scar stretched across the left side of his face, and his unnerving blue eyes stared right into me.
"Hi," I greeted him. I wanted to be apprehensive, but his outwardly pleasant nature brought a smile to my face.
"Hello, I live up by to the north side of your property. I just thought I'd come and introduce myself." He had a slight valley twang, so I assumed he'd lived here awhile.
"Oh, well wasn't that sweet. Come on in." I opened the door wider, and he nodded his thanks and came in.
"Beautiful place you got here." He commented, looking around attentively.
"Thanks. My husband and I love it." A news report on the TV caught my attention, and I turned to watch it. A woman about my age was being pulled from a lake by a crime team. It flashed to an interview with the woman's husband, who could barely hold in his tears. "Oh my, that's horrible." I gasped, as the news reporters rambled on about the specifics of the crime.
"Sure is, I saw that story in a newspaper yesterday. Down in Barney, Georgia I believe. Scary stuff."
I sighed, tearing my attention away from the TV. "Oh my gosh, how rude. My name's Jess. My husband is Mark; he should be getting home sometime soon." I held out my hand, and he shook it with a smile.
"Nice to meet you. I'm Leif."