Facing the PastbyPennLady©
© 2009 All rights reserved
"Chris, sweetie!" Lorna Kincaid bustled out the door as her son stepped out of his car. He stretched as he stood, giving his protesting muscles a break after the four-hour ride.
"Hi, Mom," he said with a smile. He gave her a hug and had to bend down to kiss her cheek. Her head didn't quite reach his shoulder.
"How are you?" she asked. She waited while he took a duffel bag out of the back seat, then took his arm as they walked to the house. "How was the ride?"
"Not too bad," he said, looking around. The houses were the same as ever. Sometimes it seemed like the whole town was trapped in time. "I left early enough to miss most of the traffic."
"You didn't stop once, did you?" she asked him, fixing him with a firm glance.
Chris couldn't help averting his eyes. "Um, no." Lorna arched an eyebrow and he hurried on. "I was going to, really, I was. But I just got caught up in driving and listening to music and before I knew it I was almost here." He felt like he was ten years old again. It was all he could do not to scuff his feet.
"Hmmm," she said noncommittally. "Well, as long as you're here safely." He sighed in relief. "Come on, you must be hungry. It's almost lunchtime."
Chris followed her into the little house and took a deep breath. Like the outside, the inside was just as he remembered. A faint scent of lavender floated through most of the house, but lemon dominated the kitchen. The floral curtains were faded but cheery; Chris made a guilty note to himself to send his mother either more money or new curtains.
"Now, sit," she ordered. Chris put his duffel bag on the couch and obediently took a seat at the kitchen table. Lorna ruffled his brown hair as she moved about getting some lunch. "You need a hair cut," she told him.
"I know," he said. "I just keep forgetting."
"I could do it while you're here," she suggested. She laid a plate in front of him with an open-faced turkey sandwich and gravy, then added a glass of water.
"We'll see," he said, suddenly famished. While he ate, he studied his mother. Her dark blond hair was probably half gray, although she wore it well. Her eyes, blue like his own, were sharp and missed nothing. She still moved easily. He was glad to see that the arthritis she feared had yet to set in, and hoped it never did. His mother did so much with her hands -- cooking, cleaning, sewing, knitting -- he knew she'd be lost if she couldn't do those things.
"So, what's new?" he asked after he'd finished.
Lorna sat down and put a piece of cake in front of each of them. It was her own award-winning sour cream pound cake. Chris couldn't recall the last time he'd had a piece of cake as good hers since moving across the state. Probably never, he thought to himself.
"Well, you know how it is around here," Lorna said. "The Peaks had to close their store in town, but that was all right, they wanted to retire anyway. Someone else has bought it already; that's the rumor, at least. The Ruizes painted their house blue and that put their neighbors all in a huff."
"Blue?" Chris repeated, and she nodded. "What kind of blue?" he asked with a roll of his eyes.
She shrugged. "Just blue, but you know how people are. Every other house is white, they want it white. Goodness, the way everyone went on, you would have thought they'd painted it purple and orange and put in searchlights." Chris chuckled at the image.
She told him a few more tidbits and he nodded at each one until one piece of information caught his attention. "Then there was the trouble at the Fordham place a couple of nights ago."
"Trouble? What kind of trouble?" Chris stopped eating.
No one named Fordham had lived in the house for ages, but that was how everyone knew the big colonial at the end of town -- the Fordham place. It was old, with peeling paint that had probably once been white. It had seen a few different owners while Chris was growing up, and more than one had tried repainting and remodeling, but it never stuck. The kids told each other it was haunted and dared the braver ones to sneak close to it on Halloween. Chris had gone once -- alone, and not on Halloween -- and found it just to be an old, empty house.
Lorna sighed in frustration. "The kind there usually is, just a little bit more," she said. "Ethan and Trent started going at it, you know how they do. Just about woke up the neighborhood. Cassie called me and I went out on the porch, I could hear them caterwauling from here."
"What happened, Mom?" Christ asked. He could feel himself tensing up and he wasn't even sure why. He hadn't been near the Fordham place in years; he didn't even know which of the family still lived there.
"They were both drunk, as usual," she said with disdain. "The noise was ridiculous. Yelling at each other, probably throwing things. You could hear the glass breaking; next day I saw half the windows broken. Then the fire started."
"Was it bad?" Chris wanted to know.
"No, the police were right there," she said with a sigh. "The neighbors had called and they showed up, but those two no-goods were so drunk they wouldn't have seen the archangel Gabriel if he'd been there. I heard one of them had a gun and one had a knife, so the police were waiting it out." She gave her son a small smile. "Gossip runs down the grapevine in a town like this, you know how it is."
"I do," he said. "Then what?"
"Well, I heard from Cassie -- you know her Joe's a policeman -- that whoever had the gun shot it, and whoever had the knife used it, and somehow they knocked over a light or a candle and the fire started."
"Was anyone hurt?" He knew she wasn't there anymore, but he thought about the young girl from years ago.
"Property damage, mostly," his mother said, getting up to refill his glass. "The fire didn't get far, with the police right there to call the fire department. Ethan and Trent were both taken to the hospital and then to jail. I don't understand why they never stay there. My God, how they treated Karen and that poor girl." Lorna shook her head as she sat down again. "Everyone knew and no one could prove it."
"I remember," Chris said almost absently. He finished his lunch and told his mother he was going to take a walk to get some exercise after the long ride. She nodded and said nothing, knowing there was a little more to it.
Chris stepped outside and took a deep breath of crisp autumn air. Almost unconsciously, he began walking down the street in the direction of the old Fordham place. He stopped at the corner and leaned against an old oak tree. Scanning the street, his breath caught when he saw her on the opposite corner.
Her hair was a bit longer and her clothes much nicer than the last time he'd seen her. The sun plucked highlights from the auburn hair as she rested her arms on the top of the fence. Still as a statue, she stood there. Chris could only watch and wonder if she remembered him.
Fifteen years ago
"See the new people in the Fordham place yet?" Pete asked Chris.
"Saw the trucks," Chris said as they chucked rocks in the pond. "I guess I saw the father. He was pretty big. Looked mean." He threw another rock, watching with satisfaction as it skipped over the surface before sinking about halfway across. He grinned at Pete. "Beat that, man."
Pete laughed. "You cheat, Kincaid. You're taller than I am and your arms are longer. You're a sixteen-year-old gorilla."
"You're just jealous, Yarrow," Chris said mildly. "You got any news on the new people?"
"You bet," said Pete, throwing a rock and taking comfort in the fountain of water it sent up. He could never compete with Chris in rock skipping. "My mom gets the dirt on everybody. She's practically psychic."
"That's why you never do anything reckless," Chris said. "Or fun." He rummaged in the cooler and pulled out a can of Coke.
"And I don't grounded or belted, either," Pete pointed out. "Fair trade for me."
"Okay, so what did your mom find out?" Chris held another Coke to Pete who took it and drank before answering.
"Last name's Dileo," Pete said. He sat next to Chris and took another swig of soda. "There's five of them. Mom, Dad, Grandmother and two kids. Looks like they came from upstate, but she doesn't know for sure. The kids are a boy and a girl. Both younger than us, I think, by a year or two."
"Well, that's something, anyway," Chris said, considering the information. It wasn't much, but it was more than he'd had before.
"Guess we'll meet'em in school," Pete said, lying back on the grass. "Might even be in our classes."
"You said they were younger," Chris reminded him. He looked out over the pond, watching the sun glint off the ripples.
"I know." Pete shrugged as best he could while horizontal. "Mom said she talked to one of the teachers and the kids are registered and the girl's in our class. Real smart, the teacher said."
"Huh," Chris said noncommittally.
Pete turned out to be right, as Chris found out on the first day of school. As everyone filed in to homeroom, he saw her in the back row.
Annabeth Dileo was the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen, Chris knew that right away. He was unable to take his eyes off of her wavy auburn hair and her pale skin. He'd actually gasped when he saw her bright green eyes. It wasn't until Pete whacked his shoulder that he remembered to breathe.
"What's the matter with you, Kincaid?" Pete asked. Then he looked around and saw Annabeth; he couldn't help grinning. "Oh, man, Chris -- you're hooked, aren't you?"
"Am not," said Chris with a huff. He found his seat and Pete slid in behind him. "Just got lost in thought, that's all."
Pete snorted. "Right."
It didn't take long to realize things weren't right with the Dileos. Word trickled down, despite adult efforts to keep rumors from reaching young ears. Whispers went around the school.
Some kids said the grandmother -- known as Miss Eve -- was a witch, and that no one ever saw her because she stayed inside mixing up potions and powders. A couple of pets went missing, and blame was soon laid on either Miss Eve or Trent. Miss Eve took them for her potions, a few said, looking over their shoulders as though expecting her to appear out of thin air. No, said others, Trent had taken and tortured them, possibly before handing them over to Miss Eve.
"Nonsense," Chris's mother said firmly. He believed her, but knew there was something wrong all the same.
Within a few months, it was clear that witchcraft would have been the preferred offense. Karen Dileo was found locked out of her house on more than one occasion, sporting horrendous bruises and at one time, a broken arm. Ethan Dileo was seen frequently around town, usually drunk. Most of the men in town began to avoid him -- he was nearly always drunk, and whether he was or not, he had a temper verging on fury for the slightest offense.
Chris asked his mother what they could do. His heart was cold at the idea of something happening to Annabeth. She'd already come to school sporting bruises and limping. Lorna smiled at him sadly, proud of his concern. "We can't do anything unless Karen asks," she told her son. Despite the injuries, Karen never pressed charges.
Though they weren't close, Chris took it upon himself to be Annabeth's protector. He followed her home from school, at first from a distance. He didn't know it himself, but he was hoping she would acknowledge him. Just a 'Hello' and 'How are you?' would have satisfied him.
Annabeth was leery of him, casting glances behind her and walking home as quickly as she could. Chris remained patient, and continued watching her. As far as he could tell, Annabeth was wary of everyone, so he didn't take it personally. One day she confronted him.
"Why are you following me?" she asked, planting herself in front of him. Her arms were crossed over her chest defiantly, and her green eyes flashed. They were nearly at her house.
"I'm worried about you," he said. She had surprised the honest answer out of him.
"I can take care of myself," she said. "I don't need you stalking me." Her eyes narrowed.
"Maybe," he said. "I can't see how it hurts to have a friend, or to have someone look out for you." The conversation gave him a chance to do something he hadn't done much of before -- hear her voice. She rarely said anything in school, and when she did her voice was soft. If he and his mother happened to catch the Dileo family in town, only the father and brother spoke.
Annabeth stared up at him; Chris had close to six inches on her. Chris stared back, and watched her expression soften just slightly.
"You shouldn't," she said. "You'll get in trouble." Her voice was soft like it was in school, but there was more emotion in it than he'd heard before.
"With who?" he asked quietly.
"With him," she said, and he knew she meant her father.
He wanted to ask her so much more. Was she all right? Had her father or her brother hit her? Did she want to leave? Could she talk to a teacher if she wouldn't talk to him? Before he could say anything, the front door opened and Ethan roared something unintelligible. Chris brought his gaze back to Annabeth. Her eyes and expression were flat, neutral.
"He's calling me," she said in a toneless voice. "Stay away, you'll get into trouble." She turned and walked to the house while Chris fought every instinct in his body to grab her and pull her away.
Frozen in place, he watched as she opened the front gate, closed it, and strode to the door, where her mountain of a father waited. He couldn't make out the words, but he saw Ethan grab her arm, shake her, and yell something before throwing her to the ground. There was no sound from Annabeth. She caught her breath, stood up, and moved to go in the house. Ethan grabbed her again and threw her inside.
Chris ran home, trying to tell his mother what he'd seen. He was shocked. He'd never seen anything like that before. Sure, he'd been in a couple of scuffles at school, with friends and the rare foe; he'd seen Pete get swatted when they were younger. But even then it was nothing serious. Chris was almost in tears at the idea that he had let Annabeth go into that house, and his mother could say nothing to console him.
He didn't see her at school the next day and was consumed with worry. What had he made Ethan do? He shouldn't have followed her, he thought to himself miserably. He should have let it go. Or stayed further back where she couldn't see him. God, who did he think he was? James Bond, who could follow anyone anywhere?
He headed home in a haze and nearly missed Annabeth, who was sitting on a bench about a block from the school. Her head was bowed. A million emotions fought for prominence, but all he could say, in a tight voice, was, "Are you all right?"
She looked up at him and his heart broke. He had to sit down. There were bruises on her face, and a cut on her forehead. Her arm was in a sling.
"Did he do this to you?" Chris finally asked. He felt light-headed.
"Yeah," she said, looking away.
"Did you tell anyone?" he asked. "I mean, you must have gone to the hospital or something."
She gave a short laugh. "There's no one to tell. They won't believe me. He told them I fell down the steps and never left me alone to say otherwise."
"You could come with me," Chris said on impulse. "Come home with me. I know my mom wouldn't mind."
Annabeth stared at him as though he had three heads. "You... you mean it, don't you?" Chris nodded. She reached up to wipe at her eyes. "I can't. I can't," she said before Chris could argue. "He'll hurt my mom, I know he will. Then he might try to hurt you and your mom."
"We'll tell the police," Chris said. He felt desperate. "They'll help."
"As soon as they leave, it'll go back to the way it was," Annabeth said, her voice dull. "It always does. Sometimes," she continued, "I hate my mom. I hate that she stays with him. That she's letting Trent be like him. But she's my mom. I'm trying to help her. As soon as I'm eighteen -- maybe sooner -- I'm getting out of there."
"Please, let me try to help," Chris begged.
"You're sweet," she said, and stood up. "But I can handle this." She leaned over and kissed his cheek. "Thank you."
Annabeth jumped and spun around in one move when she heard the voice. She'd been so busy staring at the house and trying to sort out her jumbled emotions that she hadn't noticed anyone around her.
"Chris." It was all she could say. Of all the people she'd expected to see, Chris Kincaid was not one of them. She had wanted to -- badly wanted to -- see him, but had thrust that hope far away. He was the only one who'd ever called her Nabby.
"How are you?" he asked.
"I'm... I'm all right," she said. She'd never been able to keep much from him. Those clear blue eyes had always seen through to things. Sometimes even through her, though she'd never been entirely sure how. Annabeth Dileo had learned quickly to hide things, hide emotions. Chris had known how she felt, even if she never said anything. He had a way of seeing into her that elicited both hope and fear.
"You're looking good," Chris told her. She stood her ground while he looked her up and down.
He looks fantastic, she thought. "Thanks," she said.
"What brings you here?" he asked.
She tore her eyes from him and looked at the run-down colonial. "I got word my grandmother's doing poorly," she said. Her voice was measured, careful. "I came to see."
"I heard there was a fight the other night," he said neutrally, observing her.
"Yeah," she said, still staring at the house. "There was. I got here just in time for the grand finale."
"You're not hurt?" he asked, and the concern in his voice made her look at him again. The expression on his face nearly brought tears to her eyes. After all this time, he still cared.
"No," she said, her voice softer than she'd originally intended. "No, I wasn't in the house. I was just driving around the corner when the police went in." Chris looked relieved.
"My mom said she heard the noise all the way down at her place," he told her.
Annabeth gave a mirthless chuckle. "I wouldn't be surprised if they heard it in the next county," she said. "Ethan and Trent can set up a right ruckus, as Miss Eve says."
"You aren't staying there." Chris touched her arm lightly and she could see he wasn't asking.
"No," she assured him. "I'm not. I have a room at the hotel up on route 43 outside of town."
"You could stay at our place," he said gently. Annabeth felt her heart catch at those words. He'd said them so many times to her, and every time he meant them. She knew it. Once again, she shook her head.
"Thank you, but no," she said. "My room is fine." It had been a long, hard road away from her family and out of this town. She wasn't sure if she could really explain it to Chris, but she could not stay in the town. Not even at his mother's house. Lots of articles and books talked about going back to where it happened, taking control, making it your own -- to Annabeth, it was a load of crap. She'd be plenty happy never to see the damn house again.
"How's your mother?" Chris asked. He felt awkward, rummaging for things to say. He wasn't even sure he should ask about her family.
"She's still there," Annabeth said with a shrug. Then her expression hardened. "I tried to get her out, and she won't go. Damn stupid woman. So she can stay. I can't give anymore."
"What did they say about Miss Eve?" He had to admit that even after all these years, Annabeth's grandmother retained an air of mystery. She was the voodoo priestess, the shaman, the witch. The reputation had never changed, according to his mother.
Annabeth shrugged again. "They say she's failing. I'm surprised she's lived this long. God knows she didn't deserve it."