“It's my turn.” Ten-year-old Clarice tried to grab the dice from her twin brother's hand. Aaron jerked his hand back.
“No it isn't.” Aaron insisted. “You rolled, then mom, now it's my turn.”
“Huh uh.” Clarice twisted on her knees where she was positioned at the coffee table. “Mom. It's my turn, right?”
Dana Stuart smiled apologetically and shook her head. “Aaron's right, honey. It's his turn.”
“Told ya.” Aaron sneered and shook the dice in his hand as Clarice made a face at him. Aaron made a face back and dropped the dice on the Monopoly board. He picked up the tiny cowboy boot and moved it six spaces, landing on Community Chest. He took his card and read it silently to himself. “Awesome.” He moved his game piece past GO then snapped his fingers at his dad. “Two hundred dollars, please.”
Grant Stuart shook his head and handed over the money. “You sure you're not cheating?”
“Check the card, dad.” Clarice suggested. “It probably didn't even say to pass go.”
“Shut up, it did too.” Aaron insisted.
“Hey.” Dana shot a warning look at her son. “Don't tell people to shut up. It's rude.”
The doorbell rang.
“Play nice, guys.” Grant said as he stood up and headed for the front door. “Remember – you're the only siblings you got.”
Clarice and Aaron looked at each other and rolled their eyes, then grinned.
The young white man was dressed nicely and looked like a college student, possibly from the community college. Grant stepped back from the peep hole in the door and opened the door half way. The young man smiled. He had a nice smile, the kind a father likes to see on the boy whose hand his daughter is holding and introducing as her boyfriend. It was friendly, even charming, though not in that smart ass 'I'm the shit' sort of way. Just genuinely friendly and charming.
Grant smiled back. “Can I help you?”
The muzzle of the pistol appeared out of nowhere and pressed against his temple. “You can invite us in, pops.” A Hispanic guy around the same age as the white kid stepped in front of Grant, gripping the handgun.
Grant's hands raised slowly. “Listen, guys. I don't want any trouble. If it's money you want, I got some in a safe, but it's not much, a couple thousand. You can have it.”
The Hispanic guy grinned. “Show us the money.” It was as charming a smile as his white friend. If it wasn't for the gun pressed against his head, Grant wouldn't have guessed that these two young men were of criminal stock.
Anxiety and start fear knotted Grant's guts. Dana and the kids were in the next room. These guys seemed to only want the money, but what frightened Grant the most was that they hadn't bothered to hide their faces. Thieves who only wanted to grab the money and run...hid their identity with some form of mask. Intruders who intended on eliminating witnesses didn't see the need to cover their faces. But the weapon pressed to his head put him and his family at the mercy of these two men. And that wasn't a place he wanted to be.
The muzzle of the gun shoved against Grant's lower back as the Hispanic guy walked him back to the living room. The white kid stepped in and closed the door, locking it behind him. When Grant entered the living room, Aaron twisted around. “Who was it, dad-”
The boy faltered when he saw the two young men standing behind his dad, and the tense, scared look in his dad's eyes.
Aaron started to get up. “Dad?”
“Aaron, sit down.” Grant ordered quickly.
“That's right.” The Hispanic man said as he revealed the handgun. “Everyone just stay where they are.”
Clarice whimpered and inched closer to her mom.
The two men scoped out the room. “You got some nice shit.” The Hispanic guy said as he nudged Grant forward.
“Look.” Grant said. “Just take what you want. Just don't hurt my family.”
“Hurt your family?” The Hispanic guy hissed as he shoved the gun in Grant's face. “Do I, Jorge Rodriguez, and my buddy Sean here look like the kind of guys who would hurt your family?”
Grant said nothing as he stared at the gun only inches from his face. The fear grinding his guts turned to terror. They had revealed their names as well as their faces.
Jorge glared into Grant's face then grinned and withdrew the weapon. “Show us the cash and everyone will come out of this just fine.”
Grant hesitated. Once they had the money, would they kill his family?
The white guy, Sean, raised his own handgun and pointed it at Clarice.
“You really want to play this game, daddy?” Jorge asked in a low, dangerous voice.
Grant swallowed thickly. “No.”
“You.” Sean waved the gun at Dana. “Show me where you keep the money.”
Dana hesitated, glancing fearfully at Grant.
“I'll show you.” Grant said.
The Hispanic guy shook his head. “Nah. You and I will stay right here and watch the kiddies. My boy here will take wifey to get the money.” He leaned closer to Grant and whispered, “Besides, I think my boy digs her. She's one sexy bitch.”
Grant started to lunge forward but got the gun shoved against his throat. “Don't.” Jorge hissed quietly.
Grant's face twisted with rage and fear. “If that little fucker touches her, I swear to God I'll-”
“What?” The gunman pressed. “You'll do what? You give me any trouble and I'll blow away your whole family.”
Sean moved to Dana and grabbed her arm, pulling her to her feet.
“No! Mom!” Clarice jumped to her feet and hugged her mom's waist.
Dana untangled Clarice's arms. “It's okay, honey.” She assured her daughter with a trembling voice. “I'll be all right.”
“Yeah, don't worry, sweetheart.” Sean flashed his deceitfully charming grin. “I'll treat your mama real good.”
Tears streaked Dana's cheeks as the young man tugged her towards the hallway. She cast a frightened look back at Grant.
“I'll kill you both if he touches her.” Grant swore quietly.
Jorge raised the gun and hit Grant in the back of the head with the handle. Grant dropped to the floor, barely conscious.
“Dad!” Aaron cried and rushed to Grant.
The gunman shoved him away and knelt down, leaning his face close to Grant's. “You'll do nothing, asshole.” He turned his eyes to Clarice who was now huddling with her brother. “In fact, that's one cute little girl you got there. Maybe after my boy is through with wifey...I'll take a turn at this one.”
“You sick bastard!” Grant tried to shove himself up. The gunman smashed the butt of the gun down on his head again, this time knocking him out cold.
Clarice screamed and ran for the hall. The Hispanic laughed and stood up. Aaron lunged at him and began punching him in the gut. The man laughed and grabbed Aaron by the hair and threw him down, hitting his head on the coffee table. Aaron dropped to the floor, unmoving.
The gunman headed for the hallway. “Come on back, little senorita. I ain't gonna hurt you.”
“The cash, baby.” Sean shoved Dana into the bedroom and closed the door behind him. She stumbled then caught her footing. His eyes crawled all over her like vile insects. She shuddered. He was a good looking guy and even with the gun in his hand he still somehow maintained a charming persona, like he was just an actor playing a role and not really as dangerous as the circumstances attested he was.
The picture frame in front of the wall safe was cliché but Dana had thought it classically old fashioned. She popped the frame loose from its latch and it opened like a door, revealing the door of the small safe. Her hands shook as she slowly twisted the dial – three clicks to the right, two to the left, then five back to the right – and the lock disengaged. She opened the door and took out a small blue file envelope held closed by a black band. She handed it to the gunman the other guy had called Sean.
Sean took the envelope and opened it, thumbing quickly through the bills. “Anymore in there?”
Fear tightened Dana's throat as she shook her head. “That's all we have in the house.” She tried to hold her voice steady and failed miserably. She had noticed the same discrepancies in the situation as her husband. These men took no precautions to hide who they were. She thought about Grant, Aaron and Clarice out in the other room. Clarice was only ten but the lovely woman she would soon become was already showing through. And that worried her. It worried her a lot. And Grant, and even Aaron, would fight to the death to protect Clarice.
To the death. The words ricocheted through her head and down into her heart. How was it possible that such a typical, normal evening at home...transformed so suddenly into a living nightmare? Where had these men come from? And why had they chosen her home? Her family? She raised her eyes to Sean's face again. He was watching her silently. It gave her the chills. Looking at him more closely, she realized he wasn't quite as young as she'd first thought. It was his clothes and hair style that gave him the college kid appearance. Was that intentional? A ruse to gain trust?
“What's wrong, honey?” Sean spoke low, dropping some of his 'kid' demeanor and allowing some of the 'man' in him to emerge. Sean tossed the envelope of money aside as if it were of little importance to him. He moved towards Dana. She stepped back and bumped up against the wall. Sean came in close and caressed her cheek and throat with the muzzle of the gun. His body was only inches from hers as he leaned his face close and began breathing in her scent. She gasped and flinched when she felt his other hand slip beneath her shirt and caress the curve of her waist.
“No.” She whimpered and turned her face away from him. “Don't.”
“You'll like it, baby.” He murmured close to her ear. The muzzle of the gun continued to caress up and down the side of her neck as his other hand moved up, his fingertips tracing over her ribcage then just below her breast. “I promise.”
“I gave you the money.” Her quiet voice shook badly. “Please...leave me alone.”
“It isn't about the money, honey.” He smiled at the rhyme. His breath was hot against her ear. “Not really. I mean, the money is nice but...” His fingertips danced over skin. “This is even nicer.”
“Why...are you doing this?” She was shaking. She wanted to shove his hand away, shove him away, but the gun was right there, caressing her like a dominant lover she couldn't resist.
“Why ask why, baby?” He whispered and tugged at her earlobe with his lips. “It is what it is.” His hand slipped up over the swell of her breast and squeezed firmly. He released a slow sigh and moaned softly. “I so enjoy this part...I do it so well.” He squeezed her breast again. “Every time.”
Dana closed her eyes and tried to turn her face away from his hot breath and probing lips. “Are you...going to kill me?” She trembled.
“Afraid so.” He admitted bluntly. He nuzzled the curve of her jaw. “Such a waste, too. But witnesses just muck everything up.”
Tears squeezed out through Dana's closed eyes. “And my family?”
“Sorry, honey.” He said. “Got to make a clean sweep.”
The sobs gripped her instantly and she shook beneath them. “Please...don't touch my daughter. She's just...a baby.”
“Don't know that I can promise you that.” He dropped a light kiss on the side of her neck. “My buddy, Jorge...you see, he has an affinity for pretty young girls and your girl is quite lovely.”
Dana cried softly, her body shaking. The idea of that man out there violating her innocent little girl filled her with nausea and rage. In a burst of courage, she shoved the man back. Not expecting her act of bravery, he stumbled back a few steps but not enough for Dana to make a run for the door. The moment she stepped forward to go, she was staring down the muzzle of the gun.
“I get your need to protect your family.” He whispered. “I really do. But it's time you faced reality. You're going to die here tonight. Your family is going to die. You should take comfort in the fact that regardless of how they die or what was done to them before they die...isn't gonna matter in the next life. They probably won't even remember it.”
“Take comfort in it?” Dana cried. “That pervert out there is gonna rape my little girl...and I'm supposed to take comfort in your little after life theory? Fuck you.”
“Just what I had in mind.” He smiled and motioned towards the bed with the gun.
She shook her head slowly, tears wetting her cheeks. “No.” She trembled. “You're going to kill me anyway...I'm not gonna just lay down and give it to you.”
“So you want me to rape you like an animal?” He raised one eyebrow. “It isn't really my style, but whatever the lady of the house wants.”
The hand holding the gun hit her hard in the face, no warning. An excruciating pain shot through her entire head as blackness pressed in around her vision and she went down. He grabbed her and threw her on the bed, straddled her body and began tearing her blouse off with one hand while he gripped the gun with the other. From a great distance away, she heard Clarice scream and she was crippled with the reality that she could do nothing to save her baby girl.
Clarice gasped with sobs as she ran down the hall and turned the corner fast. She collided with a solid object and thought she'd accidentally ran into the wall when she suddenly realized it was a human body. The man quickly grabbed her. She started to scream when a strong hand covered her mouth.
“Shhh.” The man held her tight, his mouth close to her ear. “It's gonna be okay.”
Clarice's chest heaved with hard gasps as her wide frightened eyes turned to the side. She didn't recognize this man. He wasn't one of the intruders. He turned his face and looked at her for a moment. He had black hair and dark blue eyes with glowing gold specs – like the fireflies on the lake where they camped in the summer.
Down the hall, the Hispanic man's heavy footsteps grew louder. Clarice began to tremble harder in the man's arms.
“Listen to me.” He whispered close to her ear. “You have to trust me. I'm not gonna let anyone hurt you, but you have to stay quiet. Can you do that for me?”
Clarice nodded. The man slowly removed his hand from her mouth and set her aside, into a corner crook of the hallway. He held up his hand for her to 'stay'. She nodded again.
The man pressed his back against the wall of the hallway and withdrew a handgun. He looked back at Clarice. “Cover your ears, honey.” He said. “And don't look.”
Clarice covered her ears with her hands and squeezed her eyes shut then jumped when the gun fired loud. Just once. Followed by a grunt and a heavy thump as the Hispanic intruder hit the floor.
Dana's blouse was torn open. Her breasts heaved beneath her thin bra as the man dug into his pocket and withdrew a pocketknife. He snapped it open and slid the blade beneath the band of her bra and sliced it in half. He dropped the knife on the bed and rubbed her bra off her breasts. The gun was nestled against her ribs. Panic surged her pulse and she began to gasp for air.
“Nice.” Sean murmured as he rubbed his hand over her full breasts. She could feel the hardness between his legs pressing against her stomach as he straddled her. She shuddered and tried to close her mind to what he was doing. He leaned down and covered a nipple with his mouth. She squeezed her eyes shut as his hand gripped her breast and massaged it as he suckled her warm flesh.
When he drew back, he licked his lips. “Tasty.” His voice was thick with sexual hunger. He tugged at his belt, loosening it then unfastening his pants. He grabbed at the snap on the waist of her slacks and she cried out softly, turning her face into the pillow. He slid down the zipper of her slacks then began working his hand beneath the waistband of her panties.
“No...” She whimpered, panic tightening her chest and making it hard for her to breathe.
The gunshot rang out, snapping through her head as surely as if she'd been shot. But it came from the hallway. Dana began to shake as the image of Grant or one of her children being shot filled her head. Sean twisted away and jumped off the bed. She instantly rolled on to her side and curled up, crying uncontrollably.
“What the hell was that!” Sean went out the bedroom door at a rush. He only had a moment to register the situation. The little girl was huddled into a corner of the hall, her hands over her ears and next to her – a man he didn't recognize was down on one knee. He spun around, a Glock 10mm gripped in his fist and aimed right at Sean.
The little girl looked up, hands still over her ears, eyes wide and frightened.
The man hollered at the girl. “Don't look!” She quickly squeezed her eyes shut. Two shots were fired in rapid succession. Sean's body snapped back before he even felt the bullets rip through him. He hit the wall hard and fell to the floor. Dead instantly.
Clarice sat in the corner, shaking, tears squeezing out of her tightly closed eyes. Hands pressed hard to her ears. The man touched her shoulder. “You're safe now, Clarice.” His lips pressed against her forehead. “You're safe.”
Clarice opened her eyes slowly in time to see the man disappear into thin air.
Dana's body jerked hard with each shot that rang out. She laid huddled in a ball on the bed. She could still feel the wetness from the gunman's mouth on her breasts. Her hands shook as she tried to cover her chest with the torn blouse. She waited for Sean to return, to finish his job. But he never came back.
Silence filled the house. She wanted to move, to check on her family, but her body felt paralyzed. Her eyes were still closed tightly, seeping tears, when she felt hands touch her. She cried out and jerked away on reflex, but then the hands were grabbing at her again. Small hands.
“Mom?” Clarice's frightened voice forced her eyes open. “Mom...are-are you okay?”
Clarice stood next tot he bed. Untouched and unharmed. Dana's arms shot out and grabbed her, pulling her into her embrace. She held her so tight she was afraid she might hurt her, but she couldn't let go. “Baby.” She cried, shaking hard. She drew back and rubbed her hands over Clarice's face. “Honey? Oh my god, honey, are you okay?”
Clarice nodded but she looked somewhat dazed and confused.
“Honey...what happened?” Dana whispered. “Clarice...where are the men?”
Clarice looked at her mom, frowning. “Huh?”
“The men with the guns, baby...where are they?”
Clarice took her hand slowly and tugged her towards the door. Dana crawled off the bed, covering her chest as best she could. Clarice led her to the hallway. The moment they stepped through the bedroom doorway, Dana saw Sean's dead body, slumped down against the wall. Two bullet holes in his chest. Her eyes widened as she absently squeezed Clarice's hand. “Where is...the other man, honey?” She whispered, confused. “The Mexican guy?”
Clarice led her around the corner and looked towards the living room. She raised her hand and pointed. Dana's eyes followed to where she was pointing.
Jorge Rodriguez lay crumpled on the floor, dead.
“What happened, baby?” Dana asked in a dull, disconnected voice.
“He shot them.” Clarice whispered.
Dana frowned. “Who shot them?”
Clarice looked around. “I don't know.” She said quietly. “He...disappeared.”
“Hey, big brother, I'm gonna be a little late.”
Clarice Stuart controlled the Jeep's steering wheel with one hand while she pressed a cell phone to her ear with the other. “Got a late start.”
Snowflakes hit the windshield as the wipers systematically swished them away. The Jeep's tires spit dirty slush as it sped down the rural highway. Towering evergreens, heavily burdened with snow, lined the highway, the tips swaying in a light wind.
“Well hurry it up.” Aaron spoke through the phone. “Or all the pies will be gone when you get here. Besides, mom's about to go into panic mode. You know how she gets.”
Clarice smiled. “Yeah, I know.” She said. “And hey, what're you doing, dipping into the desserts again? Mom'll kill you.”
She could hear the grin in her brother's voice as he replied, “Only if she catches me.” A brief pause, then, “So what made you late?”
Clarice stared at the slushy highway before her. Thicker snowflakes began to splatter on the windshield. “Bad dreams.” She said softly.
“Thee bad dreams?”
“Have you talked to anyone about them?” Aaron asked gently.
Clarice released a slow sigh. “You mean a shrink?” There was an edge to her voice that she knew wasn't warranted. “I'm not crazy, Aaron. I know what I saw.”
A black street bike approached the Jeep from the rear, guided skillfully by a rider dressed in black, his face concealed behind a black helmet with a dark tinted face covering.
“You were traumatized, Clarice.” Aaron said. “There wasn't anyone else there that night.”
“Then explain to me what happened?” Clarice insisted. “How did both those guys end up dead? You and dad were out cold, and mom...” Clarice faltered at the memory of what had almost happened to her mother. Something her mother never quite got over.
“I don't know, sis.” Aaron admitted. “But people don't just disappear into thin air.”
The street bike whipped into the opposite lane and sped around the Jeep.
“I wasn't hallucinating.” Clarice spoke low. “I saw him. He was there. He knew my name, Aaron.”
A pause, then, “I don't know what to tell you, sis.”
“I still see his face.” She whispered. “And his eyes...” Like fireflies on a lake. She remembered thinking that. Even twenty years later, she still remembered thinking that.
Slushy snow spit onto the Jeep's windshield as the bike whipped back into the lane in front of Clarice and zipped away, disappearing around a sharp bend. The windshield wipers smeared the slush, distorting her view of the road. Clarice pressed the washer button, squirting fluid onto the windshield.
“Listen, Aaron.” Clarice said softly. “I'm sorry for bringing this all up now. Lets just forget about it and-” The phone crackled with static. “Aaron?” Clarice frowned. “Aaron, can you hear me? I'm breaking up.” She could barely hear Aaron's voice through the static. “I'll talk to you when I get there. I love you.”
Static was all that answered her. She clicked the phone off and dropped it on the passenger seat.
She guided the Jeep around the sharp bend in the road and reached for the radio as the Jeep came out of the bend, taking her eyes off the road briefly. When she looked up, she screamed and clutched the steering wheel with both hands and instinctively stomped on the brakes, realizing her mistake too late.
The Jeep whipped back and forth on the slushy pavement and finally slid to a stop, angled on the shoulder of the road.
Clarice was still clutching the steering wheel in a death grip, her heart beating wildly in her chest. She stared wide-eyed at the black street bike parked sideways in the road a few yards away. The black clad rider was straddling the bike, looking in her direction.
Clarice drew in deep breaths to calm her racing pulse. Good God, she almost hit him. What the hell was he doing parked in the middle of the road? Her intense fear at nearly dying instigated her rage.
“Are you crazy!” She screamed at the rider from inside the Jeep. “You idiot!”
The biker didn't move. He remained on his bike, watching her through his dark face plate. Clarice stared back at him, her heart still shuddering in her chest. Fear and uncertainty seeped through her bones. What was going on? Why was he just sitting there watching her? The tiny hairs at the nape of her neck prickled and sent shivers through her, giving her goose flesh arms.
Suddenly, the rider dismounted and began walking towards the Jeep. Fear and panic snapped Clarice into action. She cranked on the ignition key, again and again. “Start dammit!” She screamed at the vehicle. The Jeep ignored her demands and refused to turn over. “Come on!”
The rider was approaching in long strides, quickly closing the distance between them. Clarice's eyes jumped to the driver door. It was unlocked. She swiped quickly at the lock, but not quickly enough as the rider grabbed the handle and yanked open the door.
Clarice turned away from him defensively, expecting the worst. “No!” God, what did he want? Was she going to die here, her body later found laying in a ditch full of dirty slush?
The rider reached towards her.
“No!” Clarice screamed. “Don't touch me!” She swung her fists as best she could in the confined space, hitting his chest and helmet, trying to fight him off. But it barely phased him as he shoved her against the back of the seat and held her there with one forearm then reached past her with his other hand and grabbed the cell phone off the passenger seat.
Clarice breathed deep and heavy, fear etched on her face. “Wh-what do you want?” she cried thickly.
“Your brother.” The rider spoke from behind the helmet as he thrust the phone at her. His voice was deep with a rough edge. Under other circumstances she might have found it appealing.
“Please.” Clarice whispered. “Leave me alone.”
“Call your brother!” The rider ordered harshly. “Now!”
Clarice stared at him, confused, frantic. “What? I-I can't! I'm out of cell range!”
The rider thrust his hand inside his jacket and produced a handgun. He pointed it at Clarice's head. “Call him now!”
Her eyes wide and glued to the gun only inches from her head, Clarice's hands shook as she took the phone from the man's hand and turned it on. No service. Tears spilled down Clarice's face. “I-I told you, it doesn't work! Why-”
The man snatched the phone from her hand and looked at it. “Dammit!” He raged and tossed the phone back inside the car. He headed back towards the bike with a fast, urgent stride. As he passed the front of the Jeep, he turned suddenly and brought up the gun.
Clarice screamed and ducked.
The rider squeezed off a shot, blowing out the right front tire of the Jeep. Another shot took out the left tire. He looked at Clarice through the windshield as she slowly raised up, eyes wide, cheeks wet with fresh tears.
“Stay here.” He said and stuffed the gun back inside his jacket. He mounted the bike, started it, then spun the rear tire of the bike in a half circle, sending up a small rooster tail of slushy snow and sped away.
Clarice sat trembling behind the steering wheel, watching the rider disappear down the highway. She gripped the steering wheel and tried to ward off a fit of shakes that threatened to overwhelm her. “What the hell?” She whispered unsteadily then reached for the cell phone, her hand shaking badly. She turned the phone on again. Still no service. She broke down crying. “No...”
The black street bike cruised slowly down a residential street past a neighborhood home with police cars lining the driveway and street, red and blue flashers strobing the night shadows. Cops patrolled the yard as onlookers crowded at the perimeter. The rider turned his head and surveyed the scene as the bike rolled past. The flashing squad car lights reflected and glinted off the shiny black helmet and face plate, vaguely illuminating the rider's face underneath. His face was hard, troubled.
The bike rolled on past, picked up speed and disappeared down the dark street.
“May our loved ones rest in peace in the arms of the Lord.”
The preacher's words came to Clarice from a great distance away, though the man stood just a few feet from her, forcing her out of her deadened state of mind and back to a reality she didn't want to face. The numbing sensation had begun deep inside her the moment she'd arrived at her parents' home in time to see the coroner wheeling a body bag from inside the house. A sensation that had steadily spread outward until her whole body had lost all feeling. Any minute now, she was certain, her knees would buckle and she would crumple in a heap right there on the crisp frost laden grass that covered the cemetery grounds.
“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Clarice opened her eyes, unaware they had been closed. She stared blankly at the three bone white caskets, each hovering above a dark hole that would seal her family's deaths as final. Hanging tensely at her sides, her gloveless hands ached from the bitter November air. She thought about putting them in the pockets of her coat, but the numbness of her mind had robbed her of the ability to command her limbs.
What was she going to do without her parents? Without Aaron? Her twin brother, her other half. Since they were born, he had always been there. He was a part of her. When life got too rough, he'd always been the one she ran to. He was her refuge. Her family was her refuge. And now it was gone. All of it. How was she supposed to get through this alone? She had no one now.
Clarice's eyes were vacant as they slowly swept over the crowd of mourners. Her family was well loved, but she didn't know these people. She hadn't lived here for years. Her gaze came to rest momentarily on a uniformed officer standing idle at the perimeter of the crowd of mourners. He watched the procession for a moment then met Clarice's gaze briefly before scanning the cemetery grounds as if searching for something, or someone. Apparently satisfied by what he didn't find, his attention returned to Clarice.
Clarice looked away.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The preacher spoke with sincere emotion. This didn't seem to be just a job to him, and for that Clarice was thankful. Her family deserved sincerity. “Now, a moment of silence.”
Clarice watched the mourners as their heads slowly bowed and their eyes closed. Some were crying openly, others simply stood there with distraught looks on their faces as if they hadn't yet come to terms with this atrocity that had taken the lives of three amazing people. Clarice could sympathize. She wondered if she would ever come to terms with it.
Her eyes came to rest on a man standing apart from the other mourners near a large headstone. Early thirties, six foot or thereabouts, he wore a black suit and white shirt but no tie, and sunglasses. His short cropped black hair barely responded to the light breeze.
The man's head wasn't bowed and he seemed to be watching Clarice. She stared back at him for a long moment as she sensed a twinge of recognition. Was he someone she used to know when she had lived here in her early youth? Before she really knew what she was doing, she took a step forward in his direction, a sudden urge to get closer, see him better. She didn't understand the need to know just who he was, but it controlled her, pulling her in his direction. She knew him, she was sure of it. Why that mattered, she didn't know. There were surely others here that she had known when she was younger. So what made this man different?
“Miss Stuart?” The preacher was suddenly at her side, speaking gently. Clarice blinked and aborted her mission to discover the stranger's identity, then shifted her attention to the preacher. He nodded towards the caskets. Her hands had gone numb so that she had forgotten she was holding three red roses. She stepped forward, walking slowly to the caskets. Her knees felt weak but she somehow maintained a steady forward movement.
She laid a red rose on each of the caskets, her hands resting momentarily on Aaron's. I'm gonna miss you, big brother, she whispered silently. If she spoke the words aloud, she would break down and perhaps never recover. She looked at the other two caskets. Goodbye, momma...daddy.
Her eyes blurred as a tightness squeezed her chest till she thought she might pass out. She turned from the caskets and cast one final glance over the crowd of mourners. There was no sign of the man in the sunglasses and suit.
She walked away without speaking to anyone. She didn't know what to say, and she was uncomfortable with the thought of all the pleas of sympathy that would be thrust at her. She just needed to be away from here. Her walk was urgent, hurried, as she moved towards the cemetery driveway where her Jeep was parked.
The key shook in her unsteady hands as she tried to unlock the driver door. An ache spread through her face as her jaw clenched tight, fighting the tears she was barely holding at bay.
A hand touched her shoulder and Clarice gasped, dropping the keys. She spun around and came face to face with the man in the sunglasses and suit.
“I'm sorry.” He said quickly, gently. “I didn't mean to startle you.”
Clarice stared at him for a silent moment. He still wore his sunglasses and she couldn't see his eyes, but she could feel them studying her. That sense of recognition came back full force, but her grief prevented her from probing into it more thoroughly, her previous compulsion to know who he was, gone.
She scooped her keys off the ground “It's ...okay.” She whispered, unsettled.
“I just wanted to offer my condolences.” His voice was low, soft, and sincere. She had heard his voice somewhere before, she was certain. But her head was spinning and she couldn't think.
Clarice looked at him again then inserted the key in the Jeep door, unlocking it. “Do I know you?”
He seemed to hesitate as she opened the door. “Uh...no. I was a friend of your brother's.” He went silent for a moment, then added in a low, saddened voice, “He was a good man.”
Tears burned Clarice's eyes. She blinked them back. She was almost away from here, she didn't want to lose it now and in front of a stranger. Although the nagging feeling she knew this man from somewhere made her wonder if he truly was a stranger.
“Yes.” Clarice whispered. “He was.”
Another brief silence as the man just looked at her. “I never had the chance to meet your parents.” He said. “But I'm sure they were wonderful people.”
Clarice swallowed hard and nodded without looking at him. She slipped off her jacket and tossed it inside the Jeep. “The best.” she managed thickly, her throat tight with emotion. Clarice glanced at the man who was just standing there like he had more to say, but she couldn't be here anymore. “I have to go. It was nice meeting you, Mr...”
“Oh. Lancaster.” The man offered quick. He held out his hand. “Jonathon Lancaster.”
Clarice accepted his hand. “It was nice to meet you, Mr. Lancaster.”
Clarice nodded. “Jonathon.”
Jonathon Lancaster held onto her hand an extra moment as he stared at her. Even the feel of his hand brought on a sense of recognition, but Clarice was certain that if this man had ever touched her before...she would have never forgot it.
The sudden, unexpected thought caught Clarice off guard and she glanced at her hand, still encased in Jonathon's grip. Jonathon's hand squeezed hers just a fraction before letting go.
Clarice climbed into the Jeep, a storm of emotions reeling through her...and not all of them due to grief. A sudden sexual heat spread through her like wildfire, materializing in a fierce ache between her thighs unlike anything she had felt in a very long time. What the hell was wrong with her?
Jonathon stepped forward and gripped the edge of the driver door. He glanced towards the officer who was now watching them with interest. “Are you going to be all right?” he asked, his voice heavily laced with concern and...something else she couldn't quite finger.
She glanced at the cemetery grounds where the three white caskets hovered over their graves. Her jaw tightened and she swallowed hard. Her whole life was about to be lowered into the ground, gone forever. “Yeah.” She lied as the tears rose behind her eyes once more. “I'll be fine.” She reached for the door to close it, then looked at Jonathon's hand still gripping the edge.
He released it quickly. “Sorry.”
“Goodbye, Mr-” she started, then added thickly, “Jonathon.”
He stepped back as she closed the door and started the Jeep.
Clarice glanced at the caskets one last time as tears began to slide down her face. She couldn't hold them back any longer.
Jonathon watched Clarice through the driver window of the Jeep as she pulled away and drove down the cemetery driveway, the Jeep's tires crunching on the frosted gravel.
The moment she'd touched his hand, he'd nearly lost it. It had taken every every ounce of will not to grab hold of her and insist she go with him now. His body raged with emotions he hadn't even known he could experience. He burned with desire and need for her physically, sexually. But at the same time...a cold fear gripped him and wrapped around him like a deadly snake, and slowly began to squeeze.