Monday, May 22, 2017

COLD SNAP

Genre: Horror




COLD SNAP
By Daniel Skye




            William Hurley walked at a brisk pace, deftly circumventing the thin patches of ice that had begun to form along the snow-blanketed sidewalks. He had pretty good equilibrium for a man who was eight beers deep. At 6’3 and 265 pounds, Bill could knock them back like they were ginger beer.

            He walked with his hands buried deep in his pockets. He only removed them to shake two breath mints from a dispenser and pop them in his mouth. Jean knew he’d been drinking, but he didn’t want her to know how much he’d been drinking. And his breath was a dead giveaway.

His fingers were starting to turn as blue as his jeans and he could no longer feel his toes inside his work boots. He had to get out of this blizzard before he turned into a human Popsicle.

There had been no mention of a blizzard. The weatherman said to expect light flurries, just a coating. The snow had just started when Bill ventured out to the pub for a pint of Guinness. Now the snow was nearly up to his knees.

As a kid, he’d loved the snow. As an adult, he didn’t understand what there was to love about it. As a kid, a blizzard meant no school, sledding in the park with friends, and drinking copious amounts of hot chocolate. As an adult, a blizzard meant shoveling snow until he inevitably threw his back out. And the years had not been kind to Bill’s back.

Bill dreaded the winter. The season stirred up painful memories. Memories of Nadine’s accident. It had been a cold, icy day in January, just like this one. The roads were slippery, the snow was blinding. It was coming down so fast, Nadine’s windshield wipers couldn’t even keep up with the snowfall. Bill would never know what possessed her to keep driving, why she didn’t just pull off to the side of the road.

In the four years that passed, there were times where Bill wanted to throw in the towel. But Jean wouldn’t let him give up. She gave him a reason to carry on without his better half.

Bill looked up at the street signs. He was on the corner of Eastman and Laird. “Just three more blocks,” Bill said to himself. “Three more blocks and you’ll be warm and toasty.”

A sudden pain erupted in Bill’s lower back, almost causing his knees to buckle. He balled up his hand and pushed a fist into his lower back, grinding his knuckles to try and alleviate the tension. Twenty years in construction and all Bill had to show for it was two bum knees and a tweaked spine. Bill had worked his way up to foreman, but had practically crippled himself in the process. Nowadays, he sat back and supervised, took it easy. But that didn’t take away the lingering pain.

He hobbled for three more blocks and breathed a heavy sigh of relief when he saw his house on the corner. He stared up at the icicles that had formed over the gutter. When he was a kid, Bill used to break the icicles off, bite one frosty end like a carrot, and go, “Eh, what’s up doc?” His parents weren’t rich and he didn’t have much growing up, but he was an imaginative child and he managed to entertain himself.

His wife told him that’s why he always bought Jean anything she wanted. Nadine said he was spoiling their daughter. But he wanted her to have everything her little heart desired. He wanted to give her the childhood that he never had.

Bill got inside and cranked the heat up to eighty degrees. He walked–well, hobbled–to the kitchen, where he peeked out the back window above the sink. There was an outdoor thermometer on the patio deck. It was caked in snow, but Bill could see the needle was below zero.

He sat in the kitchen, huddled near the radiator, rubbing his hands together like a caveman rubbing two sticks to start a fire.

But the aches and muscle spasms were relentless, forcing him to get up and walk to the fridge. He grabbed something from the freezer and sat back down, resting the item behind his chair.

He was shivering, but he had a frozen bags of peas pressed against his lower back. Jean trotted in, the soles of her black-and-white saddle shoes clacking across the tiled floor. Size four.

Jean was a month shy of eighteen, but her girlish figure made it difficult to shop for her. Jean bought all her shoes from the kids section at Payless. And she could only shop at Dressbarn, as they were the only store that carried garments that matched her petite frame. And ironically, Bill had to acquire all of his apparel from the local Big and Tall. When Bill had to shop for the both of them, it would take up half the day.

“I was getting worried about you,” Jean said. “It’s getting bad out there. They closed all the main roads and they’re issuing a mandatory curfew.”

It wasn’t out of character for Jean to fret or worry. With Nadine gone, Jean technically was the woman of the house. She helped keep the place clean and she even cooked dinner from time to time. And whenever Bill was gone for too long, her maternal instincts kicked in and she grew concerned for his safety.

“Thanks for the concern,” Bill said. “But as you can see, I’m fine. I just need to warm up.”

“You’ll be lucky if you don’t catch a cold. I didn’t bother making dinner, by the way. I made sandwiches, instead. In case we lose power and we can’t heat any food up. We already lost TV. Picture keeps cutting in and out.”

“Good thinking,” Bill said. She didn’t have her father’s size, which was probably a good thing for a girl. But Jean certainly did think like her father, especially when it came to planning ahead.

Bill tried to stand up, but his knees buckled as he slumped back into his chair, wincing in pain.

“Your back?” Jean asked.

“Yup,” Bill said through gritted teeth.

“Let me grab the heating pad for you,” she offered. “Heat is supposed to be good for a bad back.”

“My doctor says cold is better.” He leaned forward just a bit to show her the frozen peas thawing against his sore back.

“I’ve been listening to the radio. There’s nothing to do now that the TV is out. I’m afraid that I’m going to die from boredom.”

“We could always play a board game,” Bill suggested, albeit sarcastically.

Jean laughed at the thought. “Yeah, that won’t bore me to death.” Her concern had wavered and she was back to her old teenage-self.

Jean wasn’t shy around him, but she was shy around boys her own age. Her condition made her self-conscious. Bill insisted that it only enhanced her beauty. He even went as far as to point out celebrities that suffered from heterochromia–Kate Bosworth, Mila Kunis, Robert Downey, Jr. But it didn’t make her feel any less awkward or insecure around the opposite sex.

Jean had one green eye and one blue eye. It was a rare condition, but not uncommon. But it was also something Jean could not ignore. She was confronted by the fact every time she looked in the mirror.

Bill was getting the feeling back in his toes and fingers when a country song came on the radio. Except it sounded more like pop than country to Bill’s vintage ears. The singer had a flirtatious voice and sounded old enough to be Jean’s age. She probably was, for all Bill knew.

He never was a huge fan of country music. He was more of a classic rock guy–Zeppelin, Floyd, Hendrix, The Stones. He even got Jean to start listening to AC/DC. She liked Brian Johnson, but she was partial to Bon Scott and seemed to enjoy their older albums. Just like her old man.

“What made you stay out so long in this blizzard?” Jean wondered.

“I got caught up playing darts with Lenny Howard.”

“Ugh, ‘Lucky Lenny?’ That guy is a creep. I’ll never understand why you hang around with him.”

“He’s not that bad once you get to know him.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“You know, he has a daughter around your age.”

“Yeah, who he never sees.”

“Because his wife won’t let him. Don’t judge him too harshly, Jean. There’s a lot to the story you don’t know. And I can tell you that Lenny loves his daughter very much.”

“I’m sorry. It’s just that I know you’ve done a lot for him. You got him a spot in the union and got him a job in construction. And he never seems to go out of his way to repay you.”

“Hey, Lenny’s done a lot for me over the years. He’s actually quite the mechanic. When we were teenagers, he showed me how to jack up a car and do oil changes, how to change a battery or a flat tire, how to flush out a radiator.”

“Did he teach you how to hotwire cars, too?” Jean had a quick, sharp tongue. But Bill could always tell whether or not she was joking. “But seriously, you’ve known him for that long?”

“Since I was fifteen. He’s one of the few friends I have left.”

“Well, maybe we should invite him over for dinner one night,” Jean suggested. Her tone was altered, like she was warming up to the idea of him and Lenny being pals.

Bill had heard her words, but the one word that caught his attention was, “Dinner.” The mention of sandwiches had piqued Bill’s interest and he got up to raid the fridge. It took him a few tries, but he eventually worked his way out of his chair. He found a turkey and Swiss cheese with mayo wrapped in aluminum foil with his name written on it.

As he sat back down at the table, the country song faded out. And the house fell silent. Then came a startling knock at the door.

“Who on earth could be outside in this blizzard?” Jean wondered.

“Got to be Jehovah’s witnesses,” Bill quipped. But he had no idea who would brave this cold just to come knocking. Must be urgent, Bill thought. Maybe someone’s been in an accident and needs to use the phone.

“I’ll get it,” Jean said.

“No, we don’t even know who it is. I’ll take care of it.”

Bill walked to the door and shouted, “Who is it?”

“You don’t know me,” a voice said, “But I know you, William Hurley.” It was a man’s voice, deep and gravelly. A country singer, he was not.

“And what exactly can I do for you?”

“You can give me back what’s rightfully mine. Do that and we can go our separate ways. I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want any more blood to be shed. But I’m not leaving here until I get what I came for.”

“I suggest you get the hell out of here before I call the police.”

“Dad, who is it?”

“Jean, go upstairs to your room and lock the door.”

“Dad, what’s going on?” she asked, a tremor in her voice.

“Just do it now!”

A frightened Jean raced up the stairs, slammed her door shut, and locked it tight.

“Call the police. It’ll take them forever to get here in this weather. They’ll never make it in time.”

“I don’t know what you think I have or what you think I took from you, but you’ve got the wrong guy. Now I suggest you hit the bricks.”

“I could kick this door to splinters if I wanted to.”

“Maybe you could. But I’d still be waiting for you on the other side. Now you’re already trespassing. You sure you want to add breaking-and-entering to the charges?”

“Buddy, that’s the least of my worries. It’s been a busy day for me. And besides, I don’t really think you’ll call the police. You wouldn’t want them to find out your dirty little secret. Whose idea was it, by the way? Yours, or Nadine’s? And how is Nadine? I don’t see her car in the driveway.”

“Who the fuck are you and how do you know my family?” Bill shouted through the door.

“I’ve known you for a long time, Bill. Watched you for years. Studying your patterns and routines. My wife, she wanted to do this a different way. She didn’t want things to come to this. But you crossed me, Bill. You took something that belongs to me. And now, I want it back.”

“I don’t know you. I don’t know who you are or what you think I stole from you. But if you want it, come on in and get it, because I’m not going anywhere. This is my house. I won’t be threatened or intimidated. And I won’t back down.”

“Don’t go anywhere,” the man said. “I’ll be around.” His voice was raspy, but eerily calm. And that unnerved Bill to no end.

And what had he meant when he said, “I don’t want any more blood to be shed?”

He heard heavy boots shuffling through the snow as the man sauntered away from the door. Bill inched towards the window and followed the man with his eyes as he walked around the side of the house and disappeared out of sight.

Bill couldn’t get a good look in his face. He was wearing boots up to his knees, a huge red parka, and a wool cap.

Bill’s mind raced, mentally scanning the interior of the house for a weapon at his disposal. There were butcher knives in the kitchen, a set of golf clubs in the upstairs closet, a toolbox in the garage, and his gigantic fists.

Nadine was a pacifist. She detested violence. And she wouldn’t allow Bill to keep a gun in the house. She made Bill promise and swear on Jean’s life, no guns. Bill had considered going behind her back, keeping a gun stashed in the house for emergencies only. But he didn’t want to betray Nadine’s confidence like that. Now he wished he had broken his promise.

Bill made sure the front door and windows were locked. Then he slipped into the kitchen, grabbed a butcher knife from the knife block on the counter. He checked the backdoor; locked as well. Then he tried the landline, but the phones were down.

He peered out the kitchen windows to get another glimpse of the intruder. But the man had disappeared from his sight. Maybe he gained some sense and wandered off, Bill thought.

But his gut instinct told him the man was still out there, waiting, biding his time. Let him wait and freeze, Bill thought. We’re in the midst of a cold snap. Nobody can survive in zero degree weather. Oh crap, Jean!

Bill almost slipped on the second step as he rushed up the stairs. He pounded on Jean’s door. “It’s me, you can open up.”

Jean unlocked her door, let her father in. He closed the door behind him and locked it.

“Dad, what’s going on?” Jean said, visibly shaken and on the verge of hysteria.

“I don’t know,” he told her, wishing he had a better answer for her. “But the phone is dead. I need you to use your cell phone and call the police. I think that bastard is still lurking around outside.”

Jean took out her phone, tried to dial 911.

“I can’t get a signal,” Jean sobbed. “He could be using a cell phone jammer. They’re illegal but you can still find them online.”

“Where do you learn this shit?”

“TV, movies, the internet.”

Jean screamed and dropped her phone when they lost power and the room went dark. With the whole house plunged into darkness, Bill fished through his pockets for a cigarette lighter, forgetting that it’d been a year since he quit.

Jean felt around on the floor until she found her phone and turned the light on.

“Give me that,” Bill said. “I’ll bring some candles back.”

“You’re not leaving me here alone,” she said emphatically. “I’m coming with you.”

“Fine,” Bill said, landing somewhere between a sigh and a groan.

He took her phone and led the way down the stairs. They found some candles in a kitchen drawer and Bill found a flashlight under the sink. With no lighter and no matches, he had to use the flames from the stove to light the candles. He took the flashlight and gave Jean her phone back, which she pocketed. He also gave her a candle to hold on to and set the other candle down on the kitchen table.

Bill–flashlight one hand, butcher knife in the other–told Jean to stay put and did a full sweep of the first floor. The house was clear. He returned to the kitchen and set the butcher knife down on the table, but kept it near the burning candle so it was in his sight.

Jean gasped and recoiled at the face in the window that was staring at her. Ignoring Bill’s protests, she moved to the window to get a better look. The candle illuminated the man’s gaunt, weathered face, his skeletal features resembling something out of a horror movie. He leaned in closer, his breath fogging up the glass.

With one ragged fingernail, he wrote three words in the mist. COME HOME, JEAN.

Jean covered her own mouth to stifle an oncoming scream and inched back from the window.

“He knows my name,” she mumbled. “Dad, how does he know my name?”

Bill, turning red with rage, stormed to the window and flashed the light in the man’s face.

“Get off my property!” he screamed through the glass. Undeterred, the man simply shook his head no. “Then you’ll freeze to death because you’re getting in here over my dead body!”

The men met his gaze with cold, dead eyes. A chill rushed down his brittle spine when it dawned on him that this would-be intruder wasn’t wearing a mask. He made no attempt to conceal his identity. Whatever he’s here for, he can’t afford to leave any witnesses, Bill thought. Not after we’ve both seen his face.

Bill watched the man shuffle away from the window again and disappear from his sight. Jean followed her dad as he walked to the utility room, where Bill tried the fuse box. But there didn’t seem to be a problem. “Son of a bitch must have cut the power.”

“What are we going to do?” Jean sobbed.

“Don’t worry, sweetheart. I’ll think of something. We can’t call the police, but my truck will make it to the police station.”

“You can’t leave me here.”

“I’m not the one going. I’ll go out through the front door and distract him long enough for you to sneak out the backdoor. When you get out, run to my truck, start it up, and floor it out of the driveway. And once you’re off, don’t stop driving until you reach the station.”

“Dad, I’m not leaving you here either.”

“I’m big enough to take care of myself. And you can do this, Jean. I believe in you.”

“No,” Jean said emphatically. She could be so stubborn and adamant, just like Nadine. “If you’re staying, I’m staying. And if this creep wants a fight, I say we give him a fight. Let’s show him the Hurley’s don’t back down.”

Bill couldn’t believe the words coming out of her mouth. But a small part of him admired this new attitude.

“Now we’re talking,” he said. “I’m going to grab a golf club from my bedroom. I’ll grab one for you too.”

“No thanks,” she said, waving a can of hairspray she’d grabbed from the bathroom. “Got a light?”

“You know I don’t smoke.”

“Grrrr,” a sound escaped that perfectly captured the angst and frustration of a teenage girl. “Fine, I’ve got it.” She reached in her pocket and took out a yellow Bic.

“Where’d you get a lighter? You’re not smoking, are you?”

“Dad, are we seriously going to have this conversation right now?”

“Alright,” he sighed. “But when this is over, we have a few things we need to talk about. And what are you going to do with hairspray and a lighter?”

“Homemade flamethrower. You’ll see.”

“Let me guess, something you picked up from the Internet?”

“Actually, one of my friends showed me this trick.”

They went to Bill’s bedroom and he sifted through his golf bag, looking for the ideal club that would inflict the most damage. He settled for a good old-fashioned nine iron. The shaft was light as a feather and easy to swing with his ailing back, but the head was solid iron and guaranteed to do maximum damage.

They crept down the stairs, Bill’s flashlight guiding the way. Bill reached the bottom step and passed the flashlight to Jean. The fingertips of his free hand massaged at his tender back.

“We should close all the blinds and curtains,” Bill said. “So that creep can’t see in.”

“Good idea,” Jean said. “I’ll take care of that. You take it easy with that back of yours. Save your strength for if this bastard gets in.”

Jean set about drawing the blinds and closing the curtains while Bill rested on the bottom step, nine iron at his side.

Jean closed the Venetian blinds in the living room, drew the curtains in the bathroom. Then she went to the kitchen and closed the blinds adjacent to the kitchen table.

The window by the kitchen sink, which overlooked the patio, had no blinds or curtains. Jean thought about covering it up with newspapers or magazine covers and tape. Jean squinted, peeking out through the window to make sure the backyard was clear.

“Dad! You better take a look at this!”

Bill ignored the searing back pain as he sprung to his feet and ran to the back window. He peered out and saw the man standing on the patio deck. But he wasn’t alone.

Another man was at his side, his hands cuffed in front of him, his knees planted deep in the snow.

“Lenny,” Bill whispered.

            “Lucky” Lenny Howard was not so lucky on this day. He was bruised and battered, but he was still breathing, for the time being. Shivering, Lenny reached into his pocket and took out his phone. The man had a gun pressed to his temple and seemed to be dictating Lenny’s actions. Lenny’s numb fingers typed away on his phone. Then the man snatched the phone from his hands and tossed it into the snow.

            Jean’s phone pinged and she took it out. One new text from Lenny Howard’s number.

“Open the top kitchen drawer.”

Jean showed her dad the message. And just as quickly as her cell phone received the text, she lost service again, unable to call out for help. “I knew it,” she said. “He must be using a cell phone jammer. He turned it off to send us a message and then he turned it back on. We’ll never be able to call the police as long as he’s this close to the house with that device.”

“Don’t worry, Jean. We’re going to make it through this. In the meantime, let’s play his game.”

Bill was not going to play Russian roulette with his friend’s life. He went to the top drawer and found a walkie-talkie inside. “Son of a bitch,” Bill said. “That creep has already been in the house.”

            “Is this Mr. William Hurley I have the pleasure of speaking with?” a voice asked.

            “Speaking,” Bill responded through the walkie, trying to maintain his composure.

“Do you recognize the man on his knees, begging for his life?”

“I do,” Bill said after some hesitation. He could’ve lied, but the stranger would’ve called his bluff. Better to play it straight and not give this maniac a reason to go off.

“And what would you do to save this man’s life?”

“I’m not letting you in this house. I’m not letting you near my daughter. I’ll give you anything you want, but you’re not stepping foot in this house.”

“You mean, again. How do you think I slipped that walkie-talkie in your drawer? Your locks are easy to pick. You don’t even have a deadbolt. I could get in anytime I want. But it’s more fun this way, don’t you think?”

“What do you want?” Bill demanded to know.

“I want to see you sweat, to see you suffer. I want to crush your spirit. And then, I’ll take what’s rightfully mine.”

“And what’s rightfully yours?”

“Oh, I think you already know the answer to that. But you wouldn’t want me to spoil the surprise for Jean.”

“Don’t you talk about my daughter.”

“Or what? I’ve got a gun pointed at your best friend’s head. He’s got an ex-wife, a daughter about Jean’s age, he has every reason to live. Don’t give me a reason to pull this trigger.”

“You won’t do it. If my neighbors hear the shot, they’ll notify the police.”

“Your neighbors aren’t going to be notifying anyone. They’re dead. Like I said, it was a busy day for me. But I couldn’t risk leaving any witnesses. The sweet old lady who lives next-door, dead. The young couple next-door to her, dead. The family across the street, dead. This is on you, Bill. Revenge is an ugly thing.”

“You sick fucking bastard!” Bill screamed into the walkie. “You’re going to fry for this. You’re going to–”

A gunshot echoed through the neighborhood. Jean turned away from the window and ran into her father’s arms. Lenny fell to his side, motionless, the white snow stained red with his blood.

“You were saying,” the raspy voice crackled through the walkie.

“We’re done talking,” Bill said defiantly. He took the walkie and smashed it to pieces on the kitchen floor. He looked up, but the man was gone and only Lenny’s body remained. A grim reminder of the fate that awaited them.

“Where the hell is that golf club?” Bill said, returning to the staircase to retrieve his nine iron. The flashlight beamed down the hall, across the living room, over the front door. Bill was paranoid, on edge, afraid that at any moment this psycho would emerge from a dark corner of the house.

Jean had become his shadow, refusing to leave his side. She set her candle down in the living room, but she still had her phone, her lighter, and she was still holding onto that can of hairspray like a soldier clutching a grenade.

A sound emanated from the basement. The sound of a glass window exploding to jagged pieces.

Jean shrieked. “He’s in the house!” Her eyebrows were arched, her eyes wide with terror.

“You stay put. I’ll take care of this lunatic once and for all. And if you don’t hear my voice call out to you when it’s over, you run upstairs to your room and close or door. Or better yet, you grab my keys, hop in my truck, and floor it out of here.”

With his flashlight and his nine iron, Bill limped to the basement steps. He shined the light down the rickety wooden staircase, waited a moment for the intruder to show himself. When the intruder didn’t show, Bill began his slow descent. He stopped at the bottom step and surveyed the broken glass, waved his flashlight around the basement. But the basement was empty.

A scream cut through the air. It was Jean. He rushed up the stairs, pain flaring up in his lower back. But nothing was going to stop Bill. Not his rusty knees or his twisted spine. Nothing.

He found them in the living room. The man had one arm wrapped around her chest and throat, clutching her from behind. The other hand was pressing a .38 Special to the side of her head.

Bill rushed towards them, but a sharp pain exploded in his back, causing him to drop to one knee. The flashlight rolled out of his hand, but he was still gripping the nine iron by its shaft. He used it to push himself back up to his feet. “That’s close enough, Mr. Hurley,” the man said. “Take a few steps back.”

Bill complied, only to keep the man from harming Jean.

Jean winced and sobbed, tears sliding down her face.

“Don’t hurt her,” Bill pleaded. “Take whatever you want. And if you want to shoot someone, shoot me. But leave my daughter alone.”

“Oh, I won’t hurt her,” the man said with that raspy yet eerily calm voice that was starting to creep under Bill’s skin. “I’m just getting reacquainted.”

“What?”

“I’m sure you have questions. Believe me, I have some questions of my own. But first things first, toss the golf club. You’re not going to do much with that anyway. I can pump you full of bullets before you make it this far across the living room. Especially with your bad back.”

Bill did as the man said and tossed the club aside, far enough to satisfy him.

“There,” Bill said. “I’m unarmed now. No weapons. I don’t have a gun in the house.”

“I know. I’ve done my research. I’ve been waiting years for this moment.”

“Look, I think you have the wrong person. Whoever you think I am, whatever you think it is that I’ve done, you’re wrong. I’m a good guy. I work, I pay my taxes, I don’t break the law. I don’t even jaywalk. And I go above and beyond to provide for my daughter.”

“My daughter. My daughter. I’m so sick of hearing those words. She’s not your daughter.”

“What are you talking about?”

“As I said, I’m sure you have questions. But so do I. My first question is how do you live with yourself?”

“I-I-I- don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bill stammered, struggling to comprehend the situation.

“Let me refresh your memory…Sixteen years ago, a crowded city park, a beautiful baby girl resting in her comfortable stroller. The same stroller that you and your wife snatched her out of. You took our baby, raised her as your own. We waited for a phone call or an anonymous letter. We thought she had been kidnapped for ransom. When no letter or call came, we assumed the worst. For years, we thought she was dead. And then, by chance, we found her again. My wife wanted to get the police involved. But I told her no. I told her this was a personal matter.”

“Dad, what is he talking about?”

“I don’t know, sweetie. Just do what he says and don’t make any sudden movements.”

“Jean, I’m going to let you go. Promise you won’t try anything funny?” Jean nodded her head. “Good. I really don’t want to hurt you.” He released his grip but did not lower his weapon.

“My front pocket,” the man said. “There’s a picture inside. Go ahead, take it out.”

Jean reached in and unfolded a faded Polaroid. It was a picture of a baby, about six months old. But the photo wasn’t proof of anything, it didn’t validate the man’s accusations.

But the longer Jean stared at it, the more she noticed common features. The one thing that stood out above the rest was the eyes. Like Jean, the baby suffered from heterochromia. She had one blue eye, one green. Just like Jean did. It was an undeniable coincidence, one Jean could not overlook.

“Jean, look at the picture. Look at the eyes. It’s you. The real you. My daughter, Elizabeth, was snatched from her stroller. She was six months old. Jean, you’re my daughter. You’re real name is Elizabeth Calloway.”

She backed away slowly, her eyes bouncing back and forth from the man, to the picture, to Bill. It was impossible to ignore the evidence. If true, the man could’ve easily alerted the police. But he wanted to handle this on his own, no cops.

That could only mean one thing: This man intended to kill her father. Or, the man claiming to be her father. Jean didn’t know what to think or believe anymore.

Her whole world was upside down. Her head felt like it was on a swivel, spinning around like Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

Her whole existence was a lie. Her childhood was a farce. She had never even known her real parents. So many harsh realities began to dawn on her at once. It was all too much to take in at once. She felt dizzy, nauseous, faint. But above all else, she felt enraged.

            “You!” she turned to Bill accusingly. “You lied to me! You kidnapped me! You stole my life from me!”

            “Jean, I’m so sorry, honey. I never wanted you to find out. I never wanted you to know. It all happened so fast. I tried to talk Nadine out of it. But before I knew it, she was grabbing you out of that stroller and we were running for the car.”

            “Why?” Jean shouted. “Why did you do it?”

            “Nadine always wanted a little girl. But she could never have children. We considered the other options. But Nadine was like you sometimes, stubborn. She always had to get her way. She always had to get what she wanted. And she wanted you. I’d never seen her like that before. It was like she was possessed. She felt an instant connection with you. Like you belonged with her. I can’t explain it. And now that she’s gone, she can’t explain it either.”

            Jean didn’t say anything, just gazed at the Polaroid.

            “I can’t tell you how sorry I am. It was wrong. And I deserve to be punished for going along with it for all these years. I’ll turn myself in if that’s what you want.”

            “Not good enough,” the man known as Frank Calloway said. He’d waited a very long time for this moment, to see Bill at his weakest.

            Bill took a good, hard look at his tormentor. He was a gaunt man with purple, veiny skin and sagging shoulders. He was only a threat with a gun in his hands.

            “Sorry you have to watch this, Jean. But I’ve waited years to do this.” He wrapped his finger tight around the trigger of his .38 Special.

            “NO!” Jean cried. She had one hand behind her back, clutching that can of hairspray. She whipped it around and pulled out her lighter, sparking the flame. She pressed the button and the contents of the can came shooting out into the open flame, which caused an instant reaction.

            A jet of flames shot out from the can, a gigantic fireball that engulfed Frank Calloway’s face. He dropped his gun and cupped both hands over his face. The pain was so agonizing, so crippling, he could not even convey the sensation through his screams. Bill grabbed the gun and aimed it right at his head. But before he pulled the trigger, he looked to Jean for a nod of approval.

            “Do it,” Jean said, shaking her head.

            The gunshot nearly blew their eardrums out as a single bullet exited the barrel and entered Frank Calloway’s skull.

            Jean looked at the picture one last time before she brought the flame of her lighter to the edges and let it burn in her hand before she stomped it out on the floor with her saddle shoes.

            “I don’t care about some old picture or what some stranger claims. You’re my real dad. And Nadine was my real mother. You raised me and nothing can change that. And this man got what he deserved. Lenny and all those other innocent people he killed to try and cover his tracks. I could never love someone like that. I could never call them my father.”

            “What about me?” Bill asked. “Can you forgive me for everything?”

            “I already have,” she assured him and they embraced, Bill wincing in pain as she squeezed him tight.

            “We can’t hide this,” Bill said. “We’ll have to tell the police. Lenny’s daughter deserves to see her father get a proper burial. And the neighbors, oh God…their families will want to know what happened. They deserve to know.”

            “Right. So we better get our story straight. As far as I’m concerned, Elizabeth Calloway never existed. We were the victims of a psychotic home invader, the same as our neighbors. Nothing more, nothing less. Lenny was your friend and he was visiting. He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

            Bill listened in awe as Jean/Elizabeth laid it on thick, not skipping any important details. Bill was right, she had seen too many movies, spent too many hours on the Internet. But she covered all the bases. As long as they stuck to her story, the police would never question the unfortunate events that had transpired.

            And they wouldn’t even charge Bill with Frank’s murder. It’d be a clear-cut case of self-defense. The cops would probably even commend Bill for putting an end to Frank’s reign of terror. But that wasn’t on Bill’s mind. Neither was the searing pain in his back or the throbbing in his knees or the rapid beating of his heart. What Bill wondered is if Jean was being honest, if she truly forgave him. If she’d just forget this ever happened. How could she? Would she ever look at him the same again with those blue and green eyes?

            When you think about it, revenge is actually a compliment. It’s the ultimate compliment. You’re basically saying to someone that they’ve affected you or your life to such a degree, that you must retaliate in order to balance the scales of justice. But revenge can be consuming. It consumed Frank Calloway. But would it eventually consume Jean Hurley? What about the life that had never been? Would she truly just forget about the life of Elizabeth Calloway? Or would she hold Bill accountable?

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