Authors: Chrysoula Tzavelas
First edition published 2012.
Second edition published 2015.
Copyright © 2012 by Chrysoula Tzavelas
All rights reserved.
Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this book may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Please respect the author’s rights; don’t pirate!
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover art by Ravven
Cover design by Chris Sobolowski
Editors: Kate Sullivan and Ellen Harvey
Rose Martino Bigelow
For my mother, who believed in me,
and my son, who made me understand.
Table Of Contents
arley woke up, reaching out of a forgotten dream for her cellphone, knowing that she couldn't miss this call. Half-asleep, she fumbled at her nightstand, knocking a bottle of pills and three books over and onto the floor. Then she rolled over to stare at the phone, which wasn’t ringing. She frowned. Why had she—
“Yeah?” she mumbled into the phone as she fell back onto her pillow again, putting her arm over her eyes to block out the late morning sunshine streaming in her window. The sky had that baked-on brilliance that said it was already too hot to imagine doing anything outside.
“Marley, come get us?” She heard a small child’s voice, beguilingly familiar but unexpected. “It’s scary here.”
Marley sat up and glanced at the caller ID on the phone. Despite an unlabeled number, she identified the voice: Lissa or Kari, the twin nieces and wards of her gorgeous friend Zachariah. Almost daily, she met the twins and their guardian at the nearby park where Marley went to read and they went to play.
“Kiddo? Where are you? Did you get lost somewhere?” The children were preschoolers, young enough to get seriously confused if they decided to set out on an adventure.
“At home, but Uncle Zach isn’t here. He said, ‘Call Marley!’ if we ever can’t find him.” A second voice on top of the first said, “Come get us, Marley!” There was a shrill edge to the voices that pulled Marley to her feet before she was entirely aware of it. The trickle of worry became a flood, twisting her stomach into knots.
She took a deep breath, forcing the anxiety down. Her meds were on the floor. Cradling the phone against her ear, she opened the bottle and swallowed a pill. Then she started looking for clean clothes. “Where did he go?”
The voice closer to the phone said, “We don’t know. We were in our room and he just—”
The second voice said, “We do know! He went into his study to use the phone and he didn’t come out! We’ve looked for him and he’s not playing!” That was Kari, identifiable from the energy in her speech.
“I’ll come over and help you find him, all right?” Still holding the phone, she struggled into a pair of jeans and jammed her feet into some sandals. She paused to run a finger down the back of the kitten sleeping on a pile of overdue bills, letting the soft touch center her. Then she lifted it off the stack of envelopes and found her car keys.
She'd never been to Zachariah's home, but his address was somewhere on her computer, shut down due to brownouts the day before. While it booted up, she tried to get the twins to tell her more about their day. But they weren’t interested in chatting.
“We don’t want to stay here. It’s scary,” Lissa insisted.
Finally, Marley found and printed out the address to Zachariah’s house, and took another calming breath. The twins were playing a game, probably. They were little kids. Little kids were mischievous. She was surprised to discover they knew how to use a phone, though, let alone knew her phone number. Zachariah was probably in the backyard. Almost certainly. Waking from a black dream to their phone call was just a coincidence. But best to make sure. “Well, what’s scary about your house?”
“Things under the bed.”
“Shadows that go thump!”
“The roaring in the walls.”
“The bells behind us.”
“Whatever took Uncle! Please hurry, Marley!”
The first item on the list almost made Marley smile, but the raw fear in their voices by the end of the list had her rushing to the door. Because what if he’d really left them alone? “It’s okay, sweethearts. I’m sure it’s okay. Your uncle probably just had to run an errand and thought you wouldn’t notice he was gone. I’m on my way over, and I’ll stay with you until he gets home.” She clattered down the steps of the old brick building and out to her car.
There was sniffling on the other end. “Do you really think so?”
“Absolutely,” she lied as she started her car. She couldn’t imagine the emergency that would make Zachariah leave his two little nieces alone; he was devoted to the kids. Still, better to try to imagine that than worry about the alternatives. Deep breath. The anxiety wouldn’t fade away. She was crazy. But she had to manage despite it for the girls.
“I've never been to your house before. Why don’t you describe it to me so I know what I’m looking for?”
“Okay,” said Lissa. “My side of our bedroom is pink! Kari’s side is lavender. That’s like purple, but faded.”
That wasn’t what she’d had in mind. But it kept the twins distracted and on the phone with her, so it sufficed. When a squabble broke out between the sisters, she felt a flash of amusement. She embraced it. Anything but the dread that could so easily paralyze her.
There was a warning beep from her phone. Oh, no. Oh, yes. She'd forgotten to charge her phone the night before, just like always.
Marley raised her voice to cut across their argument about pastel rainbows. “Girls, my phone battery is about to die. I’ll be there in ten minutes, all right? Just wait for me. Don’t do anything—” The phone turned off.
Swearing, Marley yanked the earpiece out of her ear and threw it on the seat beside her. Now the twins didn’t even have her voice to keep them company. And she had no easy way to fend off her own crazy worries.
She couldn't afford to pull over and have a panic attack. Instead, she turned the radio up and rolled down the windows of her little car as she wove through L.A. traffic. The blue sky was tinted by a brown haze of smog mixed with smoke. The fires that sometimes swept the San Gabriel mountains had started up once again a couple of days ago. Marley inhaled deeply, filling her nostrils with the stench of August traffic, and tried to identify each scent: gasoline, charred rubber, hot asphalt, dust, and the tang of fried food. Sensory distraction. She couldn’t smell the wildfire smoke yet.
News of an accident came on the radio, and she changed the station. She did her best to ground herself in the here and now, to be mindful of what was and not worry about what might be. It was something her doctor had recommended as a way of fending off the anxiety attacks, and usually she couldn’t do it. But this time, two children depended on her. It was so rare that anybody or anything really needed her. It gave her focus. It wouldn't last—it never did. But all she had to do was hang on until Zachariah showed up again.
She managed to distract herself so well with the details of palm trees and the number of sports cars on the road that she almost missed the turn for Zachariah’s home. It was an expensive neighborhood, near the Huntington Library, with landscaped green lawns and enormous homes bordered by Italian cypresses and shaded by carefully tended olive trees. Zachariah's home was a Mission-style structure behind a wall that protected an emerald lawn. His red SUV was parked in the long driveway.
He’d come home. Or the kids had been playing a prank on her. Thank heavens. She’d find out what was going on, at least.
But as she stepped out of her car, the front door flew open and the twins scurried out to wrap their arms around her waist. “You came!” said one of them. They were tiny children, dressed in identical denim shorts but with different colored tops so clueless adults could tell them apart. They both had long auburn hair tied up in pigtails with ribbons that matched their t-shirts.
“Zachariah’s car is here,” she pointed out to them after she bent to return their hugs.
“We know that!” Kari put her hands on her hips. “I said he went into his study and didn’t come out. I did!”
Marley remembered that, but she'd dismissed it out of hand; the twins had such active imaginations. “Well, let’s go look in his study. Maybe he has a secret door.” He didn’t, she knew, have a job outside the house. She wasn’t sure he had a normal job at all; she had the impression that a trust fund paid the bills so he could devote all his attention to the twins. He seemed to have a full schedule shuttling them between a dizzying array of art and dance and music classes, along with playdates at the park where Marley had originally met the family.
She took the girls’ hands and let them drag her up the veranda stairs and into the house. The inside was as lovely and well tended as the exterior, with polished wooden floors and plush, pale carpets. It was also so air-conditioned that she was glad she’d worn jeans.
The twins dragged her down the hall, past the wide staircase and what looked like a formal sitting room to a door standing ajar. “This is the study,” said Lissa. She pulled her hand from Marley’s and laced her fingers together, fidgeting.
Nervousness twisted through Marley; she shook her head in irritation at herself and pushed the door open. The only way to know what was beyond was to look and see.
It was a very old-fashioned library, dark-paneled and windowless, with bookshelves covering most of the walls. One lamp illuminated the heavy, antique desk, and another created a warm circle of light around a leather armchair. Marley, who’d dropped out of her grad program in English lit, was immediately envious.
But there was definitely no Zachariah. She glanced down at the twins and then untangled her hand from Kari’s. “I’m going to look around. Maybe I can find a clue to where he went.”
The twins stared up at her, lip-biting reflections of each other. Then Kari shrugged. “Okay. But don’t you leave us here.” She absentmindedly took Lissa’s hand and they watched, framed in the doorway.