"Just pay the taxes, mow the lawn, and keep the house clean, and you're good. Stay there as long as you like."
"Are you sure mom?" Erin said trying to sound sincerely hesitant. She couldn't afford to sound too eager. She needed a place to live; moving back to Crooked Creek had never been part of her life plan. "I'm sure she could find somewhere else." That was a lie, apartments were hard to come by in Crooked Creek and her grandma's house may not have been updated, but it was cheap, private and it had air conditioning. So what if there was pink carpet and floral wallpaper.
"I'm sure, sweetie! Grandma loves Miami, she won't mind. But she will probably do inspections at Thanksgiving next month." Erin scowled and put on her blinker. Her grandmother had moved to Miami after a minor stroke and her house had been sitting empty since July. "It might be a bit dirty right now, but I'm sure you can clean it up."
"Right, I'm sure. Grandma is a cleaning woman at heart. She probably trained the mop to clean by itself." Erin's mother laughed and it echoed on her car's speakers.
"Probably. The real estate agent has the keys; I'll text you the address and see you when we get home."
"Sounds good, Mom."
"I'm so glad you're back, sweetie." Erin wasn't. After high school she had volunteered the entire summer at a Girl Scout's camp and gone straight to school on the East Coast. Once she earned her journalism degree she had gone to New York and interned on a late night talk show, and worked on a blog with her boyfriend, Nick. She loved New York, sure she only made enough to afford a studio apartment and sure, it wasn't in the best neighborhood, and maybe there was no stove and the shower was just a wand on the wall, but things had been looking up. The blog had started taking off, funding was coming in and there was talk about her being hired on by the talk show.
And then everything went to shit.
Erin had come home after a long day of arguing with coworkers and kicked off her pumps. They had clacked against the wall. She threw her keys into the glass bowl by the door and slumped onto the love seat in the corner. Her back ached, her head pounded but when her phone vibrated and Nick's song started playing she managed to smile. It wasn't a call, just a text, but that didn't matter. She fumbled with her purse and pulled out her phone, swiping right to open the text. It wasn't a 'hello', or a 'what are you doing', instead it was a picture, and after one look, Erin knew things with Nick were over.
Naked girls in your boyfriend's bed tended to do that.
The next day she found out that she had not been chosen for a full time position and she was unable to repeat the internship. There would be no money coming in. Erin had thought about staying and looking for something else, her resume was good now and she had a year experience. After two weeks of looking and hearing nothing, and when her lease and internship almost up, Erin made the decision to throw in the towel and move home. She sent her in an application to Crook Creek's local paper and
"Yeah," Erin said. "Glad to be back mom."
The cornfields gave way to trees as Erin neared the titular creek but instead of the thick wood she had grown up running in after dark on double dares, there was a grid of new asphalt and a loud bright green sign boasting 'PEBBLE CREEK, SINGLE FAMILY HOMES FROM THE LOW 300s!' was driven into the ground next to the street. The streets were empty apart from the spattering of new and fashionable homes with facades of brick or dark grey siding.
"When did they start with this?" Erin asked herself.
"Start what?" Her mom answered.
"The new subdivision. I thought this was a forest preserve?"
"Oh!" Her mom said, sounding excited. "No, actually, the state had no record of that. It belonged to the park district and with the budget problems they sold it off. A developer bought it and is putting in new homes. The ladies at tennis hope that it will help. There were only a few houses when we left for Miami, are there more now?"
Erin did a quick count. "There are seven. They look nice," she said in agreement. "Bit expensive."
"Well it's about time. We need to drive up home values if we're ever going to sell. Everyone wants to move to La Mont up the hill." Erin had to agree. She hadn't wanted to move to Crooked Creek. La Mont was the better alternative and was a proper suburb, with buses, a train station, and apartment complexes. It was also more expensive and Erin wasn't about to say no to a free -or almost free- place to live.
Erin passed the entrance to Pebbled Creek and crossed the bridge into town. Her car struggled up the steep hill and then made its way onto Capital Street. It might have been picturesque if it had been better taken care of. It was just on the crest of the hill, and it overlooked the creek below and the woods. It was a pretty view, particularly this time of year when all the leaves were red and gold. Limestone bluffs were carved into the side of the hill, and the buildings were made out of the native stone.
"And maybe it will help the town," her mom continued. "We need a kick in the pants to make it nice again. I remember it when I was little, its gown downhill since then." Crooked Creek had once been the place to be. In the 1800s a limestone quarry had supplied Chicago with most of its limestone. It had closed during the Great Depression but was replaced by a Texaco Factory in the 1950s. It had been a quaint little Midwestern gem where people would come to smell the fall air and antique.
Until the Texaco factory exploded and was permanently shut down.
Since then nothing much had changed. No one had improved anything and it was left to rot. It was so authentic that there had been talk that some big shot producer had wanted to use it in a period movie, but had passed it up for a similar town in Illinois. The awnings were faded green, the store windows were filled with too much merchandise or soaped over when they were empty, and most of them were. Nothing ever really lasted on Capital Street. The pizza shop had changed hands every two years since Erin could remember, the insurance companies and antique stores rotated in and out, and the Travel Agency still sat empty with sun faded pictures of Mickey Mouse in the windows. No one ever went there. Most people went up into La Mont when they needed to shop. That's where the mall was, the tiny boutiques that everyone went into but no one could afford was, and all the chain restaurants
There were a few places that lasted, though no one knew how. There was the ancient vacuum store in a red brick building with a blue awning and an old upright in the window. In the summer they would put the vacuums on the side walk and when there was a steam cleaner all of the old women would fight over it. Erin's grandma had nearly pummeled her friend, Mille, for one once. There were other places that no one went to. The Lock was an old dive bar that had been built when the town was founded and according her grandpa, it had been a favorite with the stone cutters who worked in the quarry before it had closed. Now it was just an old dive bar was carved into the side of the hill and under one of the rotating insurance agencies. Today it was an All-State. Erin had never seen anyone go in or out of either establishment.
The old movie theater caught Erin's eye. It only had one screen and moth eaten chairs, and only had one showing on weekends, but it was owned by the city so it managed to stay afloat. The senior citizens called it 'nostalgic' and liked the Clarke Gable movies they played on Friday nights. It was that time of year again, and Rock Horror Picture Show would be playing on the weekends. Sure enough the marquee was light up and the movie's name was on big black letters.
Erin slammed on her breaks with two feet and despite the effort, the nose of her car bumped against a young man's thighs.
"Sweetie, are you okay?" Erin could barely hear her mother's question over the blood rushing in her ears. When had they put in a second stop light? She hadn't even seen it, instead zoning out on a road she had driven countless times since her fifteenth birthday when she had gotten her driver's permit.
"Mom, I gotta go."
"Love you, bye," she said instinctively with haste.
Erin threw her car into park and clamored out. She didn't bother to hang up or throw on her hazards. She didn't notice the chilly fall air
"Are you okay?" She asked the young man. He was dressed in black jeans with a gray hoodie thrown over his head. He turned to face her. His skin was caramel colored and his wide nose was covered in freckles. Red curls peaked out from under the hood in sharp contrast to his otherwise African features. Looking at him gave Erin a headache, or maybe it was from slamming on her breaks so quickly.
He freckled man looked around, like he was double checking that she was talking to him. There was no one else in the cross walk and the sidewalk in front of the Lock and across the street by the empty travel agency was similarly empty. He turned back to Erin and frowned, his chocolate eyes narrowing.
"Yeah, fine," he said. "Just watch where the fuck you're going next time." He was rude, but Erin would concede that if there was a time to swear it would be at the person who hit you with a car. At least he wasn't screaming and looking to punch her in the face…which also would have been appropriate.
"I'm so sorry," Erin continued. "I didn't see you or the light." He snorted, like he had either heard that before or wasn't buying it. Erin was too flustered to tell.
"Yeah well, you should get your eyes checked."
"Can I take you to the doctor or give you my insurance information?" She offered. That was what you were supposed to do in these situations right? Exchange information and call the police? He was walking up right now, he seemed fine, but she wasn't about to have him call her in as a hit and run if he got a nasty bruise. She had heard about people that jumped in front of cars and sued for bit money down the line.
"Forget it." He said waving his hand. He jumped up and down and spun in a small circle. "Just be thankful it was me and not a kid. You didn't even tap me." He shoved his hands into the hoodie pocket and turned away from her, walking with a quick gait across the street and down the hill towards the Lock. Erin watched him go, a frown on her thin lips.
When he went down the old uneven stairs, Erin let out a heavy sigh and turned back towards her car. There were a few cars piled up behind her, people craning their necks trying to see what was going on in front of them. Capital Street was only two lanes and she was holding up traffic. A large black pickup truck laid on the horn and Erin rolled her eyes. Small town charm alright.
She got back into her car, threw it into drive and made her way down Capital Street. "Erin? Is that you?"
"Yes," Erin said heavily. "I'm fine, I told you I was."
"I know. Sweetie, were you in an accident?"
"No," Erin lied, well, sort of. "Not an accident. I'm fine." If she tried to tell what had happened it would be blow out of proportion. Police would be called, plane tickets bought, and her mom would be in Crooked Creek by tomorrow. "Promise."
"Do you need me to call the insurance agent?" Erin loved her mother but she was always trying to fix problems. When Erin was little she used to call Erin's friends and beg them not to be mad at her, or call teachers about bad grades behind Erin's back. She was an only child, and with no other children to fuss over, Erin's mom was single minded and dedicated to doing everything she could for her daughter. She had even tried it Erin's freshman year at college. It backfired. Erin's professor had given Erin and F on the paper she had turned in late and told her the next time her mother called she'd get an F in the entire class. Erin hadn't quite bought it, she was sure it went against some sort of campus policy but she had gotten the message. It took a lot of begging, but eventually, Erin got her mom to stop putting her nose in places it didn't belong. She still liked to try, and Erin's failure in New York had only revitalized her fervor.
"No. Mom, listen, I'm almost at the Herald, I gotta go."
"Good luck! Text me a picture of your desk." Erin would not be doing that but she didn't argue. That wasn't worth her time.
"Yeah mom, but you remember to text me the real estate agent's address so I can get those keys."
"I will. I should go. It's already four and your grandma's got reservations at the golf club. I'll talk to you later, okay?"
"Sounds good." Erin hung up, this time she was certain about it. The phone in the cup holder glowed and the call went dead. Certain that she was alone; Erin let out a loud sigh and drummed her fingers against the wheel. She needed to let out the nervous energy. Her heart had slowed but she could still hear it thrumming against her chest. She tried to remember what she was supposed to do to calm down. Three deep breaths didn't work, but she tried them anyway. No luck.
After making certain there was no new stop light, and no one in the cross walk, Erin turned the corner and entered a small parking lot behind a large limestone building. 'THE HERALD' was written in large brass letters bolted to the building. It was the largest building on Capital Street, four stories and as broad as two of the others. The windows were all large double paned with cooper. Small rosettes were carved into the side of the building.
One of Erin's favorite memories was of the Herald and it wasn't a good one. It was November 8, of 2000 and Erin had gotten to stay up late the night before to watch the results of the election. She had fallen asleep on the couch instead and was listening intently to her father read the paper. Her dad had it opened on the kitchen table and was eating his toast and bacon, and sipping on his coffee. He laughed loudly and rolled his eyes. He held it up for Erin to see as she devoured her Lucky Charms. "Look Erin!" he said. "Only the Herald would mess up red and blue states." He set it down on the table, smoothed it over the table top and took a gulp of his coffee. "Next they'll start saying Bush in Green party. Your school paper is more informed." Erin had blushed and rolled her eyes as she separated the marshmallows from the cereal.
"Dad," she protested, trying to seem cool and embarrassed when pride was bubbling in her belly.
It wasn't a good impression, and it wasn't the kind of establishment Erin wanted to work at. Working in New York had been wonderful, and working on Late Night Television was fast paced, well informed, and witty. Sure, she had only been a lowly intern, only two of her jokes had made it into the segment and she mostly did research and fetched coffee, but she loved it. Her experience was valuable but jobs were hard to come by. So, she took the job writing announcements and obituaries at the Herald while she tried to find her feet and hoped that maybe she could bring a little integrity to the one horse operation.
It was already three in the afternoon and she wasn't scheduled to start work until tomorrow, but Erin had been requested to swing by, set up her desk and fill out her W-2. She didn't mind, filling out paper work, giving her social, having her ID picture taken was all mindless and she didn't need it taking up her entire first day. She opened the back seat of her car, pushed aside an orange duffel bag and found a shoe box labeled 'desk'. She picked it up. Pens and pencils rolled around in the box clinking against small metal trinkets and the glass of picture frames.
Box in hand; she made her way into the limestone building. She opened the brass double door with her hip and into the lobby. The floors were wood, oak with scuffed narrow slats that looked like they would be drafty and cold in the winter. The walls were beige with pictures of famous headlines framed and proudly displayed. Erin noted that November 8, 2000 was missing. There was a large desk in the center with an empty computer and a little bell with a 'ring me' sign seated next to it. It was comfortable, nothing like the fast paced world she had left. Erin noted that although this was for the public it still smelled like printer's ink and must and the heavy clangs of the press was muffed through the walls.
"Hello?" Erin called out. There was no answer and when her voice should have echoed off the plaster walls and wood floor, it was drowned out by the presses. She stood there, looking at her shoes and the walls. She read all the headlines. There was 'NIXON STEPS DOWN' with a picture of him giving peace signs in front of a plane and next to it 'TEXACO TO REMAIN CLOSED' over a photograph of the factory engulfed in flames. There were others, some local happenings, some more important on the state and national level, and all in heavy metal frames. The older ones had acquired a stylish patina that could only come with age.
Erin's feet began to hurt and stress and its friend annoyance started to creep up the back of her neck. There always was the bell. She could ring it and try to get someone's attention, she knew that, but they always made her feel rude. Her eyes darted to the silver object and then back to the walls reading the headlines a second time. 'STONE CUTTERS MAKE STATE!' Her feet started to ache and finally she shifted the box and set it on the counter and rang the bell.
And nothing happened.
Erin caged an annoyed sigh behind her teeth and closed her eyes. "Hello," said a pleasant voice. "I'm sorry; I guess Barb went on break." Erin opened her eyes and gave a small closed lip polite smile to the blond woman. She wore a bright green cardigan with gold buttons over a conservative black dress. Her blond hair was pulled back into a severe pony tail and all fly aways had been tamed and put in their place. She appeared to be around Erin's age despite her sense of style. Her smile was friendly, but Erin suddenly felt inadequate in her jeans and red sweater. "Can I help you?"
"Oh," Erin said. She reached up and grabbed her box from the counter. "I'm Erin Underhill, I'm-"
"Oh my god!" The blond woman beamed. "Erin, yes, I knew I recognized your face." Erin felt uncomfortable, the recognition was not mutual. She was drawing a complete and total blank. Rather than show her ignorance, she made her smile grow hoping that and introduction would be mad. "We were on the paper together."
"Oh, right. It's nice to see you," Erin said trying to sound sincere. "Can you show me up to my desk and to HR? I'm only popping in to get comfortable and set up. I just got into town."
"Oh, right, of course," the blond said. "Come on, this way." She reached for the lanyard around her neck and pulled up her key card. She swiped it at the door, and after a green light and a soft beep, she pushed open the door and welcomed Erin and up a flight of narrow stairs. They squeaked underfoot, and Erin had to focus on being sure footed.
They walked out into an open room. The far wall was made up on large windows and several pillars held up the space. Offices were along the back. Most had closed doors and closed blinds. The majority of the staff sat at desks aligned in rows in the middle of the room. They all had the same computers, desk top calendars and phones.
"We don't have cubicles here," the blond said from behind Erin. She was proud of that and stood a little taller. "We used to, but too many people were playing Candy Crush."
"Which desk is mine?" Erin asked.
"Announcements and Obituaries are in the corner. You're sitting next to Johnny." The blond pointed. "I'm over there, by the window. I work on local stories. I started here two years ago, right out of college. I worked in announcements for a few weeks," she said. She was trying to be kind and share but not to brag. It wasn't working. "I'm sure you won't be stuck there too long. We have a few of the sports reporters looking to retire in a year or two. "
"Thank you," Erin said with a nod.
"Any time. We should grab lunch together soon. I can help show you around tomorrow get you settled in on your first day."
"We can do that," Erin said. She was anxious to get back to her own desk. "You'll have to show me if there's anywhere worth going in town." She inched towards her desk, trying to get away without being rude.
"Awesome." The blond grinned and bounced on the balls of her feet. "I'll pen you into my planner. Now it's back to the old grindstone!" She bounced again and turned, her tight pony tail swishing behind her.
Erin watched her go, opening her eyes wide to keep them from rolling. She turned towards her desk. It was a big clunky wooden thing with heavy drawers and brass pulls. The computer on her desk was off and the tower was shoved beneath it so her chair could not be pushed in all the way. That would be annoying, but at least the chair looked comfortable. She placed the box on the desk and flipped it open. She pulled out a picture frame and placed it next to the monitor. It was a picture of her mom and dad in Paris. They were standing on top of the Eiffel Tower grinning behind their sun glasses. Her mother wore a scarf and a sweater. They were world travelers, and while their roots were in Crooked Creek they were ivy rather than a solid oak, leaping place to place and exploring. They passed on the travel bug to Erin.
But here she was, trapped.
Her pens were next and Erin placed them in the provided black cup. There were other odds and ends; a stress ball that looked like an eyeball and oozed when it was squeezed by a firm hand, a troll doll with flaming orange hair and bare belly that she had stolen from her older cousin in the third grade, and a blue plastic tumbler. She set them all down, organizing them and trying to give them an organic feel. If she was going to be here, she might as well be comfortable.
Desk sorted, Erin looked around trying to focus over the clattering of keyboards, one sided phone conversations and the ever constant clanging. She didn't know where exactly HR was and there were no apparent signs of it. Maybe in one of the closed off offices? She sat at her desk, waiting. Maybe someone would come get her? She folded her hands in her lap, and swayed from side to side using the tips of her toes to propel her.
No one came, and after a few minutes it became apparent that no one would. Erin got up, and looked around, trying to find someone to help her. Everyone was conveniently busy, refusing to meet her eye, offer a friendly smile or help. Erin glanced towards the windows. The blond was sitting at her desk, her fingers hovering over the keys. As annoying as she had been, she had been helpful. Erin sighed before pushing on her toes, sliding back and standing up. She adjusted her green sweater and ran a hand through her red hair.
The desks made a maze, and Erin maneuvered through them with minimal 'excuse me's and only one 'I'm so sorry'. She trotted around one man screaming into his phone, and another using an exacto pen to cut a photo and scratch the top of his desk.
"Um," she said, approaching the blond. Erin's blue eyes darted down, reading the name plate. "Hi Alison can you show me to HR? They didn't give me their room number on the email." Alison didn't look up but her fingers clacked against cntrl + save and she pushed back from the desk.
Erin remembered her now. She looked different than she had in high school, her blond hair a sharp change from the black tresses she had once sported. Alison had been the senior editor her Sophomore year and she had taken the job a little too seriously. Even the English teacher, Mrs. Johnson, the adviser had told Erin to lighten up, that it was just an after school hobby. Alison had thrown a fit right before prom, though Erin couldn't remember what about. She was surprised someone as driven as Alison was still in Crooked Creek.
"Sure, Alison said. She didn't stand up and instead swiveled to point back towards the stairwell. "They're up on the third floor with IT. They like their 'privacy'. More like they don't like having their bosses breathing down their necks. They mess up my taxes every week." She made a sound in the back of her throat and rolled her eyes towards the ceiling. "Do you need me to show you?"
"No," Erin said with a shake of her head. "I got it. Thanks, I don't want to keep my real estate agent waiting too long."
"You're welcome." She spun back, eyes intent on her screen. "You're buying a house?" She glanced up, a smile on her face. "I saw a few nice ones for sale right around the high school. Brick with big porches. There was one Victorian down by the quarry. Not the nicest block, but it's coming back."
"No," Erin said with a shake of her head. Alison's smiled fell. "Just renting." It was the easiest way to explain the situation.
"Oh," Alison said, going back to her computer, suddenly uninterested. "Well, I should get back to this article. It's not going to write itself."
"Sorry if I bothered you," Erin added.
"You did." She said it matter of factly with a bright smile. Somehow the casual delivery made it sting more. "But it's okay, you're not the first." Alison smiled and gave a shrug. "Like I said, I do everything around here."
"Well thanks and I hope I can help you out. I've worked in a big office before so I know he ropes."
"I'm sure you do," Alison said. "I'm excited to chat over lunch." Someone she managed to sound both excited and dismissive. Erin was a bit in awe. And that was the end of the conversation.
The stairs were easier to manage without a box of trinkets and the paper work didn't take long. She scribbled down her personal information, tried not to shift awkwardly as the old woman behind the counter tried to make small talk. Her name was Bethany and she was chatty. The topic of conversation was dry and it was, of course, about the vacuum store and those 'new cordless things' they recently started selling. Erin managed to make a few pleasant sounds in wordless agreement, a shrug of confusion, and a nod to keep from having to engage in the conversation. The phone in her back pocket has started buzzing signaling the text from her mom and the real estate agent's address.
"Smile," the silver hair woman croaked. Her voice shook as much as her hands. The photo was quick, and Erin blinked. Bethany didn't seem to notice that her eyes were closed and she was grimacing. She punched a hole in the corner and threaded it through a green lanyard. "Don't lose this, you'll need it." Erin took it and shoved it into her pocket. Alison might wear hers around the neck like a badge of honor but her's would remain hidden.
"Thank you," Erin said before ducking down the stairs without any formal goodbyes. She pulled out her phone, scrolled through the five text messages her mom had sent of food -mahi mahi with pineapple- to find the address. It was a street she had never heard of before, so she assumed it was in the new development.
The drive was easy, the streets were clear -though she was certain to double check the cross walks- and she made it in the span of two songs on the radio. The new subdivision was nice, but empty. Perfectly manicured lawns with dwarf trees next to empty plots of dirt. The houses looked friendly enough, with big grins and the 'for sale' signs in the fresh sod. When Erin was little she liked to pretend that houses had faces, the doors were the mouth, the windows were eyes, and the cap stones could be funny noses. She would watch them from the back seat of her mom's minivan a giggle at all the funny faces peeking out from behind the leaves of the parkway trees. Some looked angry, some sad and some smiled.
Erin parked her car in the driveway of large house with acid washed red brick with limestone stacked in the corner to accent it. Its mouth was a double set of large cathedral doors spanned with iron hinges. The eyes were bay windows with cooper eyebrows that still shone orange. There were two large urns were filled with bright yellow mums framing the doors and a blue security sign stuck into the river stone garden bed but that was where the curb appeal ended. Erin double check the address before getting out of her car and walking to the front door.
The bell was friendly and instead of the common ding dong a little melody played. "MAMA!" A shrill scream drowned out the door bell's song. There was the drumming of footsteps on a stair followed by the sure steps of an adult before the door opened.
"Can I help you?" Asked a woman dressed in a grey lounge shirt, yoga, and a high bun. She stood barefoot on her travertine marble floor. A little girl with blond hair and blue eyes peaked up. She couldn't have been more than two. Her hair hung in front of her eyes and her big cheeks were covered in purple jelly.
"Are you Mrs. Jones?" Erin asked. "I'm Erin Underhill. You have the keys to the house?"
"Oh!" The home owner grinned and took a step back from the door. She opened the door wide revealing a very beige interior. "Yes! That's the Victorian by the quarry, lots of room for equity sweat. I was surprised no one took a bite yet. Come on in." She leaned down and scooped up the toddler who immediately protested. The little girl went limp and let out a squeal. "I'm so sorry," Mrs. Jones said. She gave a tired smile and turned to walk into the kitchen. "Let me go grab them."
With a rebellious two year old in hand, Mrs. Jones disappeared down the hall. Erin glanced around. The foyer was flanked by an empty parlor and empty dining room. A large stair case with elaborate spindles, an open cat walk and landing blocked her view of the rest of the house. There was a baby gate was at the top of the flight of stairs and a messy desk was set up on the landing. It was the only lived in area of the house. The home still smelled new, like fresh paint, carpet cleaner and varnish rather than personal perfume. There were no boxes, but several painting and family photos were propped up against the wall.
The television sounded from behind the stairs and Mrs. Jones walked down the hall again and rounded the corner. "Sorry about that," she apologized again. "Here’s the key. The house showed a few times, but I haven't been around in about a month so it might need a good dusting."
"I'm sure its fine," Erin said. She took the keys and shoved them into her pocket next to her new Herald ID card.
"I'll be by tomorrow to take the sign out of the yard. I'll take it off the MLS tonight." She gave a heavy sigh. "You're sure your Mom wants it off the market?"
"Yeah," Erin said ignoring the lump forming in her throat and the knot in her stomach. "I'll be sticking around for a while."
Maisley was screaming again.
Katie closed her eyes tightly and looked away from the monitor towards her daughter. Bedtime had come and gone and the stubborn little girl had refused to sleep. She was fussy, agitated and unhappy unless she was sitting in her mommy's lap. It made work difficult, she would slam her little fists into the keyboard messing up MLS entries, emails, and opening random boxes on Katie's screen that she didn't know how to close.
"Give me five more minutes Maisley," Katie begged. She knew reasoning with a toddler was impossible, and her speech delay didn't help. She didn't understand simple instructions. Her only words were banana, da, ho, and mama. Katie was grateful for the later. Banana had come first, and she had never been jealous of a fruit before. They were sitting on the lading. Katie was desperately trying to finish up her work for the day, and Maisley was sitting on the ground surrounded by her toys that she wanted nothing to do with. "Then we'll go lay down and tomorrow Daddy will be home from his business trip."
And Katie would wring his neck.
Moving into a new house with a toddler and without her husband had nearly been impossible without her husband. It wasn't his fault that he had been sent to negotiate a trade deal with his company's stubborn partners, but Katie resented the hell out of it. She hated lifting boxes and climbing stairs. Their old apartment had been on the top floor of a high rise in the city. Thankfully, they had decided their old furniture didn't fit, so it was just random boxes and odds and ends with the furniture store hand delivering most of the pieces. The beds had been first, the couches and dining room table were still missing. The house was half finished and chaotic. Most of the lights still didn't have bulbs, but Katie wasn't about to get out a ladder to change that. They were sitting in the dark, the only light coming from the large computer screen and the candles she had light to try and get rid of the new paint smell. The little flames flickered against wall.
"Maisley, look," Katie said. She took her hands away from the keyboard and linked her thumbs together. She moved her hands in front of the candle and began flapping them. She cast a shadow against the wall. "It’s a bird!" Maisley wasn't impressed. "Look, not it’s a bunny. Hop hop hop." The screaming stopped and Katie’s smile became genuine. "Hop hop hop," she repeated.
Maisley clamored to her feet and jumped up and down. "Ho ho ho," Maisley said in her squeaky little voice. She couldn't maneuver her delicate lips to make the 'p' yet, but she was close.
"Good girl!" Katie said with a grin. Now happy, Maisley started hopping up and down the landing. Katie watched her for a moment, laughing. Her hands were at her sides, she was laughing, her little dimples looking perfectly kissable. "Go find daddy!" Katie pointed towards the double doors to the master suite.
"Da!" Maisley said. She stopped hopping and raced to the door, balling her little fists and knocking. Even in the dark, Katie could make out the look of determination on the toddler's face. Knocking was new, and Maisley had stated knocking on all the doors in the apartment just before they moved. Ben would open the door, yell 'Boo!' and shut the door. Maisley would laugh so hard she'd fall over and kick her little legs in the air. Even with Ben gone, she'd knock on the closest door until someone opened it to show that there was nothing inside. It was annoying, but repeated knocking was better than screaming or inconsolable crying.
Katie took the time to turn back to the computer and work on deleting the Underhill house. It was a shame to lose such a pretty old house. A white Victorian with a big porch, mature trees, built ins, solid oak doors, and claw foot tubs. It was a steal too; Katie had tried to talk Ben into buying it to gut it but he hadn't been keen on renovation. He joked that he was superstitious and didn't want to deal with ghosts and that new construction was guaranteed not to be haunted. Katie knew he was more afraid of lead paint and floral wall paper than the supernatural.
"Mama!" Maisley yelled down the hall. She was using two fists now, banging louder and louder on the hollow six panel door. It sounded hollow.
"One second," Katie said. She typed in her password to confirm her choice.
"Da!" Maisley yelled, louder this time.
"Almost done, Munchkin," she insisted. The door knob started to rattle. With the steep stairs, Katie was glad Maisley hadn't figured out how to open them yet. Thwarted, she started knocking again and the hollow noise echoed down the landing and up into the living room's cathedral ceiling.
"Mama!" Small hands wrapped around her thighs. Katie looked down, to see a smiling Maisley. "Da!" She clamored up into Katie's lap and grabbed both of Katie's cheeks.
"Okay," Katie relented. She closed out of the database and set Maisley on the floor. She leaned forward and blew out the candle on her desk casting the landing into shadows. "Let's go find Daddy."
Maisley ran down the landing. She reached up, smiling as her little fist knocked delicately against the door.
Something knocked back.
It took a moment for Erin to remember where she was. The mattress was hard and the pillow case smelled like cedar and generic brand fabric softener and instead of her fluffy down comforter she was wrapped in an afghan. Once she had rubbed the sleep from her eyes she remembered, she was in her mom's old bedroom. She had slept here countless times before; she knew the yellow walls and the pictures of a smiling woman with feathered hair in Crooked Creek High cheer leading uniform. She had chosen the small second bedroom rather than the master last night after killing a bottle of wine and watching the news on the old fashion tube television.
With a groan Erin rolled over and grabbed her phone from the antique nightstand. She swiped her thumb across the screen, erasing the picture of the Statue of Liberty in the fog to read the message "Emergency Alert: An Amber Alert has been issued for your Area." The time, 5:59am flashed above it. It was one minute until her alarm went off, so with a groan she tapped her thumb on the unfortunate message. She didn't want to read it, it was sad, but it was probable in Chicago. She just needed to turn off her alarm before the shrill sound went off.
"Maisley Jones of Crooked Creek Illinois" replaced the time. Erin frowned and sat up, the mantle of sleep slipping off with the afghan. "Age two" was written below the name. There was no picture.
Erin got up, turned off the alarm just as it sounded, and dropped her phone onto the bed. She dressed in disbelief. What was the little girl's name yesterday? She couldn't remember but it couldn't be the same one. Mrs. Jones had been settled in, not dressed for company or for going out when Erin had seen her. Besides, nothing like this happened in Crooked Creek. Crime was low, bike theft and tping houses were the two biggest crimes. The fire department down the street was always quiet, only sending out a truck once a week. The biggest thing that had ever happened in town had been the Factory Fire and that had been fifty years ago. The Amber Alert had probably been a false alarm. Jones was a common name, it was probably some other poor girl, not the sticky two year old she had seen yesterday.
Not one to speak to herself even to rationalize spinning thoughts, Erin stayed silent as she found her clothing. She had laid out a pair of black cigarette pants a white embellished tank top and black cardigan the night before on the orange and brown chair that had been shoved in the corner. She dressed, found her keys and didn't bother with her messy red locks. There were curls sticking up here and there from the braid she slept in, and she brushed fly aways from her face and directed them behind her ears. Erin was on autopilot.
She knew it was stupid, but Erin got in her car and drove to the Pebbled Creek subdivision without turning on the radio. It was still dark and fog hung over the creek and the bridge. The streets were empty and the silence was eerie. There were no police sirens, only a few cars on the streets and one woman walking her dogs. Everything seemed normal but there was something she couldn't shake.
Turning into Pebbled Creek her stomach fell to her feet. Mrs. Jone's house was marked off by yellow police tape and the few neighbors she had stood in their robes, yoga pants, and flip flops. They held cups of coffee and mugs of tea. There were three police cars, a fire engine and an ambulance parked there but they were all turned off, silent. The ambulance's back doors were open and they cast a soft glow on the new asphalt. An EMT sat on the bumper hands on her knees and head hanging down. She didn't see anyone from the Herald, no one with a notepad or a camera.
Erin parked the car at the corner but she didn't get out. She felt hollow, and watched the neighbors mill about in the low light. No one spoke; one man had his arm wrapped around a woman's shoulders. She didn't know any of them, which was odd, though comforting. Not knowing them made it feel disconnected. Crooked Creek wasn't the kind of place where you knew everyone's name, but it was small enough where you had seen every face and every face had seen you. There several police stood behind the yellow line, hands on their belts. Two watched the home with the smiling face, and one watched the crowd. Erin recognized that one.
He looked nervous. No, he looked sick. His lips were pressed together under a sandy mustache. He kept reaching up and running a hand over his clipped blond hair. Erin wouldn't have noticed the nervous tick if she hadn't known him. Charlie had played with his hair every time they had gotten in trouble for stealing strawberries from a neighbor's yard and the entire time he asked her to prom.
The recognition was enough to shake Erin into action. She reached down, pocketing her smart phone and fishing in the cup holder from her digital camera that took high resolution photos despite the low price tag. There was a story here and it wormed its way between her ears. Her own morbid curiosity spurred her on and she exited the car.
She felt guilty as she walked down the street. There was a child missing, Mrs. Jones must have been terrified for her sticky toddler and here she was trying to take pictures of the crowd milled about on the street and exploit the situation for work. As she approached Charlie she tried to reason with herself. It was the duty of the press to report the news and perhaps by shedding light on the situation more eyes and ears would be looking for little Maisley. And people had a right to know what was going on in their town. It could keep them and their children safe. Crooked Creek was too sleepy it would need a good story to wake it up. It wasn't like she was using this terrible situation to get out of Announcements and obituaries...
Not at all.
"Charlie," Erin said once she reached the yellow tape. "I mean, Officer Smith," she corrected. Charlie moved his hand out of his hair and looked away from a fat woman in a pink robe who was inching too close to one of the windows. They were illuminated but the blinds were drawn so no one could see inside. There were several shadows walking back and forth and a flash of a camera, but that only raised more questions than it answered.
"Erin?" He asked confused. He looked like he was seeing a ghost. They had parted after prom, deciding that dating with only a month left of school was stupid, better to end their twelve years together as friends than on a shaky stupid teenage relationship. They hadn't talked after singing year books at graduation. "What are you doing here?" His voice was deeper now. It had been crackling when he was eighteen, but the past seven years had been kind to him. He had filled out, grown an inch or two and his voice had dropped half an octave.
"I'm back in town," Erin said. She wasn't going to tell him she was with the paper. In the city, cops and journalists didn't always have the best of relationships. She wasn't sure about how it worked in Crooked Creek but she wasn't going to test the waters now. "I got the amber alert on my phone."
"We normally have to wait for those," Charlie said. "But under the circumstances we got the okay to push it through. Any little bit helps."
Charlie turned a shade of green and glanced over his shoulder towards the house. "I don't know," he admitted. Erin knew he wasn't supposed to be talking to her, but she suspected he needed to say it out loud. "No signs of forced entry or struggle. Her husband was in New York, we contacted him to confirm. No one would have even noticed but a neighbor took their dog for a walk and it went crazy... "
Erin listened, making mental notes.
"You have no idea who took her?" She asked. "Why didn't her mom..." she trailed off, her eyes moving over Charlie's shoulder. The smiling doors opened and a gurney was wheeled out. The neighbors rushed the yellow tape all trying to catch a glance.
Erin stayed planted and fished her hand into her pocket, pulling out her camera. She held it at her waist, discreetly snapping a picture. She didn't need zoom to see the slender figure's face and body was covered by a white sheet.
"Stand back, please," Charlie told the crowd. He spread out his arms, as if that would block their views or stop them. "Stand back." No one listened. They got on their tip toes and the silence that hung over them was replaced with frantic whispering that smelled of panic. The other officers turned around to help Charlie handle the robed crowd.
Erin stayed back, discreetly snapping a few more pictures: of the crowd, of the house, of the crowd. Her flash was off, the early morning light perfect for taking crisp pictures. She didn't glance at them, she didn't want to draw attention to the camera she held by her waist she would crop and edit them later when she got to work.
The sun crested over the hill and cast a warm glow onto the street. It seemed wrong. Today needed an overcast sky to properly mourn the situation, but the weather was non-compliant. Erin slipped away without saying goodbye to Charlie. She didn't want him questioning her now that the sun was up and the careful silence was gone. She got into her car and left.
The Herald was empty when Erin got there. She swiped her key card at the back door, again at the stairwell and made her way up the treacherous stairs and to her desk in the back corner. Her desktop didn't have a password, and she booted it up while she went to the break room to find something warm to drink.
There was no coffee that she could find but someone had left a 'Christmas Time' tea chest on the counter. It was large, made of pine with a Christmas tree burned into the lid. Erin opened it and found that all but the caffeine free hibiscus tea was gone. It wasn't what she had in mind, but she plucked two tea bags and reached up into a cabinet that was labeled 'mugs, free to use and wash' with a yellow post it note. The mugs were all different colors, most had labels of colleges or drug company logos on them and all were chipped. Erin got on her tip toes and found a one in the shape of a pumpkin with an intact rim. She didn't want to cut her lip. She plopped the bags into the pumpkin and used the red handle on the water cooler to pour in steaming hot water. Pink seeped into the water. It swirled out from the teabags. The orange ceramic of the mug made it look like blood instead of pink tea.
Erin held her hot mug carefully and with both hands. They were shaking and her heart was pounding in her chest. She could hear blood rushing in her ears. She got back to her desk just as the welcome screen popped up. She blew on her tea and took a sip. It burned the roof of her mouth and her tongue. Erin made a face and set it down. It was too hot, and even without sugar too sweet. Maybe she would like it better when it had cooled and her tongue had healed.
There was work to be done anyway. Her shaking hand found the mouse and she opened her word processor and went to work. Her hands relaxed as she set them on the keyboard, they stopped trembling now that they had a job to do and her heart eventually slowed as she stopped seeing the white sheet and focused on the Times New Roman text. Erin was vaguely aware that people were starting to arrive. She hear their shoes, the clang of their keys and their shuffle towards the break room. Eventually, she even smelled coffee. She broke concentration just long enough to be annoyed. So they were hiding the good stuff from her. In spite, she lifted her pumpkin mug and took a sip. She made a face. It was too cold now, and still too sweet.
"You're here early."
Erin stopped typing and glanced up. Alison stood over her desk. She had a hand on either side of the name plate that red 'Erin Underhill'. She kept her weight on her palms, looming from a position of authority. Her hair was back again, and today she wore pearl earrings, a string of pearls around her neck. She was in a navy dress with pink flats.
"I had work to do," Erin said. She closed her word processor to reveal the company's default screen or a green hill under a blue sky. She had a feeling that Alison would not agree with her definition of obituary. She would want the story, or point out that someone else was already working on it.
Erin doubted that, no one was at their desks; everyone was milling about the break room filling their cups with instant coffee and chatting about how terrible Day Lights Saving was.
"On your first day?" Alison asked. She rose a blond brow over a blue eye. Erin shrugged.
"I like to get things done, and I couldn't sleep."
Alison studied her. Her blue eyes were intense and Erin fought the urge to shift in her chair. She hadn't done anything wrong, there was nothing to hide from, but Alison made her feel like a guilty child. "New places do that to me too," she finally admitted. "Strange beds always hurt my back and I get up early just to avoid being uncomfortable." She stood up and rubbed her palms on her dress. Her disposition changed. She no longer seemed suspicious. Instead she was friendly, with a genuine smiled. "Are we still on for lunch?"
"Yes," Erin agreed with a nod. "I skipped breakfast, so defiantly want some lunch."
"There's a vending machine in the basement by the presses," Alison offered. "Most of it's expired because management never gets them refilled, but we both know expiration dates are stupid. Cheetos will probably survive nuclear war."
They both laughed. Some of the tension left Erin's shoulders, but not all.
"I'll keep that in mind," Erin said. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Alison said. "And if you need any help today, just let me know."
Erin lifted up the pumpkin mug and swirled the pink liquid around. "Coffee?"
"Oh, its hidden under the sink." Alison said. She rolled her eyes. "We all went in for some premium blend -the stuff we had in their before was disgusting- but everyone uses it anyway. You might as well, just go in for the next box."
"Will do." She tried to sip the tea to avoid looking wasteful but she smell was revolting and she set it next to her keyboard. Alison didn't notice. "See you at lunch."
Erin waited until she was gone to exhale and reopen her article. It was still rough, but she would move on, get a cup of coffee, and work on editing photos, before coming back to it with fresh eyes. She took the USB cord to her camera, plugged it into her computers and attached it to the camera. The photos were high resolution and would take time to download so she got up and brought the pumpkin mug to the break room.
It was already ten am. Work had officially started an hour ago, but most of the staff was still nurses their coffee and chatting.
"You're the new girl," said a middle aged man when Erin entered the break room. He wore khakis and a black polo. There was a blackberry clipped to his belt despite the fact that no one used blackberries anymore. He belted his pants tightly and his belly hung over his waist band.
"I'm Erin," Erin said. "Just started today. It's nice to meet you Mr...?"
"Alan Weathers, but you can call me Al," he said. "I work the sports page. I cover the high school events and the football team up at La Mont University has quite a following around here."
"Very cool," Erin said. She didn't like sports and had resented being put on sporting events in high school and college. She wouldn't tell him that though, not on the first day, not when he was being friendly.
"You got here early," the man said. He rose his glass in a mock toast and then sipped his coffee.
"I had work to do," Erin said.
"It’s your first day. Pace yourself. Our editor doesn't read much into anything, most of the work is your own. But don't worry, not much happens here."
"There was the Amber Alert," Erin said.
"The what?" Al Asked.
"A little girl was kidnapped," Erin said as she dumped the hibiscus tea down the drain and rinsed the cup in the sink. She didn't go into detail.
"I didn't hear about that," Al said.
"You weren't texted?"
"No," he said. "I don't follow that kind of thing. Don't tell me you're an ambulance chaser." Erin shook her head trying not to remember the ambulance, the tired EMT and the glow it had cast against the cold asphalt in the early morning light.
"No," Erin said. She took the coffee mug and poured herself a cup. There was no steam, but it would be warm enough to drink, and decidedly better than bad tea. "Nothing like that." She took a sip and gave a small satisfied smile. "Nice to meet you Al."
"You too, Erica."
Erin didn't comment. There was no need to correct him. She went back to her desk and was satisfied that the pictures had uploaded. She opened up the viewer and scrolled through them. Some were blurry and she deleted those immediately. They were useless. After sorting through them, Erin found, much to her disappoint, that she was left with four to work with. Not bad, considering she had taken them discreetly, and without looking, but still, not an ideal situation.
One showed the house just as Mrs. Jones's hidden corpse was wheeled out. Out of respect for the dead, and considering this was a small town paper, Erin deleted it. The second was of the ambulance in the drive. It evoked emotion, but did not speak to the specific situation.
The third was Charlie, holding up his arms and holding the crowd at bay. He was handsome in his blues, and personable with concern in his hazel eyes, and authority in his posture. Erin took a moment to appreciate it and tried to find the awkward boy she had stolen strawberries within the man in the picture. That one wouldn't work either; not because it wasn't perfect, but because she didn't want to get Charlie in trouble on her first day back in town. Erin deleted it to avoid temptation.
The fourth was perfect, or rather, nearly. Its composition was lacking, but it would do for a local paper. The crowd was swarming the police tape, there were no cops in the picture, Charlie's hand was in the frame but his face wouldn't implicate him. Concern was painted on tired faces. An old woman's hand was at her throat, clasping an imaginary cross that probably rested in a jewelry tray on her nightstand. They looked scared, disturbed, and it was perfect.
She wished she had a smiling picture of Maisley, one that would make people said 'what an adorable child' before reading her article and crying. It would make them care, make them want to do something to help, but she didn't. Maybe tomorrow.
Erin didn't study it for long before attaching it and the article to an email and sending it to the editor. She hoped it would be approved, and suspected from what Al Said, that the editor wouldn't even glance at and just push it through to publication. So what if it sat in obituaries? Someone would read it.
She gave the article a cursory glance, proof reading it for any glaring errors and she opened the attachment to confirm the photo... and stopped.
There he was. There was the red headed man, with freckles, the one she had hit with her car the day before. He stood behind the woman with the invisible cross necklace and instead of sad he looked...
He wasn't wearing pajamas like the others. Jeans were slung around his slender hips, his arms were folded in his black hoodie and he was glaring out from underneath a black stocking hat that didn't contain his red curls. Erin leaned forward to study him. She didn't remember seeing him there, but then again, she had been busy talking to Charlie and focusing on Mrs. Jone's house.
If he was from the Pebbled Creek neighborhood it would explain why Erin had never seen him before. He looked to be about her age, and while they might not have been in the same year in high school, they would have attended at the same time. Crooked Creek High was small enough where you knew or heard of everyone and a boy with African features and fiery red hair would have stood out. Crooked Creek wasn't known for its diversity either. Erin had grown up feeling like a minority for being Catholic, and her mother had been a pariah for years for being a single mother. Even after she married the man who would become Erin's father, people still treated her like she was Hester Prynne.
Erin zoomed in on the stranger. She hadn't studied him the day before, she had been too flustered and he had been too abrasive. His skin was the color of an acorn, a light brown under his smattering of freckles. He had more freckles than she thought; so many that when she looked at him too long he began to look like one of Seurant's paintings. He was a man created with pointillism, his freckles like dots of paint blurring together to make his unique face. The more she looked at him, the more he blurred and the more she was convinced he was not from the new subdivision. He just seemed… out of place.
"So," Alison said, cutting in. Erin clicked 'send' and closed the email. "Richard just said he's not coming in today. Some sort of 'flu'." She scoffed. "Man flu more like. That means I get to train you before lunch." She had brought her chair with, and wheeled it around the desk and sat down beside Erin. "Open up your email, and we'll get you going."
Lunch was a disaster.
Alison took Erin to Stonecutters for lunch. It was a new bar and grill on Capital Street that opened a few months prior in place of an old biker bar that had burned down when Erin was in high school leaving nothing but an empty brick shell. Erin had to admit, for Crooked Creek, the new establishment was impressive. The decor was a mix of rustic and modern, with hand scraped wood floors, glass tiles behind the black marble bar and craft brewery signs all over the walls. “People come here from all over,” Alison had said. “Its really popular, we even get people coming over from La Mont, and you know how they are.”
“I do,” Erin said with a nod. La Mont was a rich suburb with chain restaurants, a hip down town, and a liberal arts college campus. The people were snooty and turned up their noses. When she was younger, Erin had gone there every Friday night, just like any other Crooked Creek teenager. Teens could slip away there, do things that didn’t miraculously get reported to their parents the next morning. They could hold hands in public, kiss at the movies or smoke a cigarette on a street corner. It was easy to be a different person entirely in La Mont.
Erin liked the person she was when she was away. She was more confident, liked to hold conversations about current events, talk about literature and fiction, in Crooked Creek she was just Erin Underhill: red head, Catholic -with a big C- and the latest in a long line of Underhills. Her grandmother’s house was one of the oldest in the area, and it had been in the family for hundreds of years. If there ever had been a mortgage it had been paid off for a hundred years.
“Crooked Creek is going to be the place to be,” Alison said. “Just watch. This place is proof.”
But its appeal was also its detriment. Since it was the only place in town, it had been crowded and getting a seat took half of lunch break and getting their food took the other half.
“Next time we’ll just call in,” Alison said later. When their food had finally come, Alison insisted they box it up and bring it back to the office. They had fifteen minutes left, but she insisted that she has a reputation for being punctual and she wasn’t ruining it over a burger.
Even if was supposed the best in town.
She was carrying a doggie bag with her burger in one hand and her cell phone in the other as they walked down the sidewalk. She looked more at the touch screen than Erin the entire time they sat at the table. Conversation had been lacking and she had even dipped out to take a few phone calls. “Eat at our desks while its still hot.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Erin said without commitment. She would probably bring a sack instead.
“They really have good burgers.”
“I don’t like red meat,” Erin said. She had told Alison before, but the blond hadn’t listened. “But I’ll take your word for it.”
Erin shook her head and resisted the urge to fish for her own phone. It had been buzzing off non stop since she had connected it to her new work email. Everything was sent to it now; copy all office emails, requests for announcements,emails from the corner, and of course, her personal accounts. Her mother had called a few times, but Erin ignored them.
“Its my brother. I have to take this,” Alison declared. She rose her phone to her ear and took off, her pumps clacking against the concrete as she speed walked down the sidewalk and towards the Herald. She didn’t look around, as she made her beeline and left Erin behind her. She didn’t look at the other people on the sidewalk, didn’t even glance at the steam cleaner in the window of the vacuum store and avoided the steps leading down to the Lock without even a cursory glance. She even nearly knocked into…
“Hey!” Erin said as she saw Alison miss a head on collision with the red headed man. He didn’t hear her, a dump truck clanged down Capital Street, its load of gravel bouncing and polluting the air with its chaotic noise and drowning out her exclamation. Erin picked up her own pace trying to catch him as he dodged Alison’s full frontal assault an made his way down the steps towards the Lock. Erin didn’t yell again not wanting to draw Alison’s attention. The stranger turned down the stairs to the Lock before Erin reached him.
Erin reached the top of the uneven limestone stairs and frowned. She glanced over her shoulder towards the Herald and then pulled out her phone. She still had five minutes until her break was officially over and with the laid back attitude everyone in the office seemed to possess, she was sure she could pull off ten without getting in trouble or being noticed. She could pop in for ten minutes, introduce herself, have a casual conversation, get a name, maybe touch on this morning, and try not to be too creepy… Erin felt like a stalker, but her curiosity got the best of her and she made her way down the flaking stone steps.
The Lock was the kind of place that everyone passed and knew about, but no one had been into. Erin’s mother used to joke that it was a ‘drug front’ it was the only way such an unsuccessful business could stay open. Her dad was more practical; he insisted it was probably funded as a historical landmark by the city council. It was one of the oldest establishments in town, after all, and a chipped hand painted sign hung over the door boasted that fact. It read ‘The Lock. Est. 1870. Beer, Steak, and Burgers’ in cream stenciled letters. Underneath it was a small bronze plaque with ‘Crooked Creek Historical Society’ etched into the metal. Her dad had been right. The door was heavy, solid oak with a big brass handle. Erin had to dig in her heels to tug it open.
She blinked. The Lock was dark with only one greasy yellow light hanging low over the mirror in the back of the bar. It was ancient, and hadn’t been cleaned in a while, grease and dust clung to it, and Erin wasn’t sure if it retained its ability to reflect. The low light tried to bounce off the mirror and stream into the in bottles that covered the shelves behind the bar before refracting in the glass and the amber colored liquids. It muddied the light. Erin hadn’t been expecting the low light at midday and as she stepped in, her eyes struggled to adjust.
It resembled a cave more than a bar. It smelled like one too, earthy, like wet stone, dirt and… French fries? The walls were unadorned roughly quarried lime stone and the soft music that was playing on an old juke box in the corner echoed off the stone bouncing back and forth and passing through Erin until her bones shook.
The lone picture that hung on the exposed stone wall was an old map of Crook Creek’s original survey. It was printed on browning parchment paper. There were no overhead lights and the further inside Erin ventured, the smaller the Lock seemed. The walls seem to fall in on top of her.
The room was narrow with a bar along the entirety of the wall. It was lacquered wood and had been polished so that the amber light reflected in it. Mismatched stools were pushed beneath it. Some were made of industrial steel legs with small worn wooden seats, others were wooded with high slatted backs, and a few had leather seats in bright colors. Most were unoccupied but Erin saw her stranger at the end, leaned over the wooden bar talking to a slender woman with white blond hair, long limbs and her own generous smattering of freckles.
The heavy door shut abruptly behind Erin, cutting off the light and sound from the street. The thick stone walls sound proofed the Lock and the only sound was the whirring of antique games behind the bartender and Erin’s victim. Several machines flashed in the low light. One was occupied by a stout man. He had a drink in his hand, red wine in a stemless glass. He was dropping nickles into am old fashioned slot machine and pulling the heavy . Instead of cherries there were pine cones, acorns, leaves and skulls.
“Excuse me,” Erin said as she approached the bar. The bartender turned quickly and examined Erin with large watery brown eyes. Her blond hair fell in her face and she stood rigid. Despite being a head taller than Erin, she seemed small with a lithe figure. Her tank top was too big and one strap had fallen over her freckled covered shoulder. Erin tried to give her a friendly smile but she didn’t focus on her.
“Its okay, Jane.”
The bartender blinked and slowly turned away and then with a spring in her step disappeared behind doors to the back room.
“Did I do something wrong?” Erin asked with a frown.
“No,” he said. “Jane just doesn’t like tourists.” He reached over the bar and took a glass from the counter there. It was stemless filled with ice and amber liquid. Whiskey? “Ever since they put it on the historical registry they get tourists who like to snap pictures, order dinner and talk too much.”
“I’m not a tourist,” Erin said. Sid didn’t know why, but she was offended by the accusation. It wasn’t like she wanted to be here. “Born and raised here.”
“Oh.” He took a sip of his drink. Erin didn’t like the way he said ‘oh’. Like her being from town was even worse than being an outsider.
“I’m Erin Underhill,” Erin said. She used her full name. In Crooked Creek you didn’t know first names, but you knew last. Ten or twelve had been around forever, intermarried, had someone serve as mayor, teach at the local school. Anyone could go back a few generations and find a connection to anyone else even if you never met them personally. Maybe, just maybe he had a cousin who married one of Erin’s and that would help spurr on the conversation.
She pulled out a stool one down from his, giving him the proper buffer room and sat. The old wooden chair creaked under her weight and squeaked when she swiveled to face him. She waited for him to offer his name with an expectant expression. He never offered it. “Have we met Mr…?”
“Just yesterday when you nearly killed me,” he said ignoring her question. He didn’t offer his own name and he glanced at her as she sat. His eyes looked yellow in the light. Erin winced.
“Sorry about that. I wanted to check on you, make sure you’re okay.”
“Fine and dandy.” He was clipped and folded his arm across his chest closing himself off. “I walked away didn’t I?”
“I know,” Erin said with a shrug. She took her phone out of her pocket, set it on the bar next to her purse and doggie back, and checked the time. Five minutes had passed. So much for a causal conversation and stumbling into what he had been doing this morning. She hadn’t even gotten his name yet. “I’ve never hit anyone with a car before, I was worried.”
“And I hope you never do again. Watch where you’re driving.”
Erin couldn’t help but study him again. “Have we met before?” She ventured casually. “I don’t remember seeing you at school.”
“You wouldn’t have,” he said.
“New in town?”
He snorted and sipped at his drink. “No, I’ve always been here.” It wasn’t a lie, but it hung in their air like an untruth. Both shifted uncomfortable.
“Really?” Erin asked. She folded her legs again and glanced at the clock on her phone. Two more minutes. “I saw you this morning, in Pebbled Creek. I thought only new people lived there.” Or rich ones, but rich residents of Crooked Creek didn’t dress in old jeans and hoodies, and they didn’t hang out in bars before five on week days.
“Oh.” He killed his drink and took an ice cube into his mouth and crushed it between his molars. He swung around and faced Erin, studying her. “Did you?”
Erin swallowed and sat up straighter in her chair. “Yeah, at the Jones house. What were you doing there?”
He studied her, eyes sweeping from her flats to her red hair. “What were you doing there?” He asked instead of answering her question. Normally, it annoyed Erin to have her words turns on her and people
“Working,” Erin said. “I’m a reporter. When something like… like that happens in my town its my job to write about it.” He didn’t need to know she was just an announcements girl, that she had overstepped her bounds. Not that he would know about that. He sniffed. Erin shifted, nervous he could smell her little white lie.
“Yeah well, I like to know whats going on in my town too,” he said. “I don’t need to be a reporter or a cop to stand on a street and watch.” He ran a hand through his red hair. “What do you think happened?” He tilted his head and swirled his empty cup. The ice clanged against the glass.
“I don’t know,” Erin admitted. “The police didn’t give a lot of details. But it was obviously an attack, maybe someone with a grudge?”
“It was violent enough,” he said. “I’d say there was defiantly a grudge.”
“What do you know?” Erin asked.
“Whatever -whoever- killed Mrs. Jones wasn’t kind about it.”
Erin frowned and shook her head. “Of course not, they killed her.”
He shook his head, his freckles making Erin dizzy. “It took its time, it wanted her to be afraid, to scream. And it took its time, there was a lot of blood.”
Erin felt sick to her stomach all over again. She had managed to chase away the ominous feeling of this morning with bad tea, weak coffee, and a quick walk int the sunshine, but down in the dark atmosphere of the lock it was creeping up on her again. “You keep saying ‘it’.” she asked trying to focus on work rather than the hairs on the back of her neck. Charlie hadn’t been very helpful, if he had a better source, she would need it.
“Well yeah,” he said. “It destroyed her. It ripped her apart and destroyed her. Whatever could do something like that isn’t human.”
Erin couldn’t help but agree.
“How do you know all this?” Erin asked softly. She was worried if she spoke too loudly her stomach would revolt.
“You didn’t smell it?” He asked and then glanced at her like she was stupid. “The air smelled like cooper, and house smelled like death and piss. When that kind of thing happens it broadcasts it, like a wolf’s kill site. Its supposed to make you uneasy and avoid it. It makes your skin crawl and leaves a mark.” He shook his head and Erin couldn’t tell if he was serious, superstitious, or an asshole who was pulling her leg. “Damn.” He tugged at his red curls. “I thought anyone could tell that shit. Its instinctive.”
Erin must have looked at him like he was crazy because he groaned and continued. “Not just that either. They took too long bringing out the body and the first EMT threw up. Besides, you learn stuff if you stick around. You took off.”
“You saw me?” Erin asked.
“Well yeah, hard to miss the person that hit you with their car.” He leaned over the bar. “I’m surprised you saw me, I stood in the back behind the man in the ridiculous bunny slippers.” He grabbed a bottle and examined it. It was a brown old bottle with no label. It was probably illegally stilled in the backroom and was the reason why the bartender didn’t like tourists. He pulled off the rubber stopper, sniffed it and then refilled his glass. It poured slowly like cough or maple syrup. Erin wrinkled her nose and leaned back. She had smelled moonshine once and it had been enough to kill her nose for a week. She didn’t want to repeat the experience.
“Well,” Erin said as he took a sip of the thick liquor. “I didn’t at first. It wasn’t until I was going through my pictures at work that I saw you. Otherwise I would have said hello.” That wasn’t exactly true, but she might have given a small wave or smile if they made eye contact.
“Wait.” He set his glass down on the bar with a thud. “Picture? You’re shitting me. You got a picture of me?” Erin nodded. “Shit,” he yelled. His voice reverberated off the stone walls and rattled around in Erin’s ears. He shook his head and took a gulp of his drink. His left hand rested on the bar and his fingers started tapping in agitation.
Erin swiveled her chair and scooped up her phone. This wasn’t going well, best to bow out now before he started yelling. She slung her purse over her shoulder and grabbed her doggie bag filled with what was now a soggy salad.
The slot machine went off. “Fucking finally!” The stout man exclaimed as coins clattered into the metal collection tray. The red light on top of the ancient machine went off in celebration. It cast a new red light about the bar. The blood red light reflected off the old map the bottles and the grimy mirror. Erin glanced up and frowned as she looked into the grimy mirror and through the years of dirt and grease she didn’t see her companion, instead she saw…
Behind the freckles on his face Erin saw something… else. It, whatever, it was, swirled and moved. It rose and fell as he breathed and flexed as he clenched his jaw. Her stomach clenched and she felt panic grip her even as she rationalized it. It was just a trick of the light. His freckles didn’t move. She must have been drugged. The last time the world had swirled had been during her experimental phase in college and she understood ‘Alice in Wonderland’ a little too well. No smoke hung in the air and the only strange smell was th wet stone. Erin knew she hadn’t drink anything, she hadn’t eaten, and he wasn’t -
“Pup,” a soft voice interrupted, “Is everything all right?” Erin looked away from the mirror towards the door. The skittish bartender Jane walked back out and towards the red headed stranger -Pup.
“She got a picture of me,” Pup grumbled. Jane frowned and glanced at Erin.
“Three times?” she asked, her brown saucer eyes looking over at Erin, though Jane spoke as if she wasn’t there.
Pup reached up and rubbed a freckled hand over his freckled face until he was pinching the bridge of his nose. “Four.”
“No,” Pup said. “We don’t do anything. Not yet.”
“Why?” Jane asked.
“Because,” Pup said. “I said so.”
“We can’t just let her go.” She wrapped her hand around one of the taps. Erin noticed that they weren’t labeled with brands. There was not red Budweiser, tap head, and instead they were cast animals heads; wolf bore its teeth, an owl stared, and a stag showed off its ten points. Jane drummed her fingers against the wolf head nervously. “We have to.”
“Jane.” There was a growl to his voice. Not the kind of growl men got when they drank too much or were angry. It wasn’t just a guttural nose in the back of his throat. Instead, it rumbled in his chest and sounded primal.
Jane shifted and ducked her head, saucer sized eyes fixated on her shoes. She folded her arms again. They were too long and bent in all the wrong places. Erin felt sick. Well, sicker. There was a garbage can at the end of the bar
“Well I’m glad you’re okay,” Erin cut in. “I’m just going to go.” She rose a hand and turned to go. Her feet couldn’t carry her fast enough and she threw her weight behind the door.
“I’ll see you tonight, Erin Underhill,” Pup said from behind her. She turned. The red light had stopped but his freckles were still swirling. “I’ll be here.”