Dark Hollow

By:
Layne Partin

Part Six:

Ida Rose

 

Spring comes slowly to Dark Hollow, in pale blushes of pink, white and purple at first, then bolder as a green tinge begins to creep into the trees. The poplars are soon fresh and vain in their new wardrobes but the oaks are more cautious, as if afraid to trust the warmth, although they too are succumbing to the seduction of spring.

I stand and look at the forest to the north of the house, where the dark, winter weary trees are in stark contrast to the white April sky; they seem foreboding to me, even though spring grows bolder now, sensing triumph over the bleak days of winter.

But winter still holds court inside me, in my heart and soul, and I sometimes think it always will, for I can’t stop thinking of a winter past that changed my life, although how I cannot say. I look at the forest and think about Evil thirsting beneath a silver moon, with the black shadows as its audience. I know there is nothing evil in these familiar forests I’ve known all my life, but as I survey the wooded slope, my hands feel strangely empty, longing for the comforting feel of my shotgun, and I feel equally vulnerable, as if something, or someone, is watching me with cold, evil eyes. The forest is vast, and there are a thousand places where evil could be hiding.

I see it clearly in my mind’s eye: Somewhere in a tunnel beneath a cliff, or in a cave, ancient and sere, where the sunlight never reaches and would never be welcomed, darkness reigns, and in that darkness Evil sleeps.

And waits.

Waits for darkness to cover the land…

The day is warm, but I shiver and want my shotgun.

I look down and realize that my left hand is grasping for

(a crucifix)

something over my heart, something that is supposed to be there but isn’t.

Fragments of dreams flit through my head, fantastic dreams that haunt me of late. Dreams of horror. Dreams like memories…

Why do I fear the night? I never have before…

I feared nothing last summer, nothing except the wondrous new spell I’d fallen under. That was when Ida-Rose came into my life and changed everything. I had won her love, and now she was my wife, and grew big with my child, which would be born in the coming summer.

My life should be wonderful, for I have everything I ever dreamed of having, and more.

But my mind is on something else, something infinitely worse, the remembrance of a snowy walk through the woods to discover--

What?

I wonder if I am going crazy.

For the horror that I recall in bits and pieces, the memory that grows like a tumor in my mind, never happened.

And yet it did.

I am certain of it.

 

****

 

“Ida-Rose, get off that phone and get ready to go. Come on now, move!”

“Listen, Jake, I got to call you back, okay? Yes, of course I will, you know I will. Bye.”

Ida-Rose slipped the cell phone into her pocket and went out the door to confront her mother, who knew better than to interrupt her when she was on the phone. And just bursting into her room like that, without even bothering to knock, well, that was inexcusable in a parent. You’d think they didn’t know any better these days.

She entered the kitchen, a complaint already on her tongue, but one look at her mother’s eyes and she felt the words die unspoken, and the first thread of unease trickled through her. Mom looked really weird. In fact, this whole business was weird. Here it was, the first day of summer vacation just ending, and they were going to Grandma’s house. The last place Ida-Rose wanted to be on summer break was at Grandma’s farm in Ohio. They were supposed to go to the lake house this summer, not to the boonies, and why were they going now, at nine in the evening?

But her mother’s face was drawn and pale, and she looked almost sick, the way she did the time she found out she had cancer.

“Hurry, honey,” her mother said, her voice softening but not her eyes; they were jittery, with too much white showing, like the eyes of a dog afraid of thunder.

She started to head out the door, and then turned back. “Daddy wants to leave right away. And whatever you do, Ida-Rose, don’t bring that cell phone; he wouldn’t like that.”

Susan Raye Mason hurried out then, leaving her daughter standing there openmouthed. No phone? What was up with that?

Ida-Rose knew better than to question her mother on the rare occasion that she was like this, but there was no way that she was going off to Grandma’s without her cell phone, her only connection to the real world of Chicago. Grandma’s had to be the most boring place in the whole world. What did they expect her to do without her phone?

Mom came back to the door and stuck her head through, her face a terse question. Ida Rose nodded, said, “Just got to grab my jacket, Mom. Be right there!”

She darted back into her room before her mother could answer and grabbed her jean jacket out of the closet. She couldn’t believe that they weren’t even going to pack any clothes, but what the heck, Daddy would no doubt just buy them more when they got there. Slipping the phone from her hip pocket, she secreted it in the inside pocket of the jacket, then pulled it back out and hurriedly turned it off, clearing her throat conspicuously as she did so, just in case Mom happened to be coming and hear it beeping.

“IDA-ROSE YOU GET YOUR ASS IN THIS TRUCK RIGHT NOW!” her father’s voice boomed, and she knew that she had better move it. Daddy rarely used that tone, but when he did, he meant business. She’d bide her time, and when they had settled down, she’d make them pay.

Oh, how they would pay.

She dashed down through the house and out the door, then stopped abruptly, astonished. Daddy was sitting not in the Lincoln Town Car they usually traveled in, but in an older model, four-wheel-drive Ford truck, puffing on a cigarette, the billows of smoke escaping the window a testament to just how antsy he was.

You got to be kidding, Ida-Rose thought, eyes and mouth wide. Aloud she said, “We’re going to Grandma’s in that?”

“Yes, young lady, we’re going to Grandma’s in this,” Daddy snapped, hopping out and opening the back door. At least it was a four-door truck; the thought of riding on a bench seat between her parents in a bouncy old truck would have caused her to sit down and absolutely die.

This is so weird, Ida-Rose thought, slamming the door and settling into the ancient seat that smelled faintly of cigarette and perhaps beer. Where did Daddy get this dump? She buckled her seat belt and a few moments later they were chasing the headlights down Cicerone.

It didn’t occur to Ida-Rose until later that they’d left in such a hurry that no one had bothered to lock the front door of the house.

****

Ida-Rose woke the next morning in a strange room with golden light spilling in through the window, and thought about the two moons of the night before, and the strange glowing eyes that had watched her from the shadows.

She had gradually been lulled to sleep by the monotonous hum of the truck’s big mud grip tires on the freeway after they had left the familiar skyline of the city behind. The tension in the cab was thick enough to cut with a knife, which was unusual in itself, for her mom and dad were always talking and laughing on trips, cutting up like a couple of frisky teenagers, but tonight they rode along in silence. It was a most uncomfortable silence, fraught with apprehension. Something was out of whack, that was sure. Ida-Rose would have even welcomed hearing the Oldies on the radio, and she hated the Oldies. Though she had the whole seat to herself, it wasn’t as comfortable as Ida-Rose was accustomed to, and she had difficulty finding posture suitable for sleeping, but somehow she managed to doze off. They sped through the night, and the fences and fields and dark screens of trees flitted by, unconcerned with passersby. She was aware, on some deep level, that the roads were changing, becoming more rural, but it wasn’t until they stopped for gas that she came fully awake, rubbed the sleep from her eyes, and asked, yawning, “Where are we?”

“We’re getting gas,” her mom replied. “If you need to pee you want to do it now; last stop before we get there.”

She yawned again, and stretched. “Uh, yeah, I need to. Can we get some coffee?”

“Sure, honey.” Mom exited the truck, and Ida-Rose got out, wondering at the different feel in the air, which was cool and past midnight, but still faintly redolent of familiar scents: diesel and concrete and exhaust fumes. She was rarely allowed to stay up this late and felt the adventure of the wee hours, which appeals to the young only because of its inaccessibility.

Climbing back into the truck with her large, steaming coffee, she paused to look at the reddish orange half moon rising out of the mists beyond the far rolling horizon.

She drank her coffee, fidgeted restlessly for a while, but was soon sleeping again, and when next she awakened it was to the sound of something brushing against the windows. Blinking owlishly, she moved closer to the window and peered out into an enchanted forest; a full moon rode the sky overhead, bathing them in silver and creating black shadows wherever the towering conifers intruded; their boughs giving way reluctantly to the truck was the noise that had disturbed her.

Where are we? was Ida-Rose’s first thought. I must be dreaming; we can’t be in a forest. And on the heels of that: How did the moon get full? It was only a half moon when we stopped earlier.

She started to turn away when movement caught her eye, something apart from the piney boughs. A darkling shape was beside the road, not three feet from her window; in the surreal night it looked like a wolf sitting on its haunches, and its eyes, two tiny moons, met hers, looked directly into hers. As the truck tilted alarmingly and inched its way along, Ida-Rose found her head turning slowly to keep her gaze locked with that of the creature which seemed to stare at her with frightening intelligence.

Another whispery bough brushed against the truck and obscured her view, breaking the eye contact. Ida-Rose shook her head, blinking her eyes.

Weird.

“Dave, are you sure you haven’t got us lost?”

Her mother’s voice, sounding worried.

She leaned forward over the seat and saw, in the pallid glow of the dash lights, that her parents were still in the truck and in control. Her mother, noticing her, turned.

“Hi, honey, good nap? We’re almost there.”

“Where are we?” she asked, looking out at the road--if you could call two faint trails curving off through trees and brush, beneath a canopy of intertwining limbs, a road--revealed in the twin cones of the headlights. No wonder Daddy had brought a four-wheel drive.

“We’re on the road to Grandma’s house,” Mom replied evasively. “You know Daddy and his shortcuts.”

No, I don’t, she thought, looking around uneasily. Shortcut? Who in their right mind would be driving in the woods? And besides, Grandma lives on a farm in Ohio, and this sure isn’t Ohio.

Ida-Rose leaned back and crossed her arms, the momentary disquiet quelled by heavy eyed sleepiness and the presence of her parents, who evidently knew where they were going.

Her next memory was of the truck crunching over a tiny gravel road and pulling up to a white frame house that looked dark and empty in the moonlight. Daddy stopped the truck in front of the house and they all got out, stretching and yawning under a sky that was clear and bright, governed by the great white orb that nearly diminished the stars. Ida-Rose looked around, rubbing her eyes. This certainly wasn’t Grandma Raye’s house.

Mom, as if reading the question in her face, said, “This is your other grandmother’s house, honey, your father’s mom. You’ve never met her before.”

That’s strange; I never knew Daddy had a mom, she thought as she followed them up the steps to the front porch, wondering what time it was and how grandma and grandpa (was there a grandpa too?) would feel about being woken up in the wee hours of the night; it had to be late, even though the moon was only halfway down the sky, dipping toward the distant mountains.

“Let’s see,” Daddy said, leaning forward and moving the welcome mat aside. “Ah, here we go.” He held up a key, then pulled open the screen door and slipped the key into the latch, as if from long familiarity.

Ida-Rose vaguely recalled Daddy showing her to this room and telling her goodnight. She’d thought briefly of calling Jake, but decided against it, slipped off her jacket and her shoes, and fell into the bed and slept, perchance to dream.

She’d obviously dreamed the full moon, for it had been only half full when they’d stopped for gas; that much was certain. And had they actually driven through a forest to get here? A shortcut, mom had said. A dream as well?

Whatever.

Ida-Rose stretched and yawned, refreshed in spite of the long ride and the intermittent sleep. A warm breeze stirred through the lacy curtains, scented of fresh mown hay, honeysuckle, and early morning dew. Summer smells. Homey smells that conjured up memories of Grandma Raye’s farm in Ohio.

Ida-Rose surveyed the room. It was small and comfy looking, furnished with a chest of drawers and an old-fashioned dresser with a mirror slightly warped with age. Amateurish paintings, mostly autumnal landscapes and animals, graced the walls, which were papered in pink with columns of roses and vines intertwining. A girl’s room, obviously, but it had that peculiar feel of not being lived in for a long time, not mothball-y, exactly, or moldy, but sort of lonesome like, as if it missed its former occupant.

A knock on the door interrupted her examinations.

“Ida-Rose, you awake?”

Daddy’s voice.

She yawned and stretched again, then reluctantly said, “Yes.”

“You decent? Can I come in?”

She shrugged. “Sure, Daddy, I slept in my clothes.”

Her phone.

“Wait a sec, Daddy,” she almost shrieked as she leaned forward to snatch her jacket off the foot of the bed.

The door stopped, slightly ajar.

Hurriedly Ida-Rose fumbled her phone out of the inner pocket of the jacket and slipped it under the pillow, tossed the jacket back to the foot of the bed, leaned back, and said, “Okay.”

Daddy came in, a shopping bag in his hand. He held it up. “I went and bought you some clothes to wear till we can go shopping and you can get what you want.”

He sat the bag on top of her jacket. “It’s what all the girls here are wearing,” he said, almost defensively, as if expecting an argument, which made Ida-Rose’s defenses go up as well.

Uh oh.

“Sleep good?” he asked. He had changed his clothes, from Levi Dockers to corduroy pants and a black and red flannel shirt, which was unbuttoned to reveal a sleeveless t-shirt beneath. Awfully natty for her clotheshorse father, but Daddy looked good in anything, she knew. Her daddy was the best looking father in the world.

“Uh, thanks, Daddy,” she smiled. “And yes, I slept great. When’s breakfast?”

The smell of frying bacon wafted in through the open door and made her stomach rumble. “Umm, smells like Grandma’s fixing it now.”

“Actually, it’s your mom,” Daddy said, turning to go. “Grandma isn’t here.”

The door closed and Ida-Rose reached for the shopping bag, upended it, and looked in horror at the red gingham dress that tumbled out. Getting to her knees, she picked the dress up, held it up to her shoulders and turned slightly to examine herself in the mirror. It had a modest square bodice and came well below her knees.

“There’s no way on God’s green earth I’m wearing this,” she whispered to herself. “I don’t care if all of Dog Patch is wearing them.”

She had no idea what Dog Patch was, but had heard the term used before to describe hillbilly attire, and it sounded good.

But the memory of last night and her parents’ odd behavior made her wonder if discretion might not be the better part of valor.

Besides, the red went well with her bronze hair, and with a couple of red ribbons…

Well, it wouldn’t hurt to try it on. If it were too big, which it looked like it might be, she’d have an excuse not to wear it.

Ida-Rose felt an odd crawling sensation, almost an itch, between her shoulder blades and turned her head sharply toward the window, expecting to see someone looking in at her--

No one was there, but if someone had been there, they’d have had to move like lightning to escape her notice, since the lacy white curtains certainly wouldn’t hide anyone, nor would the screen have kept anyone out had they wished to climb in.

Nevertheless, Ida-Rose got off the bed, went to the window and peered out between the curtains. The sun was well up by now, and the slanting morning light lay delicately upon the green land, banishing the night chill and tattering the light mist. The air was warm and friendly, hinting of sultry afternoon thunderstorms, of dog days, although it was too early for such heat.

Funny, it didn’t feel like late spring, it felt like late summer.

Certain that she really had sensed someone out there, Ida-Rose lowered the window and pulled the curtains together before slipping out of her low cut jeans and belly-baring top to try on the dress.

To her chagrin, it fit perfectly, even flatteringly, giving her a voluptuous look, in an old fashioned way, of course.

But there was nowhere to hide her cell phone, or anything else.

“That’s why people carry purses,” Ida-Rose muttered, smoothing the dress across her stomach. “And you’ve never been a purse type, remember?”

“Breakfast!” Daddy yelled, interrupting her thoughts.

“Why Ida-Rose,” Mom said, when she entered the kitchen. “I declare, honey, you look absolutely bitchin in that dress.”

Ida-Rose gave her a look that said, you gotta be kidding, right, and took a chair. She had never been a big breakfast eater, but the smell of bacon and eggs gave her an unusually large appetite, and she ate with gusto.

Daddy barely looked up from his plate, as if he weren’t all that eager to discuss his daughter’s apparel.

“How long are we going to be here, Daddy?” Ida-Rose asked, after her stomach had been satisfied enough to allow conversation.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said evasively. “A week or two, maybe longer.”

“A week or two? Daddy, what am I supposed to do here for a week or two?”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll think of something, honey.”

“But how am I supposed to talk to my friends without my cell phone?”

“Ida-Rose, this is supposed to be a vacation,” her father said, giving her a stern look that was so unlike him. “I’m sure your friends can get along without you for a little while.”

She thought about that, and his strange attitude, while eating some more bacon and eggs. “Well,” she said after a while, “how far to town? There is a town around here, isn’t there? Where exactly are we?”

“Kentucky,” Daddy said, after considering it for a moment. “This is Dark Holler--Hollow, where I grew up. The nearest town is Marlton, half an hour away. Ida-Rose, people are…different here, things are different.”

This is worse than I thought, Ida-Rose groaned to herself. I’ve got to sneak off and call Jake. And on the heels of that came a thought that disturbed her, for reasons she couldn’t quite fathom. I never knew where Daddy came from. Never.

A sudden chill quelled her appetite. There was something odd about this place, about this whole business, and she had no clue as to what it might be. Daddy and Mom weren’t acting right, neither of them, (they were different), and bringing her to this strange place, with no warning and no clothes, like they were

(fugitives)

in a huge hurry, well, things just didn’t feel right. This wasn’t how summer vacation was supposed to be.

“Mom, that was great,” Ida-Rose said, sliding back her chair. “Can I help you clean up or something?”

Now it was Mom’s turn to look startled. It wasn’t like Ida-Rose to offer to help with housework.

Seeing her mistake, Ida-Rose said, hurriedly, “Well, if I’m going to be stuck here, I might as well get used to pioneering it; right?”

Mom shook her head, still looking doubtful. “Thanks, honey, but I’ll take care of it.” She got up and took Ida-Rose’s plate and glass. “You through, Dave?”

“Huh? Oh, sure,” Daddy said, as if he’d been miles away rather than in the same room with his family. He pushed his plate toward her.

“Is it okay if I go out and look around, maybe take a walk or something?” Ida-Rose said.

“Uh, okay, Ida-Rose, but don’t go far,” Daddy said. “I wouldn’t want you getting lost. Just stay on the farm. And whatever you do, don’t go into the woods.”

I’m not a child, Ida-Rose thought, irritated at Daddy’s unusual behavior.

“Okay,” she said sweetly. “I’ll go get my jacket.”

And my cell phone.

Fortified with her link to home, she exited the house through the back door, unaware that her life was about to change forever.

****

Ida-Rose left the house with the intention of calling Jake. The morning air was cool, the silence broken only by distant birdsong. The sunlight streamed through the forest beyond the backyard in golden mote-filled fans, giving the whole scene a pastoral, almost otherworldly feel. Her sneakers whispered through the dew-wet grass as she made her way around the house toward the driveway to get her bearings. The old house, situated on a sloping half acre of yard, faced a little grassy valley with a creek winding through it. The narrow driveway dropped down and crossed the brook via a wooden bridge, before rising up to join the county road on the other side of the valley. To her left the driveway narrowed down to a pair of grassy trails that led to a huge, weather-beaten barn a hundred yards away. Beyond the fenced in barnyard was a large sloping field in need of mowing.

Ida-Rose headed for the barn, drawn by its bucolic charm as much as its promise of privacy from her parent’s prying eyes and ears. The big doors were shut, but a smaller door set into the main one on the left stood ajar; she entered it and waited for her eyes to adjust to the gloom.

The barn was like a thousand others that had once dotted rural America (though Ida-Rose had no way of knowing this): a large two-story divided by a spacious hallway running the length of the ground floor, with a tack room, a corn crib, and several stalls for housing animals opening off it. From the faint odor of manure and animals, there had been recent occupants, although the barn now had an empty feel to it. The back two thirds of the hallway, and the stalls on either side of her, were ceiled; looking up, Ida-Rose could see remnants of hay peeking over the edge of the loft, and a faint suggestion of bales stored farther in.

As her eyes adjusted to the shadowy interior, Ida-Rose realized that the truck they’d come here in was parked at the far end of the hallway, by the back doors; it seemed to hunker there, as if afraid of being discovered.

That’s strange, Ida-Rose thought absently, pulling out her cell phone and thumbing it on. But pretty much par for the course. She checked for signal bars, but there were none. Moving around proved to be futile as well, so she decided to climb the ladder up into the hayloft, hoping that height would improve her chances.

Still nothing. Slipping the phone back into her jacket pocket, she climbed down and exited the barn, looked around, and determined the best course of covert action would be to go to the left side of the barn, where a plank fence enclosed a narrow strip of grass between the forest and the barn. Ida-Rose clambered over the fence, and decided to take a stroll out through the meadow. Beyond the barn the field curved away around the mountainside, and the wooden fence turned to rusting barbed wire strung between sun-faded posts; she moseyed along in the dappled sunlight at the edge of the forest, through wildflowers that grew in multicolored profusion. Insects trilled in the tall grass, which tickled her bare legs, and grasshoppers took wing at her approach. The sky overhead was clear and soft blue, with billowy clouds beginning to pile up over the distant green mountains. Ida-Rose paid no heed to her surroundings, so intent was she on checking her phone, and in a short time she found herself in the corner of the meadow, with forest on two sides of her and the little creek on the other. Sighing, she sat down on a large potholed rock and kicked at the turf. She should have felt serene, even bored, with the peaceful setting, but somehow she didn’t trust it; something just wasn’t right.

Once again she had the feeling of being watched.

Ida-Rose looked around, a chill working its way up her spine, but as far as she could tell there was no one around, though whole legions of rapists and thieves could be lurking in the thriving green forest. I shouldn’t be here.

The thought came to her, totally unbidden, alien. And another, just as bizarre: I’m making things out of balance.

She shivered. Forced her mind off such foreign thoughts, and looked at her phone. Still no signal.

“Just freaking great,” she muttered. “I might as well throw this thing in the creek.”

The brook ignored her, babbling unconcernedly, rivers and the deep blue sea its destination.

Instead of throwing away her cell, she pulled up a picture of Jake and looked longingly at his image, wishing he were here. Then she selected music and started a song that Jake had turned her on to, called Lawyers in Love, by Jackson Browne. She didn’t particularly like oldies, nor did Jake, but Jackson Browne had some songs on the soundtrack of a cult classic they both liked, so she had downloaded some of his music and was mildly astounded to realize that she really liked Lawyers in Love.

“That’s a neat sounding song,” said a male voice behind her, causing her to leap to her feet in alarm. “But I don’t think I ever heard it before.”

Ida-Rose turned toward the speaker, a young man not much older than she, and felt her stomach do a slow loop. She had heard of, read of, and seen in movies such moments as this, and knew they happened when one least expected them (if they really happened at all), but the epiphany was so totally unexpected that she was flabbergasted. Jake was forgotten; Chicago was forgotten, her cell phone (still playing Lawyers in Love) was forgotten; her parents and her strange misgivings were forgotten as well.

He was only slightly taller than she, slim and wiry; his dark, longish hair was teased carelessly across his face by the slight morning breeze. He had on a white button down shirt, unbuttoned, with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, faded jeans, and old worn boots. But it was his eyes that had captured her. They were an unusual gray color, like a winter sky spitting snow.

I am in love, she thought, as giddy as a schoolgirl (which she had been only two days ago).

For long moments they looked into each other’s eyes. It seemed as if this stranger was as fascinated by her as she was by him (my God is it possible?). And then Ida-Rose laughed self-consciously, and said, “Uh, yeah, it’s a good song; my boy--uh, my friend Jake likes Jackson Browne, and I think he’s, like, okay, but I don’t know where he came up with such a cool song.”

I’m babbling, she thought. But she couldn’t stop now that she was over her muteness. She was afraid that if she stopped, if she gave him a chance to speak, he might tell her to have a nice day and move on into the woods where he had obviously been hunting, since he had a shotgun cradled in the crook of his arm. Still looking into those wonderful eyes, she continued, “and I’m not surprised that you haven’t heard it, since it wasn’t one of his really big hits, not compared to Running on Empty or Doctor My Eyes, but it’s really a neat song, and--” She stopped, finally, just like that, all out of words, but still mesmerized.

“What’s your name?” he asked, his gaze intent, as if he were asking a god for ambrosia.

For one horrifying moment she couldn’t remember her own name, and then it came to her in a rush, “Ida-Rose Mason; we--my parents and I--are visiting my grandparents, there,” she nodded back toward the barn. “And I--I just decided to go for a walk and try to call home.”

“Your dad is Dave Mason?” He looked startled.

At her nod, he said, “Well, I’ll be, no one has seen hair nor hide of him in a while.”

Ida-Rose tilted her head in question.

He looked slightly embarrassed. “I just didn’t think he was old enough to have a daughter your age, that’s all. From what I’d heard, he’s only a little older than me. Obviously that’s not true.”

She shook her head slowly, dreamily.

“Where’s home?” he asked, looking at her as if he’d never seen a woman before, a look that make her weak in the knees.

“Chicago,” she managed to say.

He nodded, said nothing, and then looked at her phone. “What is that, some kind of radio?”

“This?” Puzzled, she held up the phone. “It’s a cell phone, silly. Don’t they have such things here?” she teased, amazed at how easy it was with him already, someone she had just met. Totally awesome.

He looked doubtful. “Yeah, we have phones here, but nothing like that. House phones. And it plays music?”

“Well, yeah,” she said, suddenly recalling her mother telling her not to bring her phone, that Daddy wouldn’t like it. Perhaps she should put it away.

People are different here, things are different.

“Look, Ida-Rose (she had never particularly liked her name before, until she heard it rolling off his tongue),” he said, reluctantly, it seemed to her, “I’m kinda in a hurry, but can I see you later, back here, say around two, before it rains?”

“Uh, sure,” Ida-Rose said hurriedly, aghast that he was leaving, dying to believe that he really wanted to see her again. She could look at him, especially his eyes, forever. “I’ll bring a picnic lunch, okay?”

A picnic lunch?

She groaned inside.

But he seemed to like the idea. His smile was dazzling. “Hey, that would be great. See you then.”

He turned to go, the shotgun held loosely in his hand.

Hey,” Ida-Rose called as he moved off into the misty green depths of the forest. “What’s your name?”

He turned, looked chagrined. “Talon,” he called, and disappeared among the trees, like a poltergeist.

****

The picnic was a great success, even though it was a hastily thrown together affair, and lacked wine. Ida-Rose was too young to buy wine, and she wouldn’t have known where to buy it if she were old enough, and her parents certainly hadn’t brought any along. The fact that she didn’t even like wine didn’t negate the romanticism of it, and the thought of getting slightly drunk with Talon in a meadow among the wildflowers made her go all woozy inside. So she made some sandwiches and stuck some Cokes in the fridge to cool them down, all the while wanting to pinch herself to see if she were dreaming.

“What are you up to, young lady,” Daddy asked, entering the kitchen in the middle of her preparations. “Singing happily after your blues.”

“Uh, well, Daddy, I thought I’d have a little picnic out in the meadow. It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”

He took a chair at the table and lit a cigarette. A non-filtered cigarette, of all things. She went closer, picked up the pack, and examined it. “Chesterfield Kings, Daddy? Since when did you smoke anything other than Marlboros?”

He snatched the cigs from her. “Leave those alone, and stop trying to change the subject. Whom are you picnicking with?”

“Can’t I have a picnic by myself?” she asked, turning away so he couldn’t see her eyes.

“You’ve met a boy, haven’t you?” Mom asked, turning from the sink, drying her hands on her apron. She looked uncertainly at Daddy.

“Mom,” Ida-Rose protested, feigning exasperation.

Daddy looked up, and Ida-Rose thought she caught a glimpse of

(hope)

approval in his eyes before he averted his gaze and said, “Who’s the lucky guy, Ida-Rose?”

“Why can’t I just have a picnic by myself?” Ida-Rose groused, puzzled by the look in Daddy’s eyes. Surely he didn’t want her finding a boyfriend here?

Even if he did, he definitely wouldn’t approve of the thoughts she’d been having about Talon.

“Come on, Ida-Rose, tell us his name,” Daddy coaxed, and now he was the daddy she knew and loved. “I think it’s great if you’ve met someone; it’s better than you moping around here all summer.”

And if I get knocked up, Daddy, what about then? she thought but didn’t say. She had never wanted to have kids, at least not till she was settled into a career and stuff, but the thought of being impregnated by Talon made her all hot and bothered.

“His name is Talon,” she said. “And he’s really nice, Daddy. He knows you,” she added, hoping that might sway him favorably.

“Talon, Talon.” Daddy searched his memory banks. “Namer Milo’s son, Talon?” he said at last, “Is that who you met? Why, they’re--”

He paused. “Pretty good folk,” he added lamely.

Namer?” Mom piped up. “What kind of name is that?”

“Uh, I think his Christian name is Neyman, or something,” Daddy said absently, his mind obviously on other things. “He had a younger brother, and when he was first learning to talk he couldn’t say Neyman, called him Namer instead, and it stuck.”

“So you don’t mind if I have a picnic with him?” Ida-Rose asked, incredulous. She had to be dreaming; there was no way so many great things could happen in one day.

“Oh, Ida-Rose, you hardly know him,” Mom said, looking at Daddy. “I really don’t think--”

“It’s fine, Ida-Rose,” Daddy said, giving Mom a look that said there’d be no more discussion about it. “Have a good time.”

This is so awesome, Ida-Rose thought, feeling like she could walk on air.

She was in an agony of anticipation all morning long, unable to sit still, unable to believe that he would really show. Don’t get your hopes up, Ida-Rose, she told herself dozens of times, uselessly, for her hopes were in orbit already.

But here she sat, in the sun-dappled shade among the wildflowers, on a tablecloth provided by Mom, in a panic that he wouldn’t show, unable to believe that she, Ida-Rose Mason, could go so completely goo-goo-eyed over someone she had just met. The day was turning hot, with a gentle breeze serenading her. The clouds were building up over the mountains to the southwest, promising afternoon showers.

And then he was there, materializing out of the woods like some demigod, in new looking dungarees and a cranberry red shirt (buttoned up all prim and proper, unfortunately, even tucked in). He ducked between the strands of barbed wire, propped his shotgun against the rock she’d sat on earlier, and stood grinning at her.

She grinned back, stood and curtsied, and with a wave of her arm indicated the simple fare she’d brought, as though she were presenting a feast to a king.

“You came,” he said, when seated.

“So did you,” she said breathlessly.

“Are you kidding?” he asked. “The most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen invites me to a picnic, wild horses couldn’t keep me away.”

She nearly blushed, so pleasing were his words.

“No music?” he asked, looking into her eyes.

She shook her head, her mind far from her cell phone for the first time since she’d had it.

They nibbled on sandwiches and sipped cokes, and even without wine their conversation flowed like the water in the nearby brook. At times self-conscious, at other times feeling more liberated than she ever had with anyone, boy or girl, in her life, Ida-Rose slowly, inevitably felt herself drawn more and more into Talon’s life, and this strange place that she had hated a few hours ago.

It seemed no time at all that thunder rumbled in the distance, causing them to look up, startled to see that the day had darkened around them. The wind had stiffened noticeably, making waves in the tall grass and tugging at the corners of the tablecloth.

A few fat drops of rain spattered down around them, and lightning turned the world electric blue.

“We’d better head for the barn,” Talon said, springing to his feet.

They gathered up the remnants of their picnic and made a run for it, hearing the deluge right behind them, feeling its misty breath, dampened by sprinkles and hurried on by the wind.

“The door’s locked,” Talon gasped, laughing at their predicament as he tugged frantically at it. Ida-Rose shrieked with laughter as they hurried to the corner, clambered over the fence, and dashed around to the front door just as the heavy rain poured down around them.

“Man, that was close,” Talon laughed after they had ducked inside and he’d secured the door. Inside it was warm and dry, the rain a distant roar on the tin roof high above. He turned to Ida-Rose, started to say something, looked at her hugging herself and shivering prettily, her fiery hair hanging damply around her pale face, and paused. Her smile was fading, but her eyes were large and mysterious, and in that moment Talon knew that this was the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.

They moved into each other’s arms and the world was forgotten.

****

That was how Ida-Rose came into my life. Almost from the beginning I had shared my secrets with her, had told her of impossible things and, wonderfully, she had believed me. She too, knew things, for her father revealed his secret to her, about how she could never leave, that she was safe here, with me: It was one of the conditions her father had for giving me her hand in marriage. Feeling her need for me, I turn to go inside when the sound of a large flock of birds suddenly taking flight causes me to turn back. The birds are black silhouettes against the white spring sky. My eyes drop to the road, where the object of their fright catches my attention; someone is approaching around the bend of the road just before it joins our driveway.

A thread of anxiety rises in me as I realize that a woman is striding purposefully toward me, up the driveway. Though she is a stranger to me, I somehow know that she is trouble; like a dark storm cloud growing over the mountain, promising thunder and lightning and wind, she is bringing change. Suddenly I am afraid, and I want to turn and flee far away from her.

No, no, I think, I don’t want to see you, I don’t want this to end.

Round roses.

I am barely aware of the thought as I watch the woman come closer. She is dressed in loose fitting pants that cannot hide a very feminine

(feline)

figure, a khaki shirt and a short jacket. Her boots crunch on the gravel as she draws nearer, and I realize that she is beautiful as well as purposeful. Ida-Rose is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, in a magazine model kind of way, and this one cannot compare to her classic features, but she is striking, with hair as dark as a crow’s wing curving down both sides of her face and almost meeting beneath her high-held chin, which has a dimple in it.

She stops a few feet from me.

I notice that her narrowed eyes are a beautiful bright hazel.

She has a shoulder-holster gun under her jacket, I think coldly, in that moment another person. It’s a small compact automatic, perhaps a Sig-Sauer, or a Colt, maybe, and she has a smaller gun in her hip pocket, and one in an ankle holster, as well as several knives. She is armed to the teeth, and as dangerous as a Siberian tiger. She can run all day, practically, and fight like a ninja. Not as beautiful as Ida-Rose, but this one is like a force of nature: Unstoppable.

How do I know all that? I wonder.

Her examination of me is just as in-depth. I see her looking at my chest, and I realize that my hand has crept up and is anxiously seeking

(a talisman)

something that isn’t there. She nods, a strange expression on her face. And then she looks me in the eye and says, “You are Talon.”

It is a statement, not a question.

Suddenly self-conscious, I force my hand to drop to my side.

Yes, I start to say, but to my amazement she spins, a blur of movement, and her boot comes arcing at my face.

Instinctively my arm moves, lightning quick, and I catch her ankle even as my own foot sweeps at her other ankle, upending her. I let go and she falls backward. She lands lightly and springs to her feet, facing me, while I stand in a fighter’s T stance, hands up and ready.

What the hell?

I am almost too astounded to think.

She smiles then, a beautiful smile that transforms her. “Yes, you are Talon. Would you like to know where you learned to do that?”

I can only gape at her, wishing I too could take dark flight into the spring sky, a panicked bird.

She holds out her hand and I take it warily. Her grip is firm and strong, and the feel of her hand in mine fills me with unexpected strength and composure.

“My name is Nina,” she says.




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