As promised, I am continuing to release a few chapters of my work-in-progress novel about Vree Erickson.
A twisting ribbon of blacktop took them to a long, stone paved driveway that led to a light blue, two-story Colonial home, trimmed in eggshell white. Karrie parked inside the two-car garage attached to the back of the house, took Vree’s bags, and headed for the door that led into the laundry room. Vree followed, stumbling for a moment like a newborn foal on its legs the first time. While she paused, the sweet smell of fresh mowed country grass sprang from her dad’s John Deere tractor mower near the entry door. She took a wide path to the steps that led her inside.
She passed through the laundry room, dodged the round breakfast table in the morning room, and tried to ignore the smell of baked chicken from the kitchen as she went into the foyer and climbed the squeaky but polished wooden stairs. She made her way across a soft sea of cream carpet and stopped at her big brother’s bedroom when she heard her dad humming inside.
Charles Erickson, a tall, thin man in a black T-shirt and brown coveralls stood at the walk-in closet with a screwdriver. He had bushy but well-groomed blonde hair, frowning eyebrows, serious looking blue eyes, and an upturned nose above a pinched mouth on a clean-shaven face. He stopped working a screw in the doorframe and said, “Hi, honey, welcome home. Will you hold this door for me?”
Vree sidestepped past his toolbox and held the wooden door until he told her to let go.
“It’s good to have you home,” he said, squinting at her a moment while he turned another screw to adjust the track of the closet door. “I think you’ll like what I did to your bedroom.”
A noise at the open window near the closet caught their attention. Someone had erected an aluminum extension ladder. A boy in a brown leather jacket appeared and caulked the top of the window. He was almost featureless behind the gossamer film of dust on the glass, but Vree recognized her neighbor and best friend Lenny Stevens.
Her father went to the window screen and said, “I’ll pay you an extra twenty if you wash all the dirt off these windows when you’re done caulking. I have glass cleaner and towels in a box on the workbench in the garage.”
Lenny rubbed dirt from the glass with his fingers and peered in. He had an unclouded, intelligent looking face, although caulk marked his high forehead and the left side of his slender nose. He glanced at Vree from beneath a head of thick, burnt sienna hair, before returning his attention to Vree’s dad.
“Yes sir,” he said. His full lips thinned as he grinned at Charles.
“Very well. Back to work, then” Charles excused himself and headed for the stairs. When he stopped and turned back, a thoughtful look crossed his bright blue eyes. “I set up your new easel where your old one used to be. Let me know if you want to move it.”
“Thank you. It’ll be fine.” She paused. “I’ll be fine.”
He nodded. “Get some rest.” He turned and headed to the stairs once more.
The aluminum ladder rattled as Lenny descended it.
Vree went to the window. Below, Lenny hiked up the waist of his jeans and looked up. Their gazes met for a second before he moved the ladder to the next window. Vree went to that window and waited at the screen.
When his face did not appear, she peered down. He was gone.
“Good grief,” she mumbled, “get a grip.” She went to the hall and followed it to her bedroom. Her artist’s easel sat in front of the tall window on the right. She pulled aside her lavender curtains. Something large moved in the dark green shadows of bushes and trees in the field behind the house. She tried to see what sort of animal foraged there when someone knocked at her door.
Before she turned from the window, a pair of beady red eyes peered from the shadows. With a gasp, she took a step back. When she looked again, no red eyes peered at her.
The person knocked again at the door.
“Oh, good grief,” Vree said. “Come in already.”
Lenny stood in the doorway, looking around at the room while Vree went to her box of pre-stretched canvases on her twin-size bed.
“It’s so different without carpet,” he said.
“It didn’t always have carpet. Remember?”
“Oh, yeah. We used to slide across the floor in our socks.” Lenny followed Vree to her desk where she unpacked the canvases. “This was our fortress, our pirate ship, our galactic spaceship, and even the Temple of Doom mines from Indiana Jones.” He laughed, “I still have our maps and all kinds of drawings.”
Vree sorted her canvases by size while he reminisced about them playing in her bedroom, as though it had happened a long time ago. His honesty and friendliness relaxed her. And he made her laugh when he told her that he had buried treasure in the floor.
“Seriously,” he said. He went to the window where she had stood moments ago and got on his hands and knees, inspecting the floor. “The new varnish has sealed the loose floorboards, but I hid some of our toys beneath the floor.”
Vree shook her head. “You hid our toys in the floor? Why?”
“Just the stuff that was special.” He peered up at her. “Do you have a knife or scissors?”
Vree fetched an X-Acto knife from her box of art supplies. Lenny took it from her, extracted the blade, and cut at the seams of a board. Vree watched and wondered what lay beneath.
He stopped cutting and said, “Your parents carpeted the floor when we were five. That was ten years ago.”
Vree frowned. “Hey, is my rag doll in there? She went missing right after Mom and Dad redid my room. I couldn’t sleep for weeks without her.”
“Maybe.” Lenny’s shoulders dropped and he returned to cutting at the varnish. When he stopped, he used the blade to lift the board until he could grasp it with his fingers. He lifted the wood and said, “Voila!”
Vree tried to peer inside but Lenny blocked her view as he reached inside. The space was deep enough to swallow his entire arm. He grunted and withdrew a dusty Raggedy Ann doll.
“Sorry,” he said, handing the doll to her.
She took it and blew dust from its cloth face. “This was my mom’s. It belonged to her mom.”
Lenny apologized again and pulled more toys from under the floor. Cars, plastic army men, a pink, stuffed bear with a missing arm—
“That was yours,” Vree said. “You called it Penelope.”
Lenny sat up with a half-filled, blue bottle of bubble solution with the wand inside. He blew some bubbles and Vree popped some of them. She held her rag doll close to her chest.
Lenny pulled out a half-dozen comic books before he struggled with something heavy. When he sat up again, he held a book larger than one of Vree’s largest coffee table art books. Its dusty cover was black, hard leather, and its pages were askew.
“I forgot all about this,” he said.
“What is it?” Vree knelt next to the book and looked for a title. There was none, even after Lenny blew away some of the dust, which made her sneeze.
“I found it one day when some construction guys tore up the sidewalk in front of your porch. It was just lying there in a burlap bag. It was so heavy. I could barely carry it to your room. I thought it was important and I wanted you to have it, so I brought it to your room, but you were in the bathtub, so I hid it in the floor. That was just before your folks had your bedroom redone.”
He pulled a loose page from the book. The page was thick and yellow; someone had written numbers and figures on it with a quill pen. He ran a finger over the page. “The whole book is like this. It’s filled with numbers and strange figures, like a secret code. I remember looking at it. None of it makes sense, but I thought it was pretty neat.” He slid the book off his lap, set the page aside, and rummaged again inside the floor for more buried treasure.
Vree picked up the page. The numbers and figures shifted and coalesced into letters that became words.
The transformation startled her and made her dizzy. She closed her eyes and told herself that she wasn’t crazy, that she was okay, that her mind was simply playing tricks.
She took a deep breath, told herself again that she was okay, and looked at the page.
“Free the dancers of truth so that you may know their poetry,” she read aloud.
Lenny ignored her while he continued rummaging.
She opened the book.
“It’s poetry and something else,” she whispered when some of the numbers and figures on the page became words. She sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor, placed the book on her lap, and read while Lenny extracted more toys and comic books from his old hiding place.
The visual clarity of a poem titled Enchantress stood out from the others.
Dost thou think her grotesquery is power?
Sweet the pleasure her shining breast gives.
Yet, turn to see her pluck the summer flower,
And see how long the golden lotus of women lives.
What men of torment take such pains?
That he should seek her all his days.
To sift away life’s joys and gains
On which his mind sees not her ways.
True love is worth the trouble spent.
Truth and beauty kiss in worth’s esteem
Of hard-fought love. Yet he is bent
To the crook of his folly’s mighty fire, it would seem.
He travels not to right his wrong,
His beldame stole his heart’s true desire.
He is lost in the siren of her song,
And dead in her all-consuming fire.
“Oh, how creepy.” Her head drooped over the book and the ends of her hair brushed the page. “These poems must be really ancient.”
Lenny looked up. “Are you reading that?” He craned his neck, leaned toward her, and peered at the page of numbers and strange figures.
Vree ran her fingertips over the ink and read the poem again. She nearly screamed when Lenny dropped a toy red Ferrari sports car, which struck against one of her tennis shoes.
She snatched the Ferrari from the floor. Heat from the metal caused her to drop it as if it had burned her palm. Dizziness overwhelmed her. She closed her eyes and waited for the moment to pass. When it did—
The sun had set. Twilight made it difficult to see detail along the side of the road where her car sat. The dark red LeSabre had a flat tire. She would be late to her son’s birthday party. She tucked her phone down her yellow blouse and inside her black, lacy bra.
She had managed to jack up the front of the car and remove two of the five lug nuts holding the tire to its wheel. But the other three would not budge no matter how hard she wrenched on them. She shook the can of WD-40, sprayed them again, then stood from her crouch at the edge of the road and waited for the smelly grease to do its magic.
The flat was on the driver’s side and that meant she had to work partly in the road. The empty highway and the fields of countryside brush were quiet around her. She pushed her bangs from her eyes and knelt again next to the tire, resting her knees against a blue plastic tarp she had found in the trunk. She brushed away some dirt from her black pantyhose and the hem of her navy blue skirt, and pulled again at a large piece of amber glass from the tire. This time it came out. She replayed in her mind the sound of the broken beer bottle crunching under the tire. She had not seen the glass until the last second before driving over it.
The fading sunlight behind the thicket of trees on the car’s passenger side made her nervous. She headed back to the trunk to find the road flares. She had set the spare tire on the ground next to a ditch of still water. Green scum had collected on the water’s stagnant surface and she thought she could make out the mostly submerged bulging eyes of a frog. It made her think of snakes, so she high-stepped her black high heels past the spare. She could hunt and field dress any wildlife, but she could not stand being around snakes.
She returned to the gaping trunk and looked inside for the box of flares.
A speeding vehicle approached behind her.
She stood up and turned.
She bent over the box again. Again, a speeding vehicle approached behind her.
She stood and turned again.
Again, no vehicle approached.
She brushed at her bangs and flicked a strand of hair from her hand—a chubby right hand. All her fingers were chubby. So were her wrists and arms … she had never been thin. But she had always been pretty. And tonight, Oriankor’s spell would make her beautiful. She wanted Howard to see how beautiful and sexy she could be. After their son’s party and the kids were in bed, she had a special present for him, which was still in the black plastic bag next to the German chocolate birthday cake on the backseat.
Behind her, not far away, a dog howled.
Another dog joined in. Then another until there was a chorus of howls coming at her.
She spun around. A large Rottweiler sat on the median. It vanished as an engine roared toward her.
The white van came fast over the crest of hill and at her. It did not move to the next lane to go around her. The large grille crushed her body when the van slammed into her.
The crash sent the frog to the bottom of the ditch water and spooked a pair of sparrows from their perch on the telephone wires above as parts of the car and van flew in pieces across the country highway. The van’s driver flew through the shattered windshield and cartwheeled into the field like a twirling rag doll, expelling blood and body parts along with loose change and bits of clothing into the patches of goldenrod, buffalo bur, nettle, and bindweed.