by Armand Rosamilia and Jay Wilburn
Excerpt from The Enemy Held Near available now …
Also available in audio version! Includes a free sample …
I was crying too by the time I got Heather back home.
Heather took three steps into the house and stopped. Her duffle dangled by the straps in her fist just a few inches off the floor, but she wouldn’t release it. I stared at my daughter’s back, but without seeing her face, I couldn’t get a perfect read on her emotions. She was twelve and she was female; I was never going to know what she was thinking or feeling even if I asked. I had fought to get her back home after she was taken and I was having mixed emotions. She had just been pulled out of her mother’s arms by men with guns. As far as she was concerned, I was the one that sent the men and the guns. How could I expect her to have her head on straight?
Her eyes had been ringed red and raw before she walked in the door. Her muscles were tight like coiled springs now. I pushed the front door closed and only after I had done it did I realize I was afraid she would try to bolt. Heather’s bag was already packed for a run and she had been living on the run a couple weeks – going on three. And there was no telling what Ruthie had said to Heather about me before they fled.
I licked my lips and swallowed. It was a creepy habit, but it was what I did when I was nervous. These girls had me nervous in my own house. Everything had me nervous.
I had no idea what to say to Heather to make it better anymore than I knew what to say to my wife. Still, I got my mouth and throat ready for whatever nonsense I was going to come up with that would inevitably make it all worse. I realized in that moment, with Heather’s hair down and damp from the rain, how much she looked like Ruthie. That was not helping me come up with something to say.
Something clunked on a table deeper in the house and my throat went dry again.
Not now. Please, not now. I was barely holding shit together as it was. No time for this now.
It was a sound of something dropping or being pushed with force. It was a double sound of two impacts. It might have been a book dropping on its spine and then falling on its side. It could have been a knife coming down on the hilt and then falling to the flat of the blade. I couldn’t stop picturing the knife. I thought I got all the knives out of the house, but there always seemed to be one or two more somewhere any time I looked – usually upstairs – the last place I wanted to find them.
I couldn’t tell how deep in the house it had been. My eyes flicked to the darkness up the stairs and I waited for what might come next. The darkness and I were longtime roommates, but weren’t friends anymore.
Sometimes people grow apart. Right?
Heather’s shoulders tightened and I felt bad about bringing her back here. She was looking up the stairs too. The darkness had not been good to her. Maybe not Ruthie either.
Maybe I was bad for them too. We should have handled this without the men with guns. I was not going to be able to hold together the act of being normal long enough. The women in my life were not going to allow it.
At first, I took the silence to mean that the house didn’t know what to say either. The old place was just clearing its throat. It was three floors and an attic of old dry wood and old furniture. We made it nervous and sometimes the place had to lick its lips just in case it thought of something to say. It was an old house with creepy habits.
Then, I heard the footsteps. They were drawing closer. It was downstairs with us. I left the house alone to go retrieve Heather from Child Protective Services. We met at a rendezvous point at a gas station where rainwater was pouring over the cover like a waterfall. They did not want me there when they took Heather from her mother. While we were playing these games, whatever craziness had come off of Ruthie was now downstairs with us.
A voice joined the footsteps. “Are you happy with yourself?”
I was full of ice water and my heart was having a hell of a time trying to pump it around my veins. Sometimes I wished my heart would just give up trying and let the works go still. That was the Turner family retirement plan after all.
A shadow wavered from the kitchen across the floor into the foyer.
Maggie stepped out and stared at Heather and me. I actually would have rather faced a monster.
I blinked and shook my head to try to rattle out the loose bolts and irrational fear rolling around my skull. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
Maggie shrugged and rolled her eyes in the way that only fourteen year old girls could do to make their fathers feel like assholes. “Katie’s family was having dinner. They offered to let me eat with them, but I didn’t want to feel like a charity case. My life is sad enough already. So, I came home.”
I gritted my teeth. “If anyone asks, you need to tell them you were at your friend’s house like you were supposed to be and not here by yourself.”
Maggie narrowed her eyes. “Anyone? Like a social worker, you mean? The one that will decide if we should live with mom or with you? Is that what you mean by anyone, Dad?”
After I had to quit football and then started getting fat, Maggie was the kind of girl that would have picked on me. It wasn’t fair for me to put my baggage on her for shit I went through before she was born, but that’s what I saw when she pulled out the sharp blade of her wit and sarcasm.
Damn, I thought I got rid of all the knives, but here’s another one coming right at me off my fourteen year old daughter’s tongue.
“Just do what I tell you to do while we work out the adult stuff again,” I said. My throat tightened. I fought the urge to lick my lips. My older daughter would point out that it was creepy and I’d just be more self conscious and nervous.
The words felt heavy in my mouth. I was occupying a space outside myself choosing every word and even the tone of the words like someone was listening. I was speaking with the thought that everything I said now was going to be repeated as decisions were made by people outside of my life about my life.
There was never a better house for out of body experiences in all of Atlanta.
“If you’re worried about what people will think,” Maggie said swiping red dyed hair from her face, “then you should fix us something to eat like real families do.”
Maggie wanted me to notice that she had dyed her hair a few shades past natural. A little more red dye would have made it purple. She probably did it because I had told her not to more than because she wanted to. If I pretended not to notice, she would come up with something else to test me. If I called her out on it, we would have the fight now that would be about everything except red hair. The women in my life had me on the ropes and I wasn’t up for the next round yet.
My eyes went to the stairs and then the light from the kitchen. Maggie was watching my eyes. Someone in this house was always watching.
I said, “I’ll put together something in a minute.”
Maggie took her hand away from her hair and crossed her arms over her chest. Now she looked remarkably like Ruthie despite the over reddened hair. My wife possessed every person and every corner of the house even though she tried to get away. If Maggie had not been off with friends refusing to answer her phone, Ruthie would have taken her too.
I imagined my wife standing at the door with Heather and the hastily packed bags trying to decide whether to leave with just Heather or to abort the escape until Maggie was back in the pocket. In the desperate weeks that followed, I saw it in Maggie’s face that she wished she had answered her mother’s texts that day.
I imagined Ruthie doing lots of things now that she was away and it was eating me up inside.
Maggie gave another verbal jab. She was trying to soften me up with body blows. She wanted her father to drop his guard and expose his chin so that she could do some real damage. She wanted to mess up my face. This fight was personal between old rivals. “If you are worried about Child Services, you should probably clean upstairs.”
Damn, she’s going for the chin anyway, I thought.
I looked up the stairs and I knew Maggie had seen it. It was time to throw in the towel.
I said, “Did you go upstairs?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Dad.”
“I’ll clean up soon. Thank you for the reminder.”
Maggie opened her mouth for her next swing, but Heather dropped her bag and let out a sob that echoed through the house. My chest tightened with fear. She charged forward and slammed into her sister wrapping her up in a hug that pinned Maggie’s arms to her side. Maggie staggered backward. Her eyes went wide as she looked through her sister’s hair that was still the natural blondish brown like their mother.
The ref should really break this up.
Maggie pulled her arms free of her younger sister’s grip and took hold of Heather as she cried into Maggie’s shoulder and dye job.
I reached back and locked the deadbolt behind me before walking past the girls to the kitchen.
I opened the freezer and stared through the fog at mini corn cobs in a bag and broccoli florets held by a pink chip clip. These vegetables were only there because Ruthie bought them before she left a few weeks ago. I wondered if Heather ate vegetables even when she was on the run while I fed Maggie fast food most nights at home.
Let me explain, your honor, I thought to myself. Then, my head went empty … I got nothing, sir.
I took out the folded up bag of diced chicken. The bag was emerald green and had a picture of a family laughing as they enjoyed dinner together. I turned it so that I was looking at the heating instructions side. Why was the chicken company messing with me? I pulled apart the resealable ziplock and stared in at two rocks of chicken bound together in frost.
I brought the bag to the stove and turned on the bulb above the elements with a pop. I opened the cabinet. I considered between the box macaroni and box Rice-a-roni as if it was being discussed at a hearing.
And what did he fix you for dinner the night he left you two crying in the foyer?
I took down the fried rice. We were out of butter, so I poured vegetable oil into the pan and turned on the element. The side of the bottle still had black grease on the side from the last time I used the vegetable oil to coat the charcoal grill. Ruthie hated me getting black smut on things when I grilled. I couldn’t remember the last time we had grilled.
I turned and spotted the knife blocks. They were mostly empty, but a few had been put back in place. Put back for who? I wondered. As I put the oil back in the cabinet, I saw a brand of Jack Daniels. We didn’t keep alcohol in the house even for cooking because of Ruthie’s past. Did I buy it? I couldn’t remember. I needed to get rid of it before the inspection happened.
I pulled it down and uncapped it. I pour the half empty bottle down the sink. Why was it half empty? I listened over my shoulders for the girls. I didn’t want them to see this.
I heard the girls whispering in the next room. Even at their worst, they had always been tight co-conspirators against me and Ruthie. They were the united front of the family as mom and dad were at odds. I felt a lump in my throat as I thought about the girls being separated for this long.
I found the energy and will to blame Ruthie for it. She left. She split them up. I was only going to fall on so many swords before this ritual was going to get old.
“Where is she?”
“She’s in some trailer. I don’t remember the name of the town, but it’s close. They made her come back.”
“Where did you go?”
“Lots of places.”
I capped the bottle and dropped it in the trash under the sink. I made a mental note to take out the trash sooner than later.
I returned to the stove. I dropped in the two ice balls of chicken and the oil spit and hissed. I whispered. “Don’t you start with me, too.”
I looked down on the floor. Crumbs gathered in the corners. The molding separated at dark edges where the old house had settled over the decades. Houses this old had the biggest, fattest molding along the floor and ceiling that showed every stain and scuff. I saw two dried mushrooms shriveled just below the stove. I didn’t remember the last time I had cooked mushrooms. Someone must have been sneaking them in with the alcohol. I was suffering from food amnesia. Maybe this was why the kids took pictures of food when they ate. There was a torn corner of a dried food pouch cast aside as well. I picked that up and made a note to sweep before the home visit.
I wondered if it was an announced visit or not. I had been told, but couldn’t remember. I should have taken a selfie. I decided I better sweep soon.
I poured the dried rice into the oil on top of the thawing chicken.
“It’s been awful … worse than usual.”
“Maybe they will be nicer when they aren’t around each other.”
“Not so far that I can tell.”
I cleared my throat and stepped away from the stove. Gloves back on. “Maggie, let me see you a minute.”
I heard the huff. It came from the endless well of frustration within the soul of my fourteen year old and it could be heard from the next room.
She stepped into the archway. Her arms were crossed. “What?”
“Set the table, please.”
Maggie tilted her head and I braced myself as I stepped back to the stove and stirred the chicken and rice. Maggie said, “Just three for dinner tonight?”
Oh, shit, that was good. That was a pro level shot. It was layered and had depth. It was almost poetry.
“Maggie.” I took a couple deep breaths. I poured in a cup of water and covered the pan with a lid that was too big. “Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
She bowed her head and tears erupted. She moved to the cabinets and started pulling plates and cups.
I felt hollow inside. There was nothing poetic about making my daughter cry. Foster Turner was out of the running for father of the year once again. I was always a dark horse candidate at best.
There was a clunk on a table like before in the same double hit pattern. It was definitely upstairs almost directly overhead. I looked up at the ceiling, trying to convince myself that it was related to Maggie shuffling in the cabinets.
There was a crackle that traveled through one of the floors above diagonally. It was a change in pressure like one of the doors being opened.
“Where is your sister?”
“She laid down in her room to rest.” Maggie slammed a cabinet. That was a different noise from the clunk above. “I told her I would wake her up when the feast was ready.”
I shook his head. “I heard you talking before I called you.”
“I don’t know what you heard, but she has been laying down since you started cooking.”
Maggie cleared her throat. “That’s where we eat, sleep, live, and suffer.”
She walked past with the dishes and cups.
I turned the heat to low and walked out of the kitchen into the foyer. Standing at the bottom of the stairs, I felt wind on my face. It was cold like a window had been left open. Someone would have had to have gone up for a window to be open. I had not even been up to sort my collections in the second floor rooms for days.
There was wind on my face.
I lifted a foot to the first step to go check. The roommate needed some attention.
I heard a car horn echo through the space around me and water dripped from the ceiling into puddles on the concrete floor. It made me think about being back at the gas station waiting for them to bring Heather. I felt sharp bits of grit bite into my bare feet and I looked down at my feet in the darkness to try to figure out what happened to my shoes.
I was only wearing my sagging boxers. It was the pair I put on for sleeping.
I raised my head to see the abandoned warehouse around me.
It wouldn’t fade; the cold of the wind and the smell of piss rose from the trash around me with the hard edge of reality. I remembered carrying Ruthie years ago. I forced the memory out so I could deal with the present.
I turned and moved toward the closest opening where rain fell hard through the glow of streetlights outside.
I chose my steps carefully to avoid the spills of broken glass. I needed to figure out where I was …
Buy the Enemy Held Near by Armand Rosamilia and Jay Wilburn to see what happens next …
Listen to the free sample in the audio version!
Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in Conway, South Carolina near the Atlantic coast of the southern United States. He has a Masters Degree in education and he taught public school for sixteen years before becoming a full time writer. He is the author of many short stories including work in Best Horror of the Year volume 5, Zombies More Recent Dead, Shadows Over Mainstreet, and Truth or Dare. He is the author of the Dead Song Legend Dodecology and the music of the five song soundtrack recorded as if by the characters within the world of the novel The Sound May Suffer. He also wrote the novels Loose Ends and Time Eaters. He is one of the four authors behind the Hellmouth trilogy. He cowrote The Enemy Held Near with Armand Rosamilia. Jay Wilburn is a regular columnist with Dark Moon Digest. Follow his many dark thoughts on Twitter, Instagram, and Periscope as @AmongTheZombies, his Facebook author page, and at JayWilburn.com