He was there. She saw him—a living flashback to years ago. She sucked in her breath, fearing it would be the last one she would take as her heart beat erratically.
She shook her head again trying to clear her muddled mind. Another long drink of cold water slid down her throat and landed in her belly, threatening to return up the path it just went down. She took a deep breath through her nose and exhaled through her mouth slowly.
Her mind cleared away the image of the man at Morris Sinclair’s house. It couldn’t be him. The resemblance was uncanny, but Morris Sinclair was older than the man on his porch. He had even been older than that man when Leia first met him. Morris must have been in his fifties then and the man on the porch was probably in his early forties. She took another drink and steadied her breath and heartbeat more as she calmed herself with self-soothing and mild yoga. She stretched her body, feeling the muscles and bones move, reminding her she was alive and healthy. She knew who she was and what her goals were. This new version of Morris Sinclair wouldn’t detract her.
She rolled her shoulders, let her head tip back and stretched her arms up into the air, each movement relaxing the tension from her body. She had planned her run, but when she saw the man at the Sinclair house just as she opened the door, she found herself slamming the door shut and retreating into the safety of the house.
It took several minutes of uncontrollable shaking before she could regain control of herself. For just a moment, she had dropped back into time, an involuntary memory seized her of icy hands touching her body. This was the memory that she delved into whenever a part called for her to have fear. This memory helped secure her career, because when she acted, her emotions and responses were more real than she cared to admit.
She shivered again and pulled her mind back to a serene place.
Breathe in, breathe out.
It was not Morris Sinclair, not the Morris of years ago, and not the Morris of today. At first sight of the younger man, she knew it wasn’t possible he was Morris, but reality blurred as she ducked back into the house, racing to the kitchen for water.
My God, she thought, how many children could that man have? How could any woman procreate with that man and allow him to touch her?
She shivered again. Maybe the woman didn’t allow it yet the children were created anyway. Another person in the Sinclair house threw another wrench in her plan. She began rewriting the script in her mind. She hadn’t had a chance to take what was hers. Maybe she could sneak in when the children were both gone. Who knew if the son would stay there or was visiting? Maybe she could–
Something bumped hard against her arm as she stretched to the side and she jumped at the unexpected contact, immediately forgetting her train of thought,
“Maisey!” Leia scratched behind the jowls of the gentle giant. “Oh honey, I forgot.” Leia hugged the dog’s neck. “You still have to go out don’t you?”
The leash trailed behind the dog as she headed for the front door.
Leia took one more deep breath and slid her controlled character into place before leaving the house.
The rhythm of her feet hitting the sidewalk helped Leia think. With every stride, she was working through her options regarding the latest wrinkle in the Sinclair house. Maybe the son or the daughter knew what she’d been forced to do.
Whap whap whap.
Leia stumbled but didn’t fall this time. There was no movement from the Sinclair house. In her concentration, she hadn’t even realized she’d passed the devil’s house. No one lurked in the empty space between the houses either.
Whap whap whap.
The old man. He stood on his porch whapping his cane against the railing. She stopped running.
“That dog,” the old man pointed the can at Maisey. “What kind of dog is that?” The inquiry was almost a demand.
Leia jogged in place, remembering to put on her character face.
“She’s a bullmastiff.” Leia smiled. “Her name is Maisey.”
“That’s a stupid name but a mighty fine animal.”
Leia wasn’t sure if the old man was sneering or smiling.
“She’s a great dog.” Leia took a couple of strides forward, wanting to avoid any further insults but mostly feeling creeped out being so close to the Sinclair house.
“She doesn’t seem to be a barker.”
Leia stopped her forward progression, choosing to run in place again. “She doesn’t bark hardly at all. The breed is well known for being quiet yet nimble.”
Eloy watched her intently, then walked down the steps towards her. She gave up jogging in place and headed up the sidewalk towards him.
Maisey sat back on her haunches for the man’s inspection. She didn’t bark or growl, only tipping her head to study the man who studied her. He ran his hands over Maisey’s thick skull and heavy jowls. He patted her massive shoulders and she stood up. He ran his hands down the muscular back.
“Yep, a mighty fine animal. I believe she may be part horse.
Leia wasn’t sure, but the old man might have smiled. If he did, it was fleeting. He seemed to be satisfied with his inspection of Maisey as well as her owner.
He stuck out his hand. “Eloy Franklin.”
“Leia Menendez. I recently moved into the house down on the corner.” She tipped her head in the direction of her house and shared her warmest smile.
Eloy grunted. “Yeah, I’ve seen you. You’re hard to miss.”
Leia feigned innocence. “I am? I guess running with a 120 pound dog makes me stand out.”
“That and you look just like that actress Tonya Warden.” He shook his head. “No. That’s not it. Tina Wheeler.” He lifted the cane and then jammed it back into the concrete sidewalk. “Damnit. That’s not it either.”
“Tara Windsor?” Leia offered.
Eloy tipped his head and his shrewd eyes were as sharp as talons. “That’s it. Tara.” He nodded. “Tara Windsor. She’s a very clean little actress. No gratuitous sex. No B movies to her credit. No questionable lifestyle choices. A good old-fashioned all-American Latina girl with an all-American name.”
The scriptpage in Leia’s mind for her character was blank. She opened her mouth to give her standard line, and couldn’t remember what it was.
She recovered nearly as quickly as she forgot, “Yeah I get that all the–”
“Yep, might fine dog.” Eloy cut her off as he turned and shuffled back up the sidewalk to his house.
Leia didn’t know what to do except turn and take off running back down the sidewalk and towards the desert. She quickly crossed the street. She would have to take care of her business as fast as possible and try to avoid Eloy. Right before the end of the street, she slowed her pace and jogged into the adjoining cul-de-sac. She slowed to a walk and then stopped in front of the desolate house where the little girl used to live. The house seemed . . . disturbed somehow.
In her script, maybe the house is haunted and the spirit of the dead little girl was calling her, asking her to come play. Maybe it was the people who kidnapped her and posed as her parents. The fake daddy killed himself and the fake mommy and a man from the neighborhood killed the real daddy. Maybe they were all in there living together in ghostdom, haunted by the sins they created in life.
She shook her head, shaking the thought out of the reality section of her brain and shaking it into the possible movie scripts category. She would be able to pursue the thought once she returned to her reality. With sectioning the thought in the correct place, it occurred to her that her feet weren’t moving at all. She was bound in place staring at the front of the murder house. Maisey stood at attention, her ears alert.
Leia shrugged off the chill that passed over her despite the summer air. Just as she lifted onto the ball of her foot to start running again, something on the porch caught her eye. It wasn’t there this morning when she ran by. She looked at the house every time she passed it, mortified yet intrigued by what happened there. There had never been anything red on the porch before.
She wasn’t sure how long she stood there looking at the box. So many confusing things were happening so fast. Perhaps a mourner or family member left the box on the porch as a gift for the departed. Maybe someone left it as some kind of charm against evil.
If this were a movie set, the lead character would have to investigate the box. Before she registered the thought as validation for her actions, her feet were moving up the front stairs and she was reaching for the box. It was the role she needed to play at the moment.
Leia registered the reality of the dog next to her but couldn’t stop herself from opening the red velvet box.
Displayed on a bed of satin was a human tooth.
She cringed and snapped the box shut, nearly dropping it. Why would someone leave a tooth on the front porch of the murder house? A quick scan of the area didn’t expose any witnesses or perpetrators. She put the tooth back where she found it but couldn’t wipe the nasty feeling from her hands. She turned and gingerly went back down the stairs, careful not to trip on her shaky legs.
At the edge of the desert, she released Maisey from the leash. Before they raced through the desert, Leia took one last look over her shoulder at the Peterson house.
“Maisey,” she scratched the dog’s head. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I sure as hell ain’t the tooth fairy.”