Beth drew a sudden breath.
John David was sleeping in his bed.
She heard the bathroom door creak open.
Turning, she looked down the corridor.
With the bathroom light now switched off she could only see the silhouette of a tall dark form standing in the bathroom doorway.
So it was Jenna in there.
“Hey, sweetie,” Beth called out, her voice betraying scraps of doubt.
The form at the other end of the hallway did not move or respond.
“Jenna? What’s wrong, Jenna?”
Beth’s heart thudded against her sternum.
Behind her John David mumbled incoherently. She closed the door to his bedroom, a salty metallic taste coating her throat with the flavor of adrenaline and dread.
She was ten steps from her bedroom door.
Gun in closet. Top shelf. Nike shoebox. Think it’s loaded.
Stepping out into the middle of the hall, she began to backpedal slowly toward her room, squinting through the darkness at the motionless shadow, thinking, I haven’t fired that gun in seven years. I don’t know if I remember how.
Her hand grasped the doorknob. She turned it, backing through the threshold into the master bedroom.
The shadow remained at the other end of the hall.
Phone or gun?
She could scarcely catch a sufficient breath. Some part of her wondered, prayed that this was a recurrence of one of those awful dreams she’d suffered in the wake of Walter’s death.
Much as she hated to let that thing out of her sight she was impotent without a weapon. Beth turned and moved deftly to the bedside table. She lifted the phone. Jesus, no. The line was dead and her cell phone was downstairs in her purse.
Beth slid back the door to the closet as the unmistakable resonance of thick-soled bootsteps filled the hallway.
Do not faint.
Standing on her tiptoes, Beth reached for the top shelf and grabbed the shoebox with her fingertips and pried it open. It contained a box of bullets but the .38 was gone. She noticed other boxes on the floor at her feet—he’d been rummaging while she was downstairs.
The footsteps stopped.
The house was silent.
A wave of trembles swept through her, sapping the strength from her legs, forcing her to the floor. The thought of her children stood her up again and she walked to the doorway of her bedroom and peered down the hall.
It was empty now.
“I’ve called nine-one-one on my cell phone!” she yelled. “And I’m holding a shotgun and I’m not afraid to use it!”
“Mom?” Jenna called out.
“Jenna!” Beth screamed.
In a knee-length flannel nightgown her daughter stepped from her bedroom into the hallway. Jenna was taller than Beth now, prettier. She’d inherited her daddy’s good looks and athleticism, missed her mother’s plainness.
“Why are you yelling, Mom?”
“Get back in your room and lock the door!”
Jenna ran crying into her room and slammed the door.
“I don’t want to shoot you but I will,” Beth hollered at the darkness.
“How can you shoot me when I have your gun?” a calm masculine voice inquired.
The shadow emerged from the playroom and walked toward her.
Beth flicked the light switch on the wall.
The hallway lit up, burning her eyes and flooding the shadow with color and texture.
The man who approached her had long black hair, a face whiter than a china doll, and smiling red lips. He tracked bootprints of blood across her hardwood floor. It speckled his face, darkened his jeans and long-sleeved black T-shirt.
Beth sank down onto the floor, immobilized with terror.
Luther came and stood over her, said, “I haven’t hurt your children and I won’t long as you’re compliant.”
Beth saw the ivory hilted knife in his right hand. It had seen use tonight.
Jenna’s door opened. The young girl poked her head out.
“I’m all right, baby,” Beth said, her voice breaking. “Stay in your room.”
Luther turned and gazed at the teenager.
“Obey your mother.”
“Why are you doing this?” Jenna cried.
“Get in your room!” Beth yelled.
“What is happening?”
“Get in your room!”
Jenna’s door slammed and locked.
When Beth looked back up at the intruder she saw he’d traded his knife for a blackjack.
“Turn around,” he said. “I need to see the back of your head.”
“I’m going to hit you with this and I’d rather it didn’t smash your face.”
“Don’t you touch my children.”
“Turn your head.”
“Swear to me you won’t hurt—”
Luther seized her by the hair and whacked the back of her skull.
ACCORDING to the official website www.wafflehouse.com, the thirteen hundred Waffle Houses in the United States collectively serve enough Jimmy Dean sausage patties in twenty-four hours to construct a cylinder of meat as tall as the Empire State Building. And in one year they serve enough strips of Bryan bacon to stretch from Atlanta to Los Angeles seven times.
Luther recalls these amusing factoids while cruising down the offramp of I-40, exit 151, in the city of Statesville, North Carolina. Though it’s 4:13 a.m., two establishments remain open for business. There’s the never-closing Super Wal-Mart on his side of the underpass and the wonderful Waffle House—just a left turn at the stoplight and two hundred yards up the street. Its lucent yellow sign cheerfully beckons him. He smiles. He hasn’t enjoyed that smoke-sated ambience in awhile.
Luther pulls into a parking space and turns off the ’85 Impala. In addition to stinking of onions, the car has been running hot and he worries it won’t endure the remainder of his journey. With respect to his sleeping cargo, breaking down would be an unthinkable disaster.
Intricately patterned frost has crystallized on the windshield of the car beside his, a web of lacy ice spreading across the glass. Touching the fragile crystals, he shivers and takes in the predawn stillness of the town. From where he stands the world consists of motels, gas stations, fast food restaurants, the drone of the interstate, and the sprawling glowing immensity of that Super Wal-Mart in the distance, set up on a hill so that it looks down upon its town with all the foreboding of a medieval stronghold.
Luther heads first into the bathroom. Though his work clothes rest safely in a trash bag in the backseat, he hasn’t had the opportunity to wash up. His hands and face are bloodspattered and he watches the water turn pink and swirl down the drain.