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Solid Oak

From her table at the kitchen window Francine glanced out to the road half a mile away to see if the mailman made a stop at their box. A car turned into the long driveway and stopped half way, started again and came another hundred yards. Maybe one of those people who couldn’t find the winery, which happened so often there should be a sign saying, “Almost there, keep going.”

But it kept on coming, until, about fifty yards away, it stopped again, like a boat stalled in the sea of young corn tall enough now to bend in waves with the morning breeze.

She stood up, thinking to go out to meet it, when a woman stumbled out of the passenger side, as though pushed. Francine fell back down as if some hand had done the same to her. She squinted against the harsh sunshine to see. Someone had tied that woman’s hands behind her back, so when she started running her body jerked off balance side to side. Wearing only shorts and halter top, nothing on her feet. Stay on the grass, Francine whispered to her. She knew the bite of the gravel on bare feet, from the few times she’d got caught without shoes.

A man got out of the driver’s seat and walked behind the woman. Easy for him to keep up in long strides with his arms free. He wore a heavy winter coat with a hood. In July? To disguise himself? But he took no care to hide what was in his hand, a thing to brandish, as he did, a gun.

Francine spilled out of her chair and it crashed to the floor. Too far away for those two to hear it. She called Bret, but no answer. Her message, “Armed man, about to kill a woman coming up the driveway.”

Any help would have to cover many miles.

No one on the place but her. Thank God the kids were in school.

Why didn’t the woman scream? Soon enough she knew when she saw her fling her head in all directions in a struggle with the scarf that gagged her.

Was the guy wanting a good place to hide the body and didn’t want the work of dragging her to it? But why down a farmhouse lane? With no cover, certainly not the knee high corn. In the middle of the day?

Did the guy want a place to hide the body but not the work of dragging her to it? No cover here, certainly not in the knee high corn in the middle of the day. To her farmhouse? Did he think no one was home because there wasn’t a single vehicle outside?

They kept on coming down the driveway, the woman veering onto the gravel every so often. She must have bloody feet by now, but maybe she was beyond noticing. Close now she could see her forest of black curls, her pigeon-toed walk. That waitress at Jill’s she overtipped for her patience when it took a while to order for the kids.

Oh my god, poor dear! Francine called 911, why didn’t she think of it earlier? The voice, Joyce wasn’t it? told her to be calm and go to the basement. Maybe she wasn’t quite awake at her desk and was thinking tornadoes. Made sense though, and Francine set the chair back up to look normal, and headed down. Damn, she forgot to lock the front door. Too late now, they were clamoring up the porch stairs.

From her spot at the bottom of the stairs she looked up to the door to the kitchen as though that would make her hear better. She flinched when the outside door swung in and banged against the wall, and she fell back against the clammy concrete wall when the woman moaned and the man cursed and dragged her, as heavy footed as he, across the floor above her. No shouts to the inhabitants, is anyone home? Nothing like that. Just those grunts and whines like creatures who’d lost their words.

Her chair, that had lost all but one of its floor protectors, screeched across the floor and then then someone landed on it hard, with a high-pitched yelp. The goon had flung her down on it, probably loomed over her. But, that seat was still warm from Francine’s bottom. Would the woman notice? And hope that person was near? The only chance that poor thing had was to hope someone would come. The only chance Francine had was that this monster didn’t know she was there.

She heard him pace around the kitchen, opening the fridge, popping open a beer can. So kidnapping made him thirsty did it? Maybe that’s what this was, not a murder. If so he’d have to hold her captive to wait for the ransom. In this lonely farmhouse. On the end of a long driveway.

Retreating into the laundry room to be well out of earshot, Francine called 911 again; the line had dropped from before. She whispered, “Tell Bret to get the kids and go to his parent’s place in town. Are they sending someone here?”

“Yes. But you have to remain calm.”

You try it, she wanted to say. But the urge to strangle that know-it-all dispatcher passed. She was her only hope.

Then the guy popped open another and said, “Here have one.”

Offering it to the woman? Would he pull her gag off? Untie her hands?

She crept back to the bottom of the stairs to hear better. The sound of clothing coming off. Not the woman’s, who was almost naked. Had to be his huge coat, too much even for January.

Then came something that put every hair on her skull at attention. A female voice up there calling her name. “Francine?”

She grasped the stair railing to save herself from a fall that would surely reveal where she was.

She called again, “Francine, we know you’re here.” Her voice liquid, on the edge of a laugh the way it was when she told five-year-old Jason those hated green beans he left were like desert to her.

Francine could not put her mind around it, Veronica? Not the victim but in on whatever this was with this sick creature? Then she of the basement was the target.

They would look. The railing felt slick in her clenched fists. Please, go to the bedroom first. But instead, she heard the doorknob at the top of the basement stairs turn. She raced to hide behind the furnace, banging her head against the ductwork.

With the door open the woman’s voice was easier to hear. “Francine? We’re just here to have a little fun.” A laugh from her, smooth, in charge of itself. Then the heavy footsteps of the man lumbering down step by step. Twelve of them.

Silence for a moment, then. “C’mon out Francine, my love.”

Some sicko who knew Brett so well he could mimic that deep voice that was always laughing at self. What animal would do that?

The voice started again, and crawled right into her brain, it was so like Brett’s.

“It’s OK honey, Veronica and I were just coming over to have some fun with the three of us.”

No one could be that good.

She would not come out, not till she made sense or this.

But he didn’t give her time and walked right into the furnace room. “I know you’re there, dear one.” A voice proud of itself, laughing at her.

She would not let him drag her out, so she emerged from behind the furnace, rubbing the goose egg that bloomed on her scalp.

In the light of the ceiling bulb someone had turned on, the face of her husband cast angular shadows. Her eyes darted to his hands, no gun. So just for show on the driveway?

Veronica, looking nothing like the wretched woman on the gravel road, offered her hand. “Hi Francine, glad to see you again.” Like some dinner guest. Francine looked at it, then at her face. It was smiling. She felt something rise up from her stomach. She used that smile with her son.

Brett the prankster. Even his victims loved him for it because his tricks were so brilliant and it always worked out well in the end. Oh, but not this time.

“It’s not my birthday.”

“Or April Fool’s.” That grin when he was so pleased with himself.

“So, what, terrorize a spouse day?” She walked close and though she lifted her head up because he towered a foot above her, it was to look down at him. He tried to give her a hug but she threw his arms apart with her own. “Do you know I called 911?”

“Honey you need to settle down.”

She stepped back, looked at both of them, so relaxed, so easy. OMG, 911 never intended to come at all.

“So you got Joyce to go along with this?” She’d forgotten she and Brett were old buds.

She felt such a rise of heat, fumes must be coming out of her follicles. Like a catapult she rushed the two of them, and Veronica crashed back to crumple on the stairs. Brett clutched the railing to keep from doing the same.

Francine let fly her open palm and hit his face so hard her hand went numb.

Brett yelled in pain and Veronica screamed, “Stop Francine are you crazy?”

Francine rubbed her injured hand and pushed her way past them to climb the stairs.

Veronica was the first one to come up after her.

“Jeez Francine, Brett said you were a good sport or I would never have done this.”

“Are you kidding? Think if you’d been in my shoes.”

Turned out Veronica had a side business, using her acting skills she was going to use in Hollywood.

“He must be paying you plenty to put up with being gagged and bound.”

After Brett stomped up the stairs she waited a moment while he stood next to the table, swaying. Good, he was off balance. Then she swept everything off the table in one great swing of her good arm. Dishes crashed to the floor and papers floated after. With the same arm she gestured with open palm toward the empty table.

“Jump up, Brett my love.”

It was a solid oak table, that could support a lot of weight. The two of them had proved it when they couldn’t wait long enough to get to the bedroom.

All this to ramp up the experience, and add another body?

Francine grabbed her purse from a hook next to the door and turned to them. “Have at it you two, I’m out of here. She let the screen door bang again and again, on her walk down the long driveway.”

–Mary Lewis


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