Chapter 2 – Haunted Houses

Tara Cox Literary Erotica logo

The sun streamed between the pale pink sheers as she woke the next morning. Rolling over, she picked up the clock. It was almost eight. A much later start to the day than she had anticipated. But then again, with an extra set of hands and a strong back, as Master Sergeant Mike had said, she could breathe a bit easier about the job ahead.

Throwing back the homemade quilt that was the newest addition to her room, she stretched. Her full breasts brushed against the soft cotton of her nightgown. The dark brown areolas stood at attention. She supposed the unusual reaction to the slight brush against the material was due to the erotic videos that had played one after another through her mind the night before.

It seemed that every ancient legend – Jason and the Argonauts, Hercules, and Hector – had played out in Technicolor dreams with the Master Sergeant in the starring role and her as his leading lady. Oh, and there were a few modern romance storylines thrown in for good measure. Vikings, Scots, and contemporary heroes, who wound their tales through the night, left her mature body alive in a way that she could never before remember.

Reaching for her thick terry cotton robe at the foot of the bed, she wrapped it about her like the chainmail of a medieval warrior. Cinching the belt tightly about her waist, she girded herself for the day. The next three days, she reminded herself with both trepidation and excitement. Three days with this man. It would either kill her or bring her to life.

For now, breakfast was the first order of business. She tiptoed out of her bedroom and down the hall. She stopped at the edge of the living room. A wide smile broke across her face. His bare chest could be seen above the pale blue of the sheets wrapped tightly about his waist. She fought back the urge to steal across the room and trail her fingers down the hard ridge of abdominal muscles.

She imagined her fingers slipping beneath the heated cotton sheets. Imagined what she would find beneath. White? Regulation green? Black? She doubted the man, who had followed such a strict code for most of his life, would dare something unconventional like red, blue, or purple. But the thought held possibilities.

The man turned in his sleep, and Esther beat a hasty retreat towards the kitchen. It would not do to begin the day with him catching her, ogling his half-naked body.

Throwing open the refrigerator doors, she stared into the vast expanse of emptiness. If she were to play hostess for the next three days to a man, a strapping man, she would have to add a trip to the grocery store to her to-do list. Since Tommy had left for college, she rarely cooked. It simply was not worth the effort for one person.

And since that day when her world changed forever, food had even less meaning. Everything was cardboard, a necessity to be consumed if she was to continue living, something she was not thoroughly sure she wanted to do anyway. But until she made that final choice, it was something to which she gave a passing salute.

Most nights, she survived on a sandwich or cup of soup. If she bothered at all. She often existed upon the light meal that she forced past her lips in the teacher’s lounge. Breakfast was certainly not on the menu.

Scouring the shelves, she managed to find a packet of sliced ham, leftovers from her sandwiches, and a bit of cheese as well. There were eggs aplenty. She had bought them on her way home from work yesterday, ingredients for her Halloween cookies and cupcakes. She would pick up some more to replace these when she went to the store later. A Denver omelet, it would be then.

But that seemed scant fare for such a robust man. Reaching into the cupboard, she drew forth a container of flour. Combined with the eggs, a touch of sugar, and some milk that she kept on hand for her morning breakfast of coffee on the run, it would make a nice side of pancakes. As an afterthought, she grabbed a packet of chocolate chips from among the items that awaited her on the countertop.

Chocolate chip pancakes had been Tommy’s favorite. The thought was barely through her mind before she felt the noose tighten about her throat and chest. Had he shared that with the Master Sergeant? Tales of Saturday morning cartoons and chocolate chip pancakes cuddled together under the blankets in front of the old television. He had practically been in college before that tradition gave away to morning runs, his friends, and girls.

Esther drew another deep cleansing breath as she took out bowls and pans. She brushed back tears with the back of her flour-covered hand as she mixed a batch of pancakes. The skillet heated on the burner as she poured the first of the batter into it.

She grabbed another pan and fried up the ham and an old onion. Cracking three eggs into another bowl, she beat the mixture, wishing that she had the will to beat back the despair that gripped her like the fiercest of ancient villains – Medusa, the Minotaur, or the Sphinx.

Looking into the bowl, as a teardrop spiced it, she added another egg for good measure. Like Tommy, the Master Sergeant was a big guy. He was guaranteed to have a big appetite. She poured the mixture over the ham and flipped the pancake. It was a perfect golden brown, just the way that Tommy liked them. She reminded herself to take deep cleansing breaths as she began grating the cheese.

Mike watched the woman make her hasty retreat to the kitchen. If it had not been for his raging erection, he would have let her know he had been awake for some time. Hell, he had been awake way too much of the night. As he suspected, sleeping this close to her was harder than just about anything. Other than the memories that tormented him day and night, or the fucking traitor between his legs that would not seem to obey his commands this morning or any other when it came to her.

Even though he had slept in way worse places, he had tossed and turned on the couch most of the night. He had spent hours listening for the least sound, imagining her. What would she wear to bed? Probably not the sheer white lace nightie that he so often imagined her in. It would perfectly set off her light brown skin tones.

Damn, her skin was so fucking soft. At least on her hands, the only part of her that he had dared to touch. Though he had spent more than a few minutes lying there wondering what it would have felt like to trail his hands slowly up her arms. Grip her shoulders firmly and drew her in for a long, slow kiss.

Mike shook his head, “Get your head screwed on straight, Leatherneck. It ain’t happening.”

But that did not stop his body from wanting it, wanting her. The dreams when he had finally slept had been so fucking vivid. He supposed he should be glad that they were of her, not the acrid, smoke and blood-filled nightmares.

Damn, it had been a bit too vivid. For a fraction of a second, as she stood looking at him from the hallway, he had almost imagined that she was going to walk across the room, her round hips swaying softly from side to side. Not the overdone blatant sexuality of some women, but that perfect feminine motion that reminded a man of the differences between boys and girls.

He had held his breath, imagining her standing above him. Loosening the belt on that robe. What would be beneath it? He sucked in his breath as he cursed the way his dick pulsed and jumped inside the sweat pants. He could almost see her slowly slipping it from her shoulders, nothing but bare skin beneath. What would those tits, which appeared as if they would fit perfectly in the palm of his hands, look like? Would her nipples be the dark brown of coffee or a lighter tone of the fall leaves?

He would hold out his hand, and she would take it, the robe loosening just enough that he would catch a brief glimpse of her thighs as she joined him on the couch. She would straddle him; the only thing between them would be the sheet and his sweat pants. But he would not rush to discard those.

Maybe she would even bite her full bottom lip like she did when trying to decide what to say. Did she have any idea how sexy that was? How badly he wanted to bite that lip. Taste it. Taste her.

No, after this long, he would take his time. Taste every fucking inch of her body, beginning with those luscious lips, until she was moaning and rubbing against him like that damned alley cat always had when it begged for food. But she would be begging for something else. Her hands would grip his bare shoulders, burning into his skin in a way that he could never forget.

“Fuck, man.” This was not a good idea. He could hear the woman moving about the kitchen. He thought he even smelled coffee and food cooking. He definitely needed coffee. And a cold shower, icy cold like the well water had been that first night at the old Hall ranch.

As hard as his cock was, he was not confident it would do any more good than it had that night. This woman was under his skin. She had been for a long time – too long. In a way, no other woman ever had been.

“Damn it,” he cursed some more.

They had work to get done. That was the whole purpose of this trip – to help her out with this damned Halloween tradition that meant so fucking much to Tommy, to her, to this fucked up town. Not that it fucking deserved it or them, but one thing almost a quarter of a century in the Marines taught a man was the value of tradition. And this was a tradition for this town, and more importantly for her.

He looked over to the mantle at the picture of the two of them. Tommy smiled back at him. Mike chuckled, ‘Bet you wouldn’t if you knew the things I was thinking about your Mama.’ But he had come here to keep another promise, and that was what he intended to do.

He adjusted the waistband of his jogging pants as best he could. He hoped like hell that it hid the raging hard-on beneath the soft material that seemed to shift and move in perfect imitation of how he imagined her soft hands and warm mouth would. He growled; why was his mind suddenly one track?

He reached for a t-shirt from the bag that he had placed at the end of the couch to be on the safe side. He pulled it over his head and was glad to see that it was long enough to fall below the bulge in his pants, adding another layer of protection should her warm brown eyes stray.

He shook his head and forced his mind back from other fantasies. He stood and, as he had for a lifetime, forced one foot in front of the other as he crossed the room until he stood in the doorway of the kitchen.

Air froze in his lungs as he watched her bent over the frying pans. Her eyes were swollen already as tears mixed with whatever she was cooking. It was more effective than being dunked beneath that icy well water.

A reminder of exactly why he could never have this woman. He looked at his hands as he ran them nervously over the front of his pants. As if he could wipe her son’s unseen blood from them. But he knew he could not.

Instead, he gathered his courage, reminded himself of why he was here, and cleared his throat. “Something smells delicious,” he watched those tears that ate like acid at his gut trail down her cheeks.

Esther jumped at the sound of the deep voice behind her. Raising a messy hand, she swiped away the tears once more. Forcing words past the tightness in her chest, she smiled. “Thought you might be hungry this morning, so I made some breakfast. It isn’t much, just an omelet and some pancakes. I’m not a big breakfast person, but we can pick up some things later when we go into town. More eggs, sausage, bacon, whatever you like.”

Esther knew she was rambling but was powerless to stop it. Knowing that her dark eyes were probably puffy and red already, she made excuses. “Afraid I did not realize how strong that onion was. I’ll have to get fresh ones of those too.”

Coming to stand next to her, Esther felt his presence like the heat and steam rising off the hot Texas asphalt after a summer thunderstorm.

“You shouldn’t have gone to any trouble, ma’am. I could have grabbed something at the diner. Heck, I should be the one to treat you.”

She laughed softly, “And get a belly ache this early in the morning? We wouldn’t get much done today after eating at that greasy spoon.”

The man smiled softly at her. “Yeah, Tommy did say that your cooking was much better than anything else. Of course, that was usually said after MREs or another round of powdered eggs in the mess hall. It wasn’t fair the way he went on and on about your cooking as we ate that crap.”

He inhaled deeply, “It certainly smells like the boy didn’t lie. I don’t suppose those happen to be chocolate chip pancakes, by any chance?”

Esther smiled. So, Tommy had shared their little secret with this man. “Yes, Master Sergeant, they are.” Flipping the finished product onto the plate next to her, she handed it to him before turning back to the stove to add more batter to the skillet.

The man brought the plate close to his face. He appeared almost boyish as he grinned and breathed deeply. “Hmm, I don’t think I have ever smelled anything this good, ma’am.”

Esther handed him a fork as she turned the heat down on the burner. “Then dig in, Master Sergeant. There’s plenty more where that came from. There’s coffee too, in the pot,” she added as she checked the omelet. “Cups are in the cupboard there,” she motioned with her elbow towards the cupboard next to her.

“Coffee would be nice.” Her chest tightened as he squeezed in next to her, setting the plate down.

The hard granite of his thighs brushed against hers. Esther forced air through her lungs, trying to concentrate on cooking and not upon this man. But her body was attuned to his presence as her son’s words ran like an old record through her mind. “Master Sergeant…”

“Yes, ma’am?”

She blinked. She had been so deep in thought that she did not realize she had said it aloud.

He was inches away. His massive body touching hers in places as he paused in mid-air, reaching for a cup. Her whole being sang like the choir at the AME church around the corner. Their African spirituals so loud and heartfelt that they carried on the winds to invade the peace of her home. The sounds of joy and faith were so powerful that sometimes even she wanted to believe.

At that moment, it was something decidedly different that Esther wanted to believe. What would happen if she leaned in just a bit? What would he taste like? What would it feel like to be held in those strong arms? To be loved by this man. If only for a moment.

But then she came crashing back to earth. Women her age should be past such things, especially women who never had a great deal of experience to begin with. School teachers, who read about love and sex, but never gave in to those wild fantasies. Mothers that had just lost their sons. She felt her cheeks flush with blood at the thought.

He cleared his throat, and Esther stared up into those blue-gray eyes. For a single moment, the blink of an eye, she would have sworn that he felt it too. That he was tempted to kiss her, half as much as she wanted to be kissed. She closed her eyes; whether to clear her mind or in anticipation of that kiss, she was not sure.

Then he was moving away. Looking up, she saw that he held an old Aggie mug in his large hands. He cupped it so softly as if he instinctively knew its meaning. Tommy’s old cup. It was enough of a reminder of who she was, what she was — just another duty in this man’s lifetime of them. The smell of burning chocolate whiffed to her nose. Fresh tears glistened in her eyes as she turned back to the stove.

“Damn,” she reached for the spatula. Turning it, she saw that it was not the disaster she had feared. Just a bit too dark around the edges. She should stay focused. The burnt pancake and the mug reminders, some things were not for her. This man was one of them.

Scooping the omelet and a couple more of the pancakes onto a plate, she motioned for him to take a seat at the table. Hot steam was rising from Tommy’s mug as he followed her there.

“Can I get you some milk for your coffee, Master Sergeant? More butter?” Her voice sounded tight even to her ears.

The man shook his head. “Aren’t you joining me, ma’am?”

“Afraid I really am not much of a breakfast person. Besides, now that you are here, I need to stop procrastinating this Halloween thing. Get the show on the road, as they say. You eat while I go get dressed, and we’ll head into town for a few more things.”

He nodded as she made her escape. Just barely. Tears cascaded down her cheeks.

Mike brought the fork to his mouth. Chocolate chip pancakes. His throat was so fucking tight he could barely swallow. They were every bit as good as Tommy had described them. The pancake itself was light and fluffy. The dark chocolate was sweet but not overpoweringly so. Any other time, any other place, he knew he would be oh-ing and awing over them.

But at the moment, all he could think of was two things. The first was of Tommy as he frowned and brought a bite of the disgusting MRE to his mouth. They had been on another patrol, too far from base camp. He had smiled as he regaled them with another of his stories. Saturday morning cartoons huddled under the blankets with his Mom and her chocolate chip pancakes.

Tommy said that he must have been about seven. The MRE had tasted even more like concrete to Mike then as his own memories of that age assailed him. But still, he had been captivated by the animated way his friend had described Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, and Transformers. His mother at his side, laughing along as they ate breakfast before rushing off to scouts or Little League practice.

Mike swallowed another bite of the pancakes as his mind wandered down that other road. Tommy would probably throat punch him if he knew just how close Mike had come to kissing his mother this morning. He had been so fucking close. He could not even smell the omelet or pancakes when she stood so close. All he smelled was her. Cocoa butter, some sort of flowers, and woman.

For another of those long heartbeats, she had been so incredibly close. And the way she closed her eyes almost made him think she had wanted him to kiss her. But that was not possible.

Women like her – books and fancy words – were not for men like him. Rough warriors that knew only blood, killing, and death. Even if he did not have Tommy’s blood on his hands, women like her belonged more on Beacon Hill. He could almost picture her at one of his grandmother’s fancy book clubs.

He frowned as he remembered when his mother had tried to start a book club at whatever tenement they were living in at the time. One other woman had shown up. One, out of the whole neighborhood that she had invited. His mother had served coffee instead of tea. The women sat around the old table with one leg shorter than all the others.

His mother had shuttled him off to his room to entertain the toddler that the woman had brought with her as the two women sipped coffee and talked about some book called ‘The Awakening.’ Of course, he had never read the damned thing, but he remembered how his mother’s eyes had lit up as they talked about the woman in the book. A woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, perhaps one like her own.

Of course, her smile had faded quickly enough when his father came home — drunk again, of course. She had shuttled the woman and her son out of the dingy but clean apartment as quickly as she could. His mother had not been able to smile for several days after that, between the swollen cheek, cut lip, and the eye that went from red to purple to black to yellowish-green before fading.

They had moved again then. Whether to get her away from someone who might have become her friend or because there was not enough money left after his father’s three-day binge to pay the rent, Mike never knew.

He bet that Esther would know that book. She would have read it. Probably more than once. The way his mother kept reading and re-reading her dozen or so books that were dog eared from all the moves as much as from the reading. He wondered what had happened to those books. After the trial was over and they were no longer evidence, what would have become of the frayed and bloodstained pages?

Frayed and bloodstained, just like the photograph that Tommy had pressed into his hand before his fingers went limp and his spirit departed the torn flesh that Mike had held in his arms. That was pretty much the story of his life. He chuckled as he forced the final bite of pancake down.

Was that a metaphor or a simile? He had never paid enough attention in school to know the difference. The truth was he barely managed to get his GED so he could join the Marines. These days guys like him did not even make the cut. The Corps only accepted high school graduates.

Just another reminder of why women like her were not for men like him. If that was not enough, then memories of his father and his grandmother’s final words should be – bad seed. That was what he was, what he would always be. The only difference between him and the man who had sired him was that he had managed to make a career of killing the enemy and not the people who loved him. But he was a killing machine, nonetheless.

No, as hard as it was, he had to find a way to keep resisting temptation. It was only a few days after all. He stood and walked over to the sink, washing his dishes and putting them to drain on the board with the pans she had washed earlier.

He stared out the window over the kitchen sink and smiled as he saw the swing set and treehouse that Tommy had described so eloquently. If he closed his eyes, Mike could almost picture the man as a little boy laughing as she pushed him higher and higher. Was that the same tree he had fallen out of and broken his arm?

No, women like her would never look twice at someone like him. And he had to remember that. Just focus and get this job done. Then get back on her namesake and head off to the next stop.

Except he knew one thing – it would never be the same. He would never be the same. She was no longer just an image in a photograph, funny stories from his friend, or even a stolen glimpse on Tommy’s tablet or laptop. She was real.

And this morning, standing so fucking close to her that he could smell her, that all he could think about was tasting her, was a memory that he would take with him. Like the sweetness of her tea, the taste of the pancakes, or the image of her hand covering his, how damned soft and warm it felt, how fucking right.  

But it was not. Not right. Tommy’s blood. Fancy books. Bad seed. So many reasons that it could never work. He would, though, take those memories. Hold onto them, store them up as he had money over the past decade; they were far more precious than it ever could be. Then when those other dreams came and the ghosts of too many places, too many men he had killed, too many friends who had died, when those dreams came, he would pull these out.

Think of her and pray for relief. Pray to a god he had never believed in for just a brief respite, one night in her arms. One more fucking dream to sustain him until his journey was finished. Until his karmic spreadsheet was balanced, and he could do what needed to be done – in the place where it had all begun and ended for him.

Cause no matter what Luke and the Colonel thought – not everyone was lucky enough, worthy enough for love to save them.

The sun was sinking low into the East Texas sky, a kaleidoscope of blues, oranges, reds, and even purples as it disappeared behind the trees. Esther stood up from her perch on the top step. She stretched, her back aching from the past hour spent bent over a half dozen pumpkins with a paring knife in her hand.

Before her sat six Halloween jack-o-lanterns now. Some funny, some scary, she was afraid that this last one even held a bit of sadness about his eyes and mouth. She would work on him some more tomorrow.

Taking up almost all of the right side of her front yard, the PVC pipe and plastic sheeting that would become the haunted house was finally taking shape. Its maze of rooms that would hold a menagerie of horrors was almost complete.

Tomorrow they would add the final touches, cotton stretched out to form spider webs from the ceiling and doors. Tiny plastic creatures centered in each web, awaiting their prey. Old cotton sheets carefully shaped to give a ghostlike appearance. The dressmaker’s mannequin attired in all black with its long white wig and teeth that would be dripping with blood on Halloween night.

He appeared from behind the curtain of plastic. Mike’s smile was wide as he walked towards her. She could see the fine sheen of perspiration that glistened like the first dew of spring on his brow.

Instinctively, the mother in her reached for the almost empty pitcher of homemade lemonade that sat next to her on the porch. She poured the last of it into his glass. By the time he reached her, she was ready, glass in hand.

“Not a bad day’s work if I do say so myself,” he smiled.

“Not a bad day at all, Master Sergeant,” she returned the smile. “I don’t know what I would have done without your help. I forgot just how hard that damned thing was to put up.”

“It wasn’t that bad, ma’am.”

“Maybe not for you, Master Sergeant, but you have a lot more experience building things and putting up tents than I do. Even if I have written instructions, I can never get it right.”

His deep laughter caressed her skin like the refreshing evening air. “Yeah, Tommy told us all about your first Boy Scout camp out when we were putting up his tent. Took us twice as long to get his up as any of the others. We were all laughing so hard at his story. Please tell me that you did not really try to put the center pole into the ground with your hairbrush.”

“Hey, I didn’t know we needed a hammer to put the damned thing up, and I didn’t want to embarrass Tommy in front of the other boys by asking to borrow one.”

When he smiled like that, the creases around his mouth deepened in a shockingly alluring way that made her want to taste them, run her tongue along them. “When he told us how it came down in the middle of the night, my ribs hurt from all the laughing.”

Her dark gaze could not help but take in those ribs now. Although the day had been a scorcher for this late in autumn, his t-shirt had remained firmly in place all day. She had cursed his chivalry until she realized that the play of the thin damp cotton across his muscles was an enticing seduction in itself.

The way that it clung like skin to his broad chest as he stretched and lifted, bent and pulled had gotten her so worked up that she had finally excused herself to work on carving the pumpkins instead. But even then, she found herself looking up every couple of minutes to catch a glimpse of the man. Perhaps that was why one of the jack-o-lanterns had such a snarky grin on its face.

The Master Sergeant was finishing his lemonade when Sandy Monroe sashayed up to the walkway with her six-year-old son in tow. With her perfectly applied make-up, big hair, and tight jeans, her neighbor broadcast her intentions to any man within a twenty-mile radius.

“Evening, Joey,” Esther said to the little boy, who would sometimes use the old swing set and treehouse in her back yard. She tried to ignore his brazen mother as the smell of stale beer drifted on the night breeze to her nostrils. The younger woman must have had a couple to bolster her courage before making her move.

“Evening, Miss Esther,” she purred with saccharine sweetness. “I was beginning to think that Halloween was canceled this year.” Sandy might be addressing Esther, but her eyes were raking up and down the Master Sergeant’s body like a barn cat toying with a mouse before devouring it.

She turned her gaze to Esther’s for a second as she dealt the knock-out punch. “Not that anyone in town would blame you. Not with your son’s d-e-a-t-h,” she spelled the word with pretense.

Esther bit her tongue to keep from responding in kind, the words ‘Why Sandy, I’m so proud you can spell after all those F’s in my English classes.’ If the woman deserved her animosity, it was not something she wanted either the little boy or the Master Sergeant to witness.

“And I see you hired a handyman to help out.” The younger woman extended her carefully manicured hands; her long red nails glistened like that cat’s claws in the fading light. “I’m Sandra Monroe, and this is my son, Joey. You must be new to Sebida. I don’t think I remember seeing you around town before.” She winked as she finished, “And I definitely would have remembered seeing you.”

Esther busied herself, showing Joey the jack-o-lanterns. Why did this woman still get to her? The pain that she had caused her son was a distant memory. He had long since recovered from his momentary lapse of judgment brought on by raging hormones in high school. He had even laughed at her last year on his final visit, throwing her hurtful words back at her when she had tried to draw him into her web.

But the way that the woman was fawning over the Master Sergeant sickened and disgusted her. Not that it was any of her business. Even if the man was at least a good decade older than the woman.

She supposed that decade did not matter as much in most people’s eyes as the decade the other way that stood between her and the man. It was perfectly acceptable for a man in his mid to late thirties to date a woman in her twenties. But if a woman were to do the same? And certainly, a woman of almost fifty had no place even having those types of thoughts about a man so much her junior.

But what could thoughts or fantasies hurt? It was not as if people could read her mind, see the naughty images that had haunted her sleep and kept her half-awake all night long.

“I’m so glad that you came to help Miss Esther out then. All this would have just been too much for a woman her age,” Esther heard the woman say.

The Master Sergeant took two steps closer to where she stood on the front porch with the boy. “I’m sure Esther would have managed without my help. After all, she raised one of the finest men I have ever known, on her own, so a little thing like this would be a breeze. But then again, I don’t have to tell you what a special man Tommy was, do I?”

Esther did not know why her heart swelled with pride and sang with joy at his words. At the fact that he saw for himself the foolish games this woman played.

She watched as the woman’s bravado deflated just a bit at the reminder of her past. Holding out those sharpened claws, “Let’s go, Joey. Miss Esther and her guest have lots of work to do.”

The boy stopped toying with the pumpkin and looked up at her. “Miss Esther, will there be marshmallow treats this year still?”

Esther smiled at him, brushing a lock of his dark curls back from his light brown face. “Of course, there will be, sweetie. I’m going to make them in a bit. You stop by here tomorrow after Sunday school, and I’ll let you be my taste-tester,” she promised.

Her reassurance was all the boy needed to know that all was right in his world as he jumped from the top step.

“How many times do I have to tell you not to do that shit?” Sandy scolded as she dragged her child back down the path and across the street.

Esther sighed, her heart heavy for the child. When he came tomorrow, and she was confident he would, even if he had to sneak away from his drunken mother, she would look carefully for bruises. She knew that the day was coming when she would have to act – for the child’s sake.

But she knew too that it was an action that might well be the final straw that would sever her ties to this place, which had been her home for so long. These people had never really accepted her, never would. If she reported the grand-daughter of the mayor to social services, it would all be over. Her job and the life that she had built here would mean nothing.

Not for that ‘uppity half breed Negress from the city with her bastard son that could pass.’ Oh yes, Esther had never been as oblivious as these people thought to the things they said behind her back. And she knew far more of their secrets than they imagined.

Perhaps it was time to move on anyway. This house, this place held so many memories. But then again, most of those memories were good ones. Her son laughing and playing on the swing set. Half the children in town filling his treehouse as she served lemonade and cookies to everyone. White and black.

This place was all she had known for so long. Over half of her life was spent hiding behind its façade of community and days long gone. But where would she go? What would she do? It was another of the bitter realities that had her crying herself to sleep each night.

A hand gripped her arm, drawing her back from the darkness that threatened to swallow her soul. She wiped her hand across her face, feeling the scalding trail of tears for the first time then.

“I’m sorry,” she barely choked out the words.

“No need to be, ma’am. A woman like that has no business saying those things. She deserves everything she gets in life.”

His words made Esther wonder just how much this man knew of their life here. Chocolate chip pancakes, iced tea, and falling tents were one thing. But had her son shared the darker side? She supposed when you entrusted your very life to the comrades around you; then, such things were trivial.

She certainly could not blame her son, who had grown up without a father, grandfather, or any real male influence. His emails had dripped with admiration and worship of this man. For the first time, they had made her realized how much he had suffered from the lack.

This man had been the ultimate role model that Tommy had been seeking all his life. The coaches, Scout leaders, Sunday school teachers, and others, who had failed to see past the color of her skin or his birth, their half-hearted welcomes pushed aside as he had finally found the acceptance he always craved in their friendship.

She reached up. Her hand covered his as it rested upon her arm. “Thank you. Thank you for giving him what he never had.”

The words were barely past her lips as the darkness and pain enveloped her like a late afternoon thunderstorm that spawned tornadoes on the East Texas plains. She turned, ripping her arm from his grasp as she fled into the house. Tears raced down her face as she ran for his bedroom.

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