May 14th, 2007
She was ready to die.
She sat at the kitchen table, a half empty bottle of Philip's precious red wine in one hand, a loaded gun in the other. Staring at the foreign chunk of metal, she willed it to vanish. But it didn't.
Sadie checked the gun and noted the single bullet.
"One's all you need."
If she did it right.
She placed the gun on the table and glanced at a pewter-framed photograph that hung off-kilter above the mantle of the fireplace. It was illuminated by a vanilla-scented candle, one of many that threw flickering shadows over the rough wood walls of the log cabin.
Sam's sweet face stared back at her, smiling.
From where she sat, she could see the small chip in his right front tooth, the result of an impatient father raising the training wheels too early. But there was no point in blaming Philip—not when they'd both lost so much.
Not when it's all my fault.
Her gaze swept over the mantle. There were three objects on it besides the candle. Two envelopes, one addressed to Leah and one to Philip, and the portfolio case that contained the illustrations and manuscript on disc for Sam's book.
She had finished it, just like she had promised.
"And promises can't be broken. Right, Sam?"
A single tear burned a path down her cheek.
Sam was gone.
What reason do I have for living now?
She gulped back the last pungent mouthful of Cabernet and dropped the empty bottle. It rolled under the chair, unbroken, rocking on the hardwood floor. Then all was silent, except the antique grandfather clock in the far corner. Its ticking reminded her of the clown's shoe. The one with the tack in it.
Tick, tick, tick…
The clock belched out an ominous gong.
It was almost midnight.
She drew an infinity symbol in the dust on the table.
"Sadie and Sam. For all eternity."
She swallowed hard as tears flooded her eyes. "I'm sorry I couldn't save you, baby. I tried to. God, I tried. Forgive me, Sam." Her words ended in a gut-wrenching moan.
Something scraped the window beside her.
She pressed her face to the frosted glass, then jerked back with a gasp. "Go away!"
They stood motionless—six children that drifted from the swirling miasma of night air, haunting her nights and every waking moment. Surrounded by the moonlit fog, they began to chant. "One fine day, in the middle of the night…"
"You're not real," she whispered.
"Two dead boys got up to fight."
A small, pale hand splayed against the exterior of the window. Below it, droplets of condensation slid like tears down the glass.
She reached out, matching her hand to the child's. Shivering, she pulled away. "You don't exist."
The clock continued its morbid countdown.
As the alcohol and drug potpourri kicked in, the room began to spin and her stomach heaved. She inhaled deeply. She couldn't afford to get sick. Sam was waiting for her.
Tears spilled down her cheeks. "I'm ready."
Without hesitation, she raised the gun to her temple.
"Don't!" the children shrieked.
She pressed the gun against her flesh. The tip of the barrel was cold. Like her hands, her feet...her heart.
A sob erupted from the back of her throat.
The clock let out a final gong. Then it was deathly silent.
It was midnight.
Her eyes found Sam's face again.
"Happy Mother's Day, Sadie."
She took a steadying breath, pushed the gun hard against her skin and clamped her eyes shut.
"Mommy's coming, Sam."
March 30th, 2007
Sadie O'Connell let out a snicker as she stared at the price tag on the toy in her hand. "What did they stuff this with, laundered money?" She tossed the bunny back into the bin and turned to the tall, leggy woman beside her. "What are you getting Sam for his birthday?"
Her best friend gave her a cocky grin. "What should I get him? Your kid's got everything already."
"Don't even go there, my friend."
But Leah was right. Sadie and Philip spoiled Sam silly. Why shouldn't they? They had waited a long time for a baby. Or at least, she had. After two miscarriages, Sam's birth had been nothing short of a miracle. A miracle that deserved to be spoiled.
Leah groaned loudly. "Christ, it's a goddamn zoo in here."
Toyz & Twirlz in West Edmonton Mall was crawling with overzealous customers. The first major sale of the spring season always brought people out in droves. Frazzled parents swarmed the toy store, swatting their wayward brood occasionally—the way you'd swat a pesky yellowjacket at a barbecue. One distressed father hunted the aisles for his son, who had apparently taken off on him as soon as his back was turned. In every aisle, parents shouted at their kids, threatening, cajoling, pleading and then predictably giving in.
"So who let the animals out?" Sadie said, surveying the store.
The screeching wheels of shopping carts and the constant whining of overtired toddlers were giving her a headache. She wished to God she'd stayed home.
A plump woman with frizzy, over-bleached hair gave Sadie an apologetic look. She navigated past them, pushing a stroller occupied by a miniature screaming alien. A few feet away, she stopped, bent down and wiped something that looked like curdled rice pudding from the corner of the child's mouth.
Sadie turned to Leah. "Thank God Sam's past that stage."
At five years old—soon to be six—her son was the apple of her eye. In fact, he was the whole darned tree. A lanky imp of a boy with tousled black hair, sapphire-blue eyes and perfect bow lips, Sam was the spitting image of his mother and the exact opposite of his father in temperament. While Sam was sweet natured, gentle and loving, Philip was impatient and distant. So distant that he rarely said I love you anymore.
She stared at her wedding ring. What happened to us?
But she knew what had happened. Philip's status as a trial lawyer had grown, more money had poured in and fame had gone to his head. He had changed. The man she had fallen in love with, the dreamer, had gone. In his place was someone she barely knew, a stranger who had decided too late that he didn't want kids.
Or a wife.
"How about this?" Leah said, nudging her.
Sadie stared at the yellow dump truck. "Fill it with a stuffed bat and Sam will think it's awesome."
Her son's fascination with bats was almost comical. The television was always tuned in to the Discovery Channel while her son searched endlessly for any show on the furry animals.
"What did Phil the Pill get him?" Leah asked dryly.
"A new Leap Frog module."
"I still can't believe the things that kid can do."
Sadie grinned. "Me neither."
Sam's mind was a sponge. He absorbed information so fast that he only had to be shown once. His powers of observation were so keen that he had learned how to unlock the door just by watching Sadie do it, so Philip had to add an extra deadbolt at the top. By the time Sam was three, he had figured out the remote control and the DVD player. Sadie still had problems turning on the TV.
Sam…my sweet, wonderful, little genius.
"Maybe I'll get him a movie," Leah said. "How about Batman Begins?"
"He's turning six, not sixteen."
"Well, what do I know? I don't have kids."
At thirty-four, Leah Winters was an attractive, willowy brunette with wild multi-colored streaks, thick-lashed hazel eyes, a flirty smile and a penchant for younger men. While Sadie's pale face had a scattering of tiny freckles across the bridge of her nose and cheekbones, Leah's complexion was tanned and clear.
She'd been Sadie's best friend for eight years—soul sistahs. Ever since the day she had emailed Sadie out of the blue to ask questions about writing and publishing. They'd met at Book Ends, a popular Edmonton bookstore, for what Leah had expected would be a quick coffee. Their connection was so strong and so immediate that they talked for almost five hours. They still joked about it, about how Leah had thought Sadie was some hotshot writer who wouldn't give her the time of day. Yet Sadie had given her more. She'd given Leah a piece of her heart.
A rugged, handsome Colin Farrell look-alike passed them in the aisle, and Leah stared after him, eyes glittering.
"I'll take one of those," she said with a soft growl. "To go."
"You won't find Mr. Right in a toy store," Sadie said dryly. "They're usually all taken. And somehow I don't think you're gonna find him at Karma either."
Klub Karma was a popular nightclub on Whyte Avenue. It boasted the best ladies' night in Edmonton, complete with steroid-muscled male strippers. Leah was a regular.
"And why not?"
Sadie rolled her eyes. "Because Karma is packed with sweaty, young puppies who are only interested in one thing."
Leah gave her a blank look.
"Getting laid," Sadie added. "Honestly, I don't know what you see in that place."
"What, are you daft?" Leah arched her brow and grinned devilishly. "I'm chalking it up to my civil duty. Someone's gotta show these young guys how it's done."
"Someone should show Philip," Sadie muttered.
"Why—can't he get it up?"
"Well? Fess up."
"Later maybe. When we stop for coffee."
Leah glanced at her watch. "We going to our usual place?"
"Of course. Do you think Victor would forgive us if we went to any other coffee shop?"
Leah chuckled. "No. He'd start skimping on the whipped cream if we turned traitor. So what are you getting Sam?"
"I'll know it when I see it. I'm waiting for a sign."
"You're always such a sucker for this fate thing."
Sadie shrugged. "Sometimes you have to have faith that things will work out."
They continued down the aisle, both searching for something for the sweetest boy they knew. When Sadie spotted the one thing she was sure Sam would love, she let out a hoot and gave Leah an I-told-you-so look.
"This bike is perfect. Since his birthday is actually on Monday, I'll give it to him then. He'll get enough things from his friends at his party on Sunday anyway."
Little did she know that Sam wouldn't see his bike.
He wouldn't be around to get it.
"Haven't seen you two all week," Victor Guan said. "Another day and I would've called nine-one-one."
"It's been a busy week," Sadie replied, plopping her purse on the counter. "How's business, Victor?"
"Picking up again with this cold snap."
The young Chinese man owned the Cuppa Cappuccino a few blocks from Sadie's house. The coffee shop had a gas fireplace, a relaxed ambiance and often featured local musicians like Jessy Green and Alexia Melnychuk. Not only did Victor serve the best homemade soups and feta Caesar salad, the mocha lattés were absolutely sinful.
Leah made a beeline for the washroom. "You know what I want."
Sadie ordered a Chai and a mocha.
"You see that fog this morning?" Victor asked.
"Yeah, I drove Sam to school in it. I could barely see the car in front of me."
She shivered and Victor gave her a concerned look.
"Cat walk over your grave or something?" he asked.
"No, I'm just tired of winter."
She grabbed a newspaper from the rack and headed for the upper level. The sofa by the fireplace was unoccupied, so she sat down and tossed the newspaper on the table.
The headline on the front page made her gasp.
The Fog Strikes Again!
Her breath felt constricted. "Oh God. Not another one."
A photograph of a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl sitting on concrete steps dominated the front page. Eight-year-old Cortnie Bornyk, from the north side of Edmonton, was missing. According to the newspaper, the girl had disappeared in the middle of the night. No sign of forced entry and no evidence as to who had taken her, but investigators were sure it was the same man who had taken the others.
Sadie opened the newspaper to page three, where the story continued. She empathized with the girl's father, a single dad who had left Ontario to find construction work in Edmonton. Matthew Bornyk had moved here to make a better life. Not a bad decision, considering that the housing market was booming. But now he was pleading for the safe return of his daughter.
"Here you go," Victor said, setting two mugs on the table.
"Thanks," she said, without looking up.
Her eyes were glued to the smaller photo of Bornyk and his daughter. The man had a smile plastered across his face, while his daughter was frozen in a silly pose, tongue hanging out the side of her mouth.
Daddy's little girl, Sadie thought sadly.
Leah flopped into an armchair beside her. "Who's the hunk?"
"His daughter was abducted last night."
"Yeah," Sadie said, taking a tentative sip from her mug.
"Did anyone see anything?"
"Nothing." She locked eyes on Leah. "Except the fog."
"Do they think it's him?"
Sadie skimmed the article. "There are no ransom demands yet. Sounds like him."
"Shit. That makes, what—six kids?"
"Seven. Three boys, four girls."
"One more boy to go." Leah's voice dripped with dread.
The Fog, as the kidnapper was known, crept in during the dead of night or early morning, under the cloak of a dense fog. He wrapped himself around his prey and like a fog, he disappeared without a trace, capturing the souls of children and stealing the hopes and dreams of parents. One boy, one girl. Every spring. For the last four years.
Sadie flipped the newspaper over. "Let's change the subject."
Her eyes drifted across the room, taking in the diversity of Victor's customers. In one corner of the upper level, three teenaged boys played poker, while a fourth watched and hooted every time one of his friends won. Across from Sadie, a redheaded woman wearing a mauve sweatshirt plunked away on a laptop, stopping every now and then to cast the noisy boys a frustrated look. On the lower level, one of the regulars—Old Ralph—was reading every newspaper from front to back. He sipped his black coffee when he finished each page.
"So…" Leah drawled as she crossed her long legs. "What's going on with Phil the Pill?"
Sadie scowled. "That's what I'd like to know. He says he's working long nights at the firm."
"And you're thinking, what? That he's screwing around?"
Leah never was one to beat around the bush—about anything.
"Maybe he's just working hard," her friend suggested.
Sadie shook her head. "He got home at two this morning, reeking of perfume and booze."
"Isn't his firm working on that oil spill case? I bet all the partners are pulling late nights on that one."
Sadie snorted. "Including Brigitte Moreau."
Brigitte was her husband's right-hand-woman, as he'd made a point of telling her often. Apparently, the new addition to Fleming Warner Law Offices was indispensable. The slender, blond lawyer, with a pair of breasts she'd obviously paid for, never left Philip's side.
Sadie wondered what Brigitte did when she had to pee.
Probably drags Philip in with her.
"It could be perfectly innocent," Leah suggested.
"Yeah, right. I was at the conference after-party. I saw them together, and there was nothing innocent about them. Brigitte was holding onto Philip's arm as if she owned him. And he was laughing, whispering in her ear." She pursed her lips. "His co-workers were looking at me with sympathetic eyes, pitying me. I could see it in their faces. Even they knew."
Leah winced. "Did you call him on it?"
"I asked him if he was messing around again."
Just before Sam was born, Philip had admitted to two other affairs. Both office flings, according to him. "Both meant nothing," he had said, before blaming his infidelities on her swollen belly and her lack of sexual interest.
"What'd he say?" Leah prodded, with the determination of a pit-bull slobbering over a t-bone steak.
"Nothing. He just stormed out of the house. He called me from work just before you came over. Said I was being ridiculous, that my accusations were hurtful and unfair." She lowered her voice. "He asked me if I was drinking again."
"Bastard. And you wonder why I'm still single."
Sadie said nothing. Instead, she thought about her marriage.
They'd been happy—once. Before her downward spiral into alcoholism. In the early years of their marriage, Philip had been attentive and caring, supporting her decision to focus on her writing. It wasn't until she started talking about having a family that things had changed.
She flicked a look at Leah, grateful for her loyal companionship and understanding. Fate had definitely intervened when it had led her to Leah. Her friend had gone above and beyond the duty of friendship, dropping everything in a blink if she called. Leah was her life support, especially on the days and nights when the bottle called her. She'd even attended a few AA meetings with Sadie.
And where was Philip? Probably with Brigitte.
"Come on, my friend," Leah said, grinning. "I know you really want to swear. Let it out."
"You know I don't use language like that."
"You're such a prude. Philip's an ass, a bastard. Let me hear you say it. Bas…tard."
"I'll let you be the foul-mouthed one," Sadie said sweetly.
"Fuckin' right. Swearing is liberating." Leah took a careful sip of tea. "So how's the book coming?"
Sadie smiled. "I finished the text yesterday. Tomorrow I'll start on the illustrations. I'm so excited about it."
"Got a title yet?"
Leah's pencil-thin brow arched. "Hmm…how appropriate."
Sadie gave her a playful slap on the arm. "It's about a little bat who can't find his way home because his radar gets screwed up. At first, he thinks he's picking up radio signals, but then he realizes he's picking up other creatures' thoughts."
"That's perfect. Sam'll love it."
"I know. I can't believe I waited so long to write something special for him."
A few months ago, Sadie decided to take a break from writing another Lexa Caine mystery, especially since her agent had secured her a deal for two children's picture books.
"It's been a welcome break," she admitted. "Lexa needed a year off. A holiday."
"Some break," Leah said. "I've hardly seen you. You've been working day and night on Sam's book."
"It's been worth it."
"Is it harder than writing mysteries?"
"Other than the artwork, I think it's easier," Sadie said, somewhat surprised by her own answer. "But then, Sam inspires me. He's my muse. Kids see things so differently."
"Wish I had one."
Sadie's jaw dropped. "A kid?"
"A muse, idiot."
Sadie grinned. "How's the steamy romance novel going?"
"I'm stumped. I've got Clara trapped below deck on the pirate ship, locked in the cargo hold with no way out."
Since the success of her debut novel, Sweet Destiny, Leah had found her niche and was working on her second historical romance.
"What's in the room?"
Leah gave her a wry grin. "Cases of Bermuda rum."
"Well, she's not going to drink it, so what else can she do?"
"I don't know. She can't get the crew drunk, if that's what you're thinking. "
"What if the ship caught on fire?"
Excitement percolated in Leah's eyes. "Yeah. A fire could really heat things up. Pun intended."
They were silent for a moment, lost in their own thoughts.
"Hey," Sadie said finally. "I've been tempted to cut my hair. What do you think?"
Leah stared at her. "You want to get rid of all that beautiful hair? Jesus, Sadie, it's past your bra strap." In a thick Irish accent, she said, "Have ye lost your Irish mind just a wee bit, lassie?"
"It's too much work," Sadie said with a pout.
"What does Philip think?"
"He'd be happy if I kept it long," she replied, scowling. "Maybe that's one reason why I want to cut it."
Leah laughed. "Then you go, girl."
Half an hour later, they parted ways—with Leah eager to get back to the innocent Clara and her handsome, sword-wielding pirate, and Sadie not so thrilled to be going back to an empty house. As she climbed into her sporty Mazda3, she smiled, relieved as always that she had chosen practical over the flashy and pretentious Mercedes that Philip drove.
She glanced at the clock and heaved a sigh of relief. It was almost time to pick Sam up from school.
Her heart skipped a beat.
The instant Sam saw her standing in the classroom doorway, he let out a wild yell and charged at her, almost knocking her off her feet.
"Whoa there, little man," she said breathlessly. "Who are you supposed to be? Tarzan?"
"We just finished watching Pocahontas," a woman's voice called out.
"Hi, Jean," Sadie said. "How are things today?"
Jean Ellis taught a class of children with hearing impairments.
"Same as usual," the kindergarten teacher replied. "No change, I'm afraid."
Sadie tried to hide her disappointment. "Maybe tomorrow."
She studied Sam, who could hear everything just fine.
Why won't he speak?
"Did you have a good day, honey?"
Ignoring her, Sam pulled on a winter jacket and stuffed his feet into a pair of insulated boots.
"It was a great day," Jean said, signing as she spoke. "Sam made a friend. A real one this time."
Sadie was astounded. Sam's first real friend. Well, unless she counted his invisible friend, Joey.
"Hey, little man," she said, crouching down to gather him in her arms. "Mommy missed you today. But I'm glad you have a new friend. What's his name?"
When Sam didn't answer, Sadie glanced at Jean.
"Victoria," the woman said with a wink.
Grinning, Sadie ruffled Sam's hair. "Okay, charmer. Let's go."
With a quick wave to Jean, she reached for Sam's hand. She was always amazed by how perfectly it fit into hers, how warm and soft his skin was.
Outside in the parking lot, she unlocked the car and Sam scampered into the booster seat in the back. She leaned forward, fastened his seatbelt, then kissed his cheek. "Snug as a bug?"
He gave her the thumbs up.
Pulling away from the school, she flicked a look in her rearview mirror. Sam stared straight ahead, uninterested in the laughing children who waited for their parents to arrive. Her son was a shy boy, a loner who unintentionally scared kids away because of his inability to speak.
His lack of desire to speak, she corrected.
Sam hadn't always been mute.
Sadie had taught him the alphabet at two. By the age of three, he was reading short sentences. Then one day, for no apparent reason, Sam stopped talking.
Sadie was devastated.
And Philip? There were no words to describe his erratic behavior. At first, he seemed mortified, concerned. Then he shouted accusations at her, insinuating so many horrible things that after a while even she began to wonder. During one nasty exchange, he had grabbed her, his fingers digging into her arms.
"Did you drink while you were pregnant?" he demanded.
"No!" she wailed. "I haven't had a drop."
His eyes narrowed in disbelief. "Really?"
"I swear, Philip."
He stared at her for a long time before shaking his head and walking away.
"We have to get him help," she said, running after him.
Philip swiveled on one heel. "What exactly do you suggest?"
"There's a specialist downtown. Dr. Wheaton recommended him."
"Dr. Wheaton is an idiot. Sam will speak when he's good and ready to. Unless you've screwed him up for good."
His insensitive words cut her deeply, and after he'd gone back to work, she picked up the phone and booked Sam's first appointment. She didn't feel good about going behind Philip's back, but he'd left her no choice.
By the time Sam was three and a half, he had undergone numerous hearing and intelligence tests, x-rays, ultrasounds and psychiatric counseling, yet no one could explain why he wouldn't say a word. His vocal chords were perfectly healthy, according to one specialist. And he was right. Sam could scream, cry or shout. They had heard enough of that when he was younger.
Sadie finally managed to drag Philip to an appointment, but the psychologist—a small, timid man wearing a garish red-striped tie that screamed overcompensation—didn't have good news for them. He sat behind a sterile metal desk, all the while watching Philip and twitching as if he had Tourette's.
"Your son is suffering from some kind of trauma," the man said, pointing out what seemed obvious to Sadie.
"But what could've caused it?" she asked in dismay.
The doctor fidgeted with his tie. "Symptoms such as these often result from some form of…of abuse."
Philip jumped to his feet. "What the hell are you saying?"
The man's entire body jerked. "I-I'm saying that perhaps someone or something scared your son. Like a fight between parents, or witnessing drug or alcohol abuse."
Sadie cringed at his last words. The look Philip gave her was one of pure anger. And censure.
The doctor took a deep breath. "And of course, there is the possibility of physical or sexual—"
Without a word, Philip stormed out of the doctor's office.
Sadie ran after him.
He had blamed her, of course. According to him, it was her drinking that had caused her miscarriages. And Sam's delayed verbal development.
That night, after Sam had gone to bed, Philip had rummaged through every dresser drawer. Then he searched the closet.
She watched apprehensively. "What are you doing?"
"Looking for the bottles!" he barked.
She hissed in a breath. "I told you. I am not drinking."
"Once a drunk…"
She cowered when he approached her, his face flushed with anger.
"It's your fault!" he yelled.
Guilt did terrible things to people. It was such a destructive, invisible force that not even Sadie could fight it.
She looked in the rearview mirror and took in Sam's heart-shaped face and serious expression. She wondered for the millionth time why he wouldn't speak. She'd give anything to hear his voice, to hear one word. Any word. She'd been praying that the school environment would break through the language barrier.
No such luck.
Suddenly, she was desperate to hear his voice.
"Sam? Can you say Mommy?"
He signed Mom.
"Come on, honey," she begged. "Muhh-mmy."
In the mirror, he smiled and pointed at her.
Tears welled in her eyes, but she blinked them away. One day he would speak. He'd call her Mommy and tell her he loved her.
"One day," she whispered.
For now, she'd just have to settle for the undeniably strong bond she felt. The connection between mother and child had been forged at conception and she always knew how Sam felt, even without words between them.
She turned down the road that led to the quiet subdivision on the southeast side of Edmonton. She pulled into the driveway and pushed the garage door remote, immediately noticing the sleek silver Mercedes parked in the spacious two-car garage.
Her breath caught in the back of her throat.
Philip was home.
"Okay, little man," she murmured. "Daddy's home."
She scooped Sam out of the back seat and headed for the door. He wriggled until she put him down. Then he raced into the house, straight upstairs. She flinched when she heard his bedroom door slam.
"I guess neither of us is too excited to see Daddy," she said.
Tossing her keys into a crystal dish on the table by the door, she dropped her purse under the desk, kicked off her shoes, puffed her chest and headed into the war zone.
But the door to Philip's office was closed.
She turned toward the kitchen instead.
The war can wait. It always does.
Passing by his office door an hour later, she heard Philip bellowing at someone on the phone. Whoever it was, they were getting quite an earful. A minute later, something hit the door.
She backed away. "Don't stir the pot, Sadie."
Philip remained locked away in his office and refused to come out for supper, so she made a quick meal of hotdogs for Sam and a salad for herself. She left a plate of the past night's leftovers—ham, potatoes and vegetables—on the counter for Philip.
Later, she gave Sam a bath and dressed him for bed.
"Auntie Leah came over today," she said, buttoning his pajama top. "She told me to say hi to her favorite boy."
There wasn't much else to say, other than she had finished writing the bat story. She wasn't about to tell him that she had ordered his birthday cake and bought him a bicycle, which she had wrestled into the house by herself and hidden in the basement.
"Want me to read you a story?" she asked.
She sat on the edge of the bed and nudged her head in the direction of the bookshelf. "You pick."
He wandered over to the rows of books, staring at them thoughtfully. Then he zeroed in on a book with a white spine. It was the same story he chose every night.
"My Imaginary Friend again?" she asked, amused.
He nodded and jumped into bed, settling under the blankets.
Sadie snuggled in beside him. As she read about Cathy, a young girl with an imaginary friend who always got her into trouble, she couldn't help but think of Sam. For the past year, he'd been adamant about the existence of Joey, a boy his age who he swore lived in his room. She'd often catch Sam smiling and nodding, as if in conversation. No words, no signing, just the odd facial expression. Some days he seemed lost in his own world.
"Lisa says you should close your eyes," she read.
Sam's eyes fluttered shut.
"Now turn this page and use your imagination."
He turned the page, then opened his eyes. They lit up when he saw the colorful drawing of Cathy's imaginary friend, Lisa.
"Can you see me now?" she read, smiling.
Sam pointed to the girl in the mirror.
"Good night, Cathy. And good night, friend. The end."
She closed the book and set it next to the bat signal clock on the nightstand. Then she scooted off the bed, leaned down and kissed her son's warm skin.
"Good night, Sam-I-Am."
His small hand reached up. With one finger, he drew a sideways 'S' in the air. Their nightly ritual.
"S…for Sam," she said softly.
And like every night, she drew the reflection.
Together, they created an infinity symbol.
She smiled. "Always and forever."
She flicked off the bedside lamp and eased out of the room. As she looked over her shoulder, she saw Sam's angelic face illuminated by the light from the hall. She shut the door, pressed her cheek against it and closed her eyes.
Sam was the only one who truly loved her, trusted her. From the first day he had rested his huge black-lashed eyes on hers, she had fallen completely and undeniably in love. A mother's love could be no purer.
"My beautiful boy."
Turning away, she slammed into a tall, solid mass. Her smile disappeared when she identified it.
And he wasn't happy. Not one bit.
He glared down at her, one hand braced against the wall to bar her escape. His lips—the same ones that had smiled at her so charismatically the night they had met—were curled in disdain.
"You could've told me Sam was going to bed."
She sidestepped around him. "You were busy. As usual."
"What the hell's that supposed to mean?"
She cringed at his abrasive tone, but said nothing.
"You're not going all paranoid on me again, are you?" He grabbed her arm. "I already told you. Brigitte is a co-worker. Nothing more. Jesus, Sadie! You're not a child. You're almost forty years old. What the hell's gotten into you lately?"
"Not a thing, Philip. And I'll be thirty-eight this year. Not forty." She yanked her arm away, then brushed past him, heading for the bedroom.
Their marriage was a sham.
"Doomed from the beginning," her mother had told her one night when Sadie, a sobbing wreck, had called her after Philip had admitted to his first affair.
But she'd proven her mother wrong. Hadn't she? Things seemed better the year after Sam was born. Then she and Philip started fighting again. Lately, it had escalated into a nightly event. At least on the nights he came home before she went to sleep.
Philip entered the bedroom and slammed the door.
"You know," he said. "You've been a bitch for months."
"No, I haven't."
"A frigid bitch. And we both know it's not from PMS, seeing as you don't get that anymore."
Flinching, she caught her sad reflection in the dresser mirror. She should be used to his careless name-calling by now. But she wasn't. Each time, it was like a knife piercing deeper into her heart. One of these days, she wouldn't be able to pull it out. Then where would they be? Just another statistic?
Philip waited behind her, flustered, combing a hand through his graying brown hair.
For a moment, she felt ashamed of her thoughts.
"Are you even listening to me?" he sputtered in outrage.
And the moment was gone.
She sighed, drained. "What do you want me to say, Philip? You're never home. And when you are, you're busy working in your office. We don't do anything together or go any—"
"Christ, Sadie! We were just out with Morris and his wife."
"I'm not talking about functions for the firm," she argued. "We don't see our old friends anymore. We never go to movies, never just sit and talk, never make…love."
Philip crossed his arms and scowled. "And whose fault is that? It's certainly not mine. You're the one who pulls away every time I try to get close to you. You know, a guy can only handle so much rejection before—"
"What?" She whipped around to confront him. "Before you go looking for it elsewhere?"
He stared at her for a long moment and the air grew rank with tension, coiling around them with the slyness of a venomous snake, fangs exposed, ready to strike.
When he finally spoke, his voice was quiet, defeated. "Maybe if you gave some of the love you pour on Sam to me once in a while, I wouldn't be tempted to look elsewhere."
He strode out of the room, his footsteps thundering down the stairs. A minute later, a door slammed.
She released a trembling breath. "Coward."
She wasn't sure if she meant Philip…or herself.
Brushing the drapes aside, she peered through the window to the dimly lit street below. It was devoid of any moving traffic, just a few parked vehicles lining the sidewalks. The faint rumble of the garage door made her clench the drapes. She heard the defiant revving of an engine, and then watched as the Mercedes backed down the driveway, a stream of frosty exhaust trailing behind it. The surface of the street shimmered from a fresh glazing of ice, and the car sped away, tires spinning on the pavement.
Philip always seemed to get in the last word.
She watched the fiery glow of the taillights as they faded into the night. Then the flickering of the streetlamp across the road caught her eye. She frowned when the light went out. One of the neighbors' dogs started barking, set off by either the abrupt darkness or Philip's noisy departure. She wasn't sure which.
And then something emerged from the bushes.
A lumbering shadow shuffled down the sidewalk, a few yards to the right of the lamp. It was a man, of that she was sure. She could make out a heavy jacket and some kind of hat, but she couldn't distinguish anything else.
The man paused across the street from her house.
Sadie was sure that he was staring up at her.
She shivered and stepped out of view, the drapes flowing back into place. When her breathing calmed, she edged toward the window again and took a surreptitious peek.
Gail, a neighbor from across the street, was walking Kali, a Shih Tzu poodle. But other than the woman and her dog, the sidewalk was empty.
Sadie locked all the doors and windows, and set the security alarm.
After Sadie dropped Sam off at school the next morning, she drove to Sobeys for milk and laundry detergent. Walking past the bakery section, she was flagged down by Liz Crenshaw, a vivacious food demonstrator who talked a mile a minute.
"Sadie! I was just thinking about you. How are you?"
Though the petite woman was in her early fifties, she looked closer to thirty-five. Liz had three grown children and four grandchildren who all lived back east. Without her family around to spoil, she was a sucker for Sam. And Sam adored her.
"How's your little boy doing?" Liz asked, smoothing a stray auburn curl behind one ear. "It's Sam's birthday soon, isn't it?"
Sadie tucked the milk under her arm and reached for a custard pie sample. "Monday. But his party's on Sunday. He's excited about all the birthday gifts he'll be getting."
Liz passed her a plastic spoon. "What did you get him?"
"A new bike," Sadie said between mouthfuls. "I'm not giving it to him until Monday though."
"I'd like to get him something. From Auntie Liz. What does he want, hon? Games? Books?"
Sadie grinned. "A pet bat."
The woman shuddered. "Ugh. That boy's got strange taste."
Sadie frowned at the empty sample dish in her hand, then greedily eyed the others on the stand. "Yeah, I'm trying to talk my husband into getting him a puppy as a compromise."
"Aw, I bet Sam'll love that."
"Yeah, but Philip hasn't said yes yet."
And he probably won't.
After two more samples, Sadie headed home. As she drove, she thought about Philip's relationship with Sam. He barely saw his son. Whenever he did, there was always an uncomfortable strain in the air. He never said anything to Sam, unless he wanted him to pick up something off the floor, and then Philip's voice was always so intolerant. And he never played with Sam. He was always too busy, or he didn't want to wrinkle his shirt or get his pants dirty.
She let out a sigh. She'd give anything to see Philip on the floor beside his son, both of them playing with dinosaurs or action figures—anything.
Entering the house, she headed straight for the kitchen and put the milk jug in the fridge. In the laundry room, she started a load of darks and threw the whites into the dryer. The morning passed quickly as she lost herself in her regular routine of housework.
After a bite to eat, she sat down at the small desk in the corner of the living room. She pulled out some watercolor paper and began drafting the cover for Going Batty. By two o'clock, she had created outlines of the cover and the first four pages.
"Looking good," she murmured.
She packed away the drawings and began straightening the pillows on the two sofas. Flicking a look around the room, she scowled at its stark white simplicity. She had wanted to decorate the spacious room with fresh flowers and colorful prints. But Philip wouldn't have it. He liked things the way they were. Everything in its place, no frivolous touches. The only room she'd been allowed free reign was Sam's.
The phone rang. It was her agent in Calgary.
"Hey, Jackson," she said. "I thought you'd forgotten me."
There was a feigned gasp on the other end. "I could never do that. You're a Starr, remember?"
Starr Literary Agency, run by Toronto native Jackson Starr, was giving the bigwigs in New York a run for their money.
"Any word on the conference tour?" she asked.
"That's why I'm calling. I have you booked in five cities in September, including the Crime Writers Conference in Toronto and Criminal Minds at Work in New York."
She grinned into the phone. "How rich did you make me?"
"Five thousand, plus hotel and travel expenses."
"Well, that made my day. Thanks."
"Any time. I'll deposit the check into your account this afternoon." There was a ruffle of paper. "So when you coming to visit us?"
Sadie gaze was drawn to Philip's office door. He was at work, but she still felt his presence, his disapproval. He didn't like Jackson, was jealous of him.
"Sorry, Jackson. I won't be able to get away for a bit. Maybe when I finish Sam's book."
"How's it coming?"
She filled him in on her progress, then hung up.
The thought of the extra money in her private account elated her. Philip maintained control over most of their money, which he had tied up in investments. He gave her a weekly household allowance with the agreement that any money she made would be used for Sam's basic expenses and her own. Thank God, she made a decent income. Maybe this summer they could finally go to Disneyland.
Thoughts of a family vacation, sunshine, castles and rides filled her mind and she practically danced into the laundry room. When the third load was dry, she folded Sam's clothes and placed them in a basket, along with a pair of Philip's socks that she'd discovered behind the laundry hamper. Gripping the basket under one arm, she trudged upstairs.
In the master bedroom, she opened the top drawer of the tallboy dresser and tried to ignore the five airplane bottles of alcohol that clinked together. Philip had made a halfhearted attempt to hide them under his long johns.
Five bottles, five drinks.
She tossed the socks in and slammed the drawer shut. Then she moved into the hallway, hesitating outside the door to Sam's bedroom. She wasn't sure why, but when her hand touched the brass doorknob, the hair on the back of her neck stood up. With a nervous laugh, she turned the knob and stepped inside.
A quick survey of Sam's room told her that nothing was out of the ordinary, so she set the laundry basket on the bed, next to a Batman t-shirt that had been tossed on the pillow.
She sniffed the shirt. "Clean."
Folding it, she placed it on top of the clothes in the basket. Then she gathered up the toy T-Rex, Raptors and Pterodactyls that were scattered on the floor and put them in the treasure chest. A few minutes later, Sam's clothes had been put away in the dresser, with the exception of an Oilers jacket.
She moved toward the closet, the jacket in hand.
The sound brought her to a halt.
"Get a grip. What would Philip say if he saw you?" She laughed derisively. "He'd say you're being a stupid fool."
She hauled the door open.
The closet was a jumble of toys and clothes. On the floor, jammed between two stuffed animals, a red balloon left over from the Valentine's Day parade hissed at her mockingly.
As it deflated, she echoed the sound. "Idiot."
She hung up the jacket, tossed the balloon in the garbage and went downstairs. An hour later, she headed out to pick up Sam, the balloon long forgotten.
"It's Friday," she said as they left the school. "Park day."
Sam let out a whoop, his mouth lined with orange Kool-Aid.
She frowned. "We have to wash that face before Daddy sees."
They crossed the parking lot and followed the sidewalk to the playground. A light blanket of snow still covered the grass, but that didn't deter the dozen or so children that played in the park.
She settled Sam on a swing and closed her fingers over his.
"Hold on tight, honey. Don't let go."
She gave the swing a gentle push. Then another.
Sunlight danced in Sam's black hair and he closed his eyes and leaned backward. He rose higher and higher, pumping his legs in delight. One of his boots slipped off and landed a few yards away. Sam didn't even notice.
"You're flying," Sadie said, grinning. "Like a bat, Sam."
Watching him, she had a sudden urge to freeze the moment, savor it forever. Times such as these made her wish she had brought a camera.
She heard his soft giggle. It built slowly, then exploded into a bout of contagious laughter.
Even the young mother next to her couldn't help but smile.
"He's having a good time," the woman said.
Sadie nodded. "Oh, to be young and carefree."
"You got that right—Andrew!"
Distracted by the antics of a lanky, freckle-faced boy climbing on top of the covered slide, the woman rushed off, leaving her daughter—still a toddler—in the baby swing next to Sam.
Sadie stared after her in disbelief. What on earth was the woman thinking? How could she leave her daughter with a complete stranger after a girl had been kidnapped?
Her gaze drifted over the school park.
A cluster of mothers chatted at a picnic table, while an olive-skinned boy of about four wandered precariously close to the busy parking lot. A few feet away, an older boy—maybe thirteen—pushed a chubby girl off the steps to the slide, and a toddler of indiscriminate gender played in the sandbox, feasting on gourmet dirt laced with God knows what else. And all of that, ignored by the women at the table.
The child in the baby swing let out a soft cry.
Shaking her head in frustration, Sadie slowed Sam's swing. As she helped him down, she was torn between wanting to take him home and not wanting to leave the little girl alone.
Huge brown eyes captured hers. "Mama?"
Sadie sensed her fear. "Your mommy will be back soon."
The girl whimpered, her eyes pooling with tears.
A few minutes later, the mother rushed over. "Jeez, you'd think he'd been killed, the way he was carrying on." She nudged her head in the direction of the freckled boy.
Sadie's lips thinned. "Your daughter was getting worried."
The young woman's eyes widened as she let out a coarse snicker. "Daughter? She's not my kid. Neither of 'em are. I'm their nanny."
Sadie was shocked. "Their nanny?"
"Hey, people mistake me for their mom all the time," the woman said, as though motherhood were nothing more than a badge one could buy at the local Dollar Store.
While the woman helped the toddler from the swing, Sadie gave her a disparaging look and bit back a reply. Without another word, she took Sam's hand and led him back to the car.
"Snug as a bug," she said, clicking his seatbelt into place.
She climbed into the driver's seat. As she reached for the door, something made her look across the street.
A lone man wearing reflective sunglasses and a cowboy hat pulled low over his face waited in a gray sedan with the window rolled halfway down. She couldn't make out his features, but she did see the proud smile on his face as he watched his son or daughter playing in the park.
I wish Philip would take the time to bring Sam here.
She backed out and eased toward the parking lot exit.
That's when she noticed the man in the car again. He wasn't looking toward the playground anymore. His shadowed gaze was directed at her. Passing the man, she was relieved when he looked away.
"Give me a call and let me know if you'll be home for supper," Sadie said in response to Philip's voice mail greeting.
Despondent, she hung up the phone.
It was almost six and she needed to talk to him—before things got further out of hand.
Maybe therapy would help.
She let out a huff.
The day Philip went for any kind of counseling would be the day that pigs, sheep and cows flew.
A dull thump came from Sam's room.
"Honey, you okay?"
She listened at the bottom of the stairs, but he wasn't crying so she strolled back into the living room.
The phone rang. "Hello?"
All she heard was breathing—heavy breathing.
She hung up. She'd been getting a lot of crank calls lately.
The phone rang a second time.
She picked it up. "Hello?"
"Is anyone there?" She sighed, irritated by the silence. "Is that the best you can do?" When there was still no response, she said, "I hope this is as good for you as it is for me."
A hooting laugh erupted on the other end.
"Leah," she muttered.
"Hey, Sadie," her friend said with a snort. "What've you got planned for tonight?"
"I'm not sure. I was hoping Philip would be home early for a change. What about you?"
"I need to get out. My neighbor has a party every Friday night and I swear they're going to come through the ceiling any minute. Of course, it wouldn't be so bad if they invited me."
Sadie heard the frustration in Leah's voice.
"Why don't you come here for supper then?" she said.
"You don't mind?"
"Of course not, you twit." But Philip might.
Although she'd never say that to Leah—even though her friend already knew that Philip wasn't her number one fan. He had issues with Leah. He didn't agree with her lifestyle, her fashion, or her influence on Sadie. He'd been trying for years to get Sadie to hook up with some of the wives from the firm. It would look good for him.
"Well…" Leah drawled, pretending to ponder the offer of free food. "Okay, I'll come over. I'll be there in twenty minutes. But as soon as Phil the Pill shows up, I'm outta there. Got it?"
"What's for dinner anyway?"
Sadie smiled. "Sam's favorite."
"KD?" Leah whined.
"No," Sadie said, chuckling. "His other favorite. KFC."
"Awesome! I'll be there in ten."
Leah showed up at the door, wearing a pair of tight black pants that flared at the ankles and a flamboyant gypsy-style blouse in colorful bronzes and silver trim.
"Hey, it's Friday night," she said when she saw Sadie's raised brow. "I'm going out later. Now, where's the man of the house?"
"Sam! Auntie Leah's here!"
A ball of energy flew down the stairs and landed in her friend's outstretched arms.
Leah groaned. "You're getting big, buddy."
Sam looked up at Leah and a devilish grin developed.
"Tomorrow you'll be six," she said, kissing his cheek.
"Well, officially he's six on Monday," Sadie reminded her.
Leah lifted a slim shoulder. "Semantics." She set Sam down. "Are you excited for your birthday?"
He nodded, then giggled and raced back upstairs.
"Supper'll be here soon," Sadie said, heading for the kitchen.
Leah followed her. "I take it the esteemed legal eagle isn't back yet?"
"You still thinking he's—"
Sadie's prickly gaze halted her.
"Ah…" Leah murmured. "You know, until you have proof, I wouldn't get too hung up on this idea. For all you know it could be perfectly innocent."
Sadie made a sour face.
"Or you could be right," Leah added quickly.
"I don't know what to do."
"You gotta talk to the man. But be prepared. You might not like what you hear." Leah's voice softened. "God, you don't deserve—"
The doorbell rang.
"Chow's here," Sadie said, grateful for the interruption.
She headed for the living room, grabbed a couple of twenties from her purse and opened the front door. An attractive older man wearing a damp hooded raincoat stood on the porch. He held a paper bag in one hand and the bill in the other.
"Thanks," she said, handing him the money. "Hey, where's Trevor?"
The man smiled. "You must get a lot of chicken if you know us guys by name."
"My son is hooked on KFC."
The man nodded and passed her the bag. "Trevor's in the hospital getting his appendix out."
"Ouch. Hope he gets better soon."
"Yeah, well you have a good night," he said.
As she closed the door, Leah snickered behind her.
"He was so checking you out, Sadie."
Sadie blushed. "I think he was checking you out, my friend."
"Nope. He was disappointed to see me here. Gee, should we arm wrestle for him?
Leah gave her a hard stare. "Married, maybe. But you ain't dead, sistah friend."
"You know I won't do that. I made a vow to Philip and I intend on keeping it. Even if he doesn't."
"I admire you for that, Sadie. So should your husband."
After supper, Leah tucked Sam into bed, leaving Sadie to tidy up. When she was finished, she stared at the phone. Philip still hadn't called.
"I think he just pulled in," Leah said behind her.
A few minutes later, Philip walked into the house. Ignoring Sadie, he tossed his briefcase on the dining room table and sent an irritated look in Leah's direction.
"What's for supper?" he asked, eyes flashing.
"KFC," Sadie replied. "It's in the fridge."
His mouth thinned as he eyed Leah, his disapproving gaze moving from her head to her feet and back up again. "What, another sleazy party tonight?"
"Nope," Leah said dryly. "Not unless you know where a good one is."
"Aw, bite me."
"I would, Phil, but I don't eat pork."
Philip's eyes narrowed and he strode out of the kitchen.
"Time for me to go, Sadie," Leah said, chagrined. "I feel a storm a brewin'. Sorry, hon."
"I'm sorry. I don't know why he has to be so rude to you."
"He's jealous of our friendship. But no worries. We're friends for life. Right?"
Sadie hugged her. "For life."
As she changed into an oversized t-shirt for bed, Sadie threw a hesitant glance in Philip's direction. He'd hardly said a word to her since Leah had left. No, "how was your day, Sadie?" Or, "what did you do today?"
"Any new developments in your case?" she asked hesitantly.
Philip grunted as he peeled off his pants. "You know I can't discuss it."
Then talk to me about something else.
She tried again. "Sam had a great day at school today."
Philip paused in the doorway to the bathroom. "Did he say something?"
She bit her bottom lip and shook her head.
"Then he didn't have a great day," he said with a scowl.
When the bathroom door closed behind him, she slumped on the edge of the bed. She didn't understand what was going on with him. Why was he so distant, so cruel?
Sliding between the cool sheets, she stared at the spackled ceiling, wondering how much more indifference she could take. Philip had always been driven by his passion for success. He handled multinational corporate trials with ease, winning his fair share of high-profile cases. He kept long hours and often slept on the sofa bed in his office.
Or so he said.
The bathroom door creaked.
She rolled away, just before Philip turned off the lamp and climbed into bed beside her. A whiff of floral perfume emanated from his body. The perfume wasn't hers. It had traces of honeysuckle. Sadie hated honeysuckle.
Feigning sleep, she waited for his breathing to slow. Or for the snoring to begin. For a long moment, she wondered whether she should say something. Then she felt heavy breathing in her ear, and a hand fumbled beneath the t-shirt and stroked her thigh.
"I need you to help me with a little problem, Sadie."
You haven't needed me for a long time, she itched to say. Now you want sex? What about my needs?
"I need to talk," she said when Philip reached higher.
His hand froze. "What about?"
"You know what. I think we need help."
He snatched his hand away as if her words had burned him.
"If you want to see a shrink, go see one."
"Both of us," she insisted.
The mattress shifted.
She sat up, turned on the lamp.
Philip stood beside the bed, wearing nothing but a rapidly dwindling erection. He sent her a piercing stare, glaring at her as though she had lost her mind.
"I don't need a goddamn shrink, Sadie. I'm not the one with the problem."
"Our marriage is in trouble," she said, scrambling from the bed. "We need counseling. If you won't do it for me, then at least do it for Sam's sake. Please!"
"Sam's sake? Jesus Christ, Sadie! Everything lately has been for Sam's sake. We moved out of the apartment into this house for him. Now I have to drive almost an hour instead of fifteen minutes to get to the off—"
"That apartment wasn't suitable for raising a child."
Philip stabbed a finger in the air. "You once thought it was the perfect place for us. Until your meddling friend got her nose out of joint."
"What's that supposed to mean? Leah had nothing to do with why I wanted to leave that apartment."
"She's changed you, Sadie. So has Sam. If you can't see that…" He shrugged.
She stared at him, baffled. "Of course having a child changed me. What did you expect? There's someone else to consider now, not just the two of us."
Philip's jaw flinched, but he remained silent.
"My God," she whispered. "You're jealous of him? Of Sam?"
Philip let out an angry huff, grabbed a pillow and stalked toward the door. "I am not jealous of my son. I just don't like the changes I see in you." Cursing, he stormed out of the room.
"And I don't like the changes I see in you," she mumbled, slumping on the bed. Why am I still with him?
That was a stupid question, of course. She stayed because of Sam. Because a small part of her still believed that Philip could change. Would change.
She recalled the night her life began to crumble.
"I don't want kids," he'd told her. "I'm happy with the way things are. I don't understand why you'd want to jeopardize everything."
"What would be jeopardized?" she'd asked, stunned. "You'd still have your career and I'd have mine. But I want children too."
"Well, I don't."
That was the end of that discussion.
Believing he'd change his mind and feeling she had no other choice, she secretly went off the pill. Bad move. When Philip discovered the unopened prescription box, he refused to speak to her for the rest of the day. A week later, she found out she was pregnant. She was ecstatic. Philip was pissed. He screamed at her, calling her a conniving bitch.
She miscarried the next day.
Yeah, they'd been the happy couple, the envy of all their friends, especially the ones who thought Sadie and Philip had everything. They didn't realize that she was putting on a façade. In public, she'd smile and tell everyone that things were wonderful. However, in private…
There was no denying it. She was a miserable mess.
It started with the occasional drink before bed. To calm her nerves since Philip was always late. But one drink became two. Then three. Before she knew it, she started drinking during the day, hiding bottles where Philip would never find them.
A second miscarriage sent her into a bout of severe depression and she was sure she was being punished, that she'd never have a baby. She spent most nights with her other 'best friend'—a bottle of rum.
Then Philip started staying out later and later.
Her life changed forever the night that he was promoted to partner. At a special banquet, a new partner and his wife were celebrating the arrival of a baby boy. The attention they received and the accolades from the senior law partners made Philip reconsider the idea of children. Suddenly, having a child seemed the perfect way to elevate his social and professional status.
A year later, Sam was born.
Sadie had quit drinking the moment she found out she was pregnant. It had been rough at first, but with Leah's help and Sam as the reward, she'd fought all her demons and won.
She'd been sober ever since.
As she slipped into bed, she clamped her eyes shut, blocking off tears that threatened to escape. She was not going to cry. Not over Philip.
Outside, a dog barked.
"I guess a puppy for Sam is out of the question then."
It seemed as though she had just closed her eyes, when the sound of breaking glass woke her. A piercing scream sent her heart racing and she flew out of bed.
When she left her bedroom, the first thing she noticed was the chill that swept down the hall. The second thing she saw was Sam's half-open door.
She pushed it. "Jesus!"
Her son's bedroom blasted her with frigid air. When she glanced toward the far wall, she spotted the culprit. The blinds were wide open and the window was shattered. On the floor, a foot from Sam's bed, was a brick.
"What's going on?" Philip demanded, flicking on the light.
Speechless, she reached a hand to her throat as her eyes swept over the room, then screeched to a stop on Sam's bed.
His empty bed.
Panic seared through her, hot and fearful. "Sam?"
Behind her, the closet door creaked. She moved closer, but Philip beat her to it. When he whipped it open, she was overwhelmed by relief. Her sweet boy was curled up in the corner, tears flooding his face.
She swept Sam into her arms. "Only my bat boy would hide in the closet," she murmured, stoking his hair. "Philip, who would do such a thing?"
"Shit, I don't know. Probably just kids out carousing. Tuck Sam back into bed and we'll clean this up."
"I'll put him in our bed," she said dryly. "He's not sleeping in here tonight."
"Fine. I guess I'll clean up the glass then."
Sadie hefted Sam to her hip and made for the door. She could feel his heart beating rapidly, and it didn't slow until she reached her bedroom and tucked him into the king-sized bed. When he reached up, she kissed his forehead. "No worries. You're safe, honey. I promise."
Lugging the vacuum behind him, Philip paused in the doorway. His gaze wouldn't meet hers.
"I'll report it first thing in the morning," he said before disappearing.
A minute later, the vacuum roared to life.
These were the moments—although rare—that reminded her of why she had married Philip. He always took care of business.
Leah arrived just after one-thirty on Sunday afternoon.
Sadie took one look at her friend's downcast face and knew instinctively that something was wrong.
"What?" she demanded.
"They didn't have your cake order, Sadie."
"But I called it in last week. How could they—" She caught sight of Leah's sly grin and twinkling eyes. "What's going on?"
Leah darted down the sidewalk, then returned a minute later bearing a sweet gift. Sam's Batman birthday cake.
"April Fools' Day ends at noon, you know," Sadie muttered.
"Not in Canada, silly. Besides, I couldn't resist."
Sadie gave her a saccharine smile. "No problem. I'll get you back next year."
Juggling the cake box, Leah kicked off her shoes and made a beeline for the kitchen. "There's no room in the fridge."
"Leave it on the counter then," Sadie said, emptying a bag of steaming microwave popcorn into a bowl. "Are you ready for this?"
"It's a kids' party. How bad can it get?"
Sadie opened her mouth, but then clamped it shut. Leah didn't have kids.
And after today, she'll be very thankful of that fact.
When they entered the living room, it was already in a state of chaos. Toys and kids were scattered on every piece of furniture. In one corner, twin boys jumped on the sofa, fighting over a plastic sword. Victoria, Sam's new school friend, stood nearby with her hands on her hips.
"Stop it!" the little girl demanded. "Put that down and stop fighting!" Her blond pigtails bounced with every word.
In the middle of the room, a copper-haired boy sat on the floor, eyes glued to a movie. Beside him, Sam was busy pretending to be a T-Rex, his voice competing with the screams of his friends and the deafening volume of the TV. So far, he was in the lead.
The look of sheer horror on Leah's face was almost comical.
"Oh…my…God," she said. "How on earth are you gonna survive all these monsters?"
Sadie grinned and passed her the popcorn bowl. "That's what I have you for."
Leah's face paled. "Hey, you only asked me to pick up the cake. You never said anything about me staying."
"Then you don't get any cake."
"But that's…blackmail!" Leah sputtered. "Fine then, but I'm leaving after the ice cream."
The doorbell rang.
Sadie wiped her fingers on a dishcloth and hurried to the front door. When she opened it, she was relieved to see that the entertainment Philip had hired had arrived.
Clancy the Clown stood on the porch, his curly orange hair flapping in the wind. His face was caked with white paint and a bulbous red nose covered his own. An exaggerated crimson smile took up the lower half of his face. To Sadie, it seemed more grotesque than happy.
"Hey, Mrs. O'Connell," the man said in a nasally tone. "Sorry I'm late. My car broke down and—"
She waved him inside. "Don't worry about it. I'm just thankful you made it. You look very…uh…colorful."
The clown sported a blue and orange striped jacket, a white shirt and bright yellow baggy pants held up by lime green and gold suspenders. A tiny top hat was perched on his head and a huge daisy was pinned to the left lapel.
Sadie suspected that one sniff would get her drenched.
"Do you want cash or a check?" she asked.
"Cash, if you have it."
She pulled a wad of twenties from her pocket. She counted out three hundred dollars, paused, then added an extra forty.
You'd better be worth it, Clancy.
Handing him the money, she said, "Three hours, right?"
The clown nodded, placing the bills inside a canvas bag. "I'll let myself out at…" He checked his watch. "Five-fifteen. Then you're on your own."
Clancy smiled. "Did you call the agency?"
"I've had my hands full with these kids."
The crimson smile stretched further. "The boss doesn't know I'm late then. Thanks."
A snort sounded from behind Sadie.
"If you want to thank her," Leah said wryly, "then round up the little hooligans and do your thing."
The clown's brown eyes shifted to Sadie. "No problemo. Su casa es mi casa."
With a bob of his head, Clancy and his neon red, size fourteen shoes clomped into the living room. He was welcomed by a boisterous Sam who shrieked with delight.
"Oh, Jesus," Sadie moaned.
"Just think how loud things'll be when Sam starts talking," Leah said. "Once he starts, you won't be able to shut him up."
"That will be the best day of my life."
Leah's expression grew sad. "I know."
Sadie watched Sam and his friends play with Clancy. The kids were fascinated by the clown, pulling on his suspenders and stepping on his huge shoes, and shrieking when he sprayed them with the daisy.
"Hey," Leah said, jabbing her. "Let's grab a glass of chocolate milk. I need something to wash down this popcorn. "
As Sadie followed her into the kitchen, she peered over her shoulder. Sam's beaming face brought a smile to her own.
"You're a lucky mama," Leah said softly.
"I know. Sam is the best thing in my life."
When the door closed behind the last child, Sadie and Leah released a collective sigh, looked at each other and laughed.
"Birthdays were way easier when he was a baby," Sadie said.
Leah pushed back her limp hair. "I just have one thing to say to you, my friend. I'm going to have a root canal this time next year. It'll be a slice of heaven compared to this."
"If you can get a two for one special I'll come with you."
"Yeah, but that would mean Phil would have to actually show up," her friend said sourly.
The smile on Sadie's face faded.
"Hey," Leah said. "I'm sure he's got a good reason for not making his own kid's birthday party."
Sadie raised a brow. "You think?"
"Well, he must have. He may be a jerk to me and treat you like crap most of the time…but he loves Sam."
"I know, but sometimes I think he loves himself more."
"Well, cheer up," Leah said, eying the mess in the room. "Sam's party was a complete success."
Sadie slumped into a chair. "Yeah. Thank God for Clancy. He did a great job keeping the kids entertained. I was so busy in the kitchen trying to get those darned sparklers to light that I didn't even see him leave.
"And lucky you, you get to do it all over again tomorrow."
"Yeah, the family birthday party. You'll be here, right?"
"Wouldn't miss it. Sam'll be so happy when he sees that bike you got him."
"I'm going to take him to the park to practice on it next weekend. Do you want to come?"
Leah disappeared into the kitchen and Sadie heard her rummage through the fridge.
"Ah-ha!" her friend called out. "The perfect year."
When she reappeared, she had two glasses of peach ice tea. She handed one to Sadie. "Drink up. Then I'll help you clean up this mess before Philip sees it."
Sadie's woeful gaze drifted around the living room. Paper plates were piled everywhere. They had somehow gone astray and hadn't made it into the garbage can that she had so thoughtfully provided next to the dining room table. Plastic cups, some half full of pop, were on every table and counter space. There were more cups than there had been kids.
"Ugh," Leah said behind her.
Sadie followed her friend's gaze.
A chocolate cake smear—so dark it almost looked like dried blood—stretched across the kitchen wall, three feet from the ground, a small handprint at the end.
"Your house is a disaster," Leah said unnecessarily.
Sadie sighed. "Well, at least it's quiet."
Sam had gone upstairs to his room, tired from all the excitement and junk food. The last time she had seen him, he was lying on his bed.
"He's probably asleep," Leah said, reading her thoughts.
Sadie gulped down her ice tea, then set to work on the kitchen, while Leah looked after the living room. After an hour had passed, all that was left to do was run the vacuum over the carpets and turn on the dishwasher.
"All done," Leah said, wiping a bead of sweat from her brow.
"Thanks. I can handle what's left."
As Sadie watched Leah climb into her car, a part of her wanted to holler, 'Come back!'
"You're being silly," she muttered.
Sadie closed the door and slid the deadbolt into place. Then she locked up the rest of the house, set the alarm for the night and went upstairs to check on Sam.
When she opened the door to his room, she smiled. Sam was stretched out across his bed. On top of the blankets. A soft snore issued from his half-opened mouth. He had passed out from exhaustion, his face covered with chocolate cake, white, black and blue icing, and an orange pop mustache.
"Happy birthday, little man," she whispered, tucking an extra blanket around him.
She closed the door and headed downstairs to wait for Philip.
Sadie was abruptly roused from a deep sleep. She jerked to a sitting position, inhaling deeply, and looked at the space beside her. It was unoccupied, the blanket still tucked under the pillow. She had waited for Philip downstairs for hours. Eventually, she had given up and gone to bed.
She peered at the bedroom clock. It was half past midnight. She'd only been asleep for about forty-five minutes. In the murky shadows of the room, she felt a foreign presence, a movement of air that was so subtle it could have been her own breath.
She squinted at the window. It was closed.
Somewhere in the house a floorboard creaked.
Philip must be home.
Tossing the blankets aside, she slid from the bed and walked to the door. Remembering the brick thrown through Sam's window, she froze. Her stomach fluttered as she imagined a gang of teen hoodlums breaking into the house.
But the alarm would go off, silly.
Still, she pressed an ear to the door and strained to listen.
At first, there was silence. Then another creak.
"Philip," she mumbled.
She was about to open the door when she heard an unfamiliar ticking sound. Had Philip bought a clock for the hall?
She listened again.
Tick… tick, tick.
Whatever it was, it was coming closer.
Her heart began to pound a maniacal rhythm and her breath quickened. When a shadow passed underneath the door, she held her breath. Her heart thumped almost painfully in her chest.
Then the shadow was gone.
Cautiously, she opened the door. Just a crack.
The hall was empty.
And no ticking.
Maybe I dreamt it.
With a tremulous laugh, she flung open the door, a show of false bravado. Maybe Philip was working in his office. Maybe he'd gone to check on Sam.
She walked down the hall and stopped in front of Sam's room. Her toes tingled as a draft teased her feet. She shivered, then opened the door.
The window that Philip had replaced gaped open—black and hungry—like a mouth waiting to be fed. The curtains flapped in the night wind, two tongues lashing out.
She frowned. Philip hadn't left the window open. He'd gone to work early, without a word to either of them. And Sam couldn't have opened it. He wasn't tall enough.
Did I leave it open?
She crossed the room, barely looking at the mound in the bed. She reached for the window and tugged it shut. The lock clicked into place, the sharp sound shattering the stillness.
Then she glanced at the bed.
Sam hadn't even stirred. But then again, he never did. He was almost comatose when he slept and nothing could wake him early, short of a sonic boom.
She tiptoed to the bed and touched his hair. Then, closing her eyes, she leaned down, kissed his warm forehead and breathed in his sweet child scent. He smelled of chocolate and sunshine.
"Snug as a bug," she whispered.
She stepped back, her foot connecting with something soft and furry. Reaching down, she fumbled in the dark until she found the stuffed toy dog that Philip had given Sam the night before. She moved quietly toward the closet, inched the door open and tossed the toy inside. Then she stepped out into the hall, shutting the bedroom door behind her.
Her gaze flitted to the far end of the hallway, where shadows danced between silk trees that stood in the alcove. Beside the trees—two-thirds up the wall—was a small oval window, and through it, a full moon was visible. It hung in the cloudless sky, a pearlescent pendant on invisible string.
It was a beautiful night, one that was meant to be shared.
Loneliness filled her, but she shrugged it off and plodded down to the kitchen to get a glass of juice. Five minutes later, she went back upstairs, with every intention of crawling into bed and ignoring the fact that Philip hadn't even bothered to call on the night of their son's birthday party.
As she passed Sam's door, a flicker of light beneath it caught her eye. Then she heard a soft thud. Sam must have fallen out of bed again. He had done that on two other occasions. Usually he woke up screaming.
She opened the door and sucked in a breath as her gaze was captured by something that made no sense at all.
The window was open again.
She blinked. "What the—?"
Moonlight streamed through the window, illuminating the bed. It was empty.
She reached for the light switch.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you."
At the sound of a stranger's hoarse whisper in her son's bedroom, she did the most natural thing.
She flicked on the light...
* * *
Message from Cheryl:
CHILDREN OF THE FOG is free November 13/14. Pick up the Kindle edition now!
If you've missed the free offer, pick up a copy anyway. It's only $3.99 after November 14th.
If you've missed the free offer, pick up a copy anyway. It's only $3.99 after November 14th.