To the Grave

Carlene Thompson

St. Martin's Paperbacks

CHAPTER ONE
 
 
Catherine Gray positioned herself on the front lawn, held up her camera, and called for her sister to hurry. As soon as Marissa walked out the front door, Catherine yelled, “Smile!” and snapped her picture.
“Catherine, you are driving me nuts with that camera!” Marissa spluttered. “Besides, you took me by surprise!”
Catherine looked at the LCD display of her last shot. “Not great, Marissa—you’re pop-eyed and your mouth is open. I’ll take another one.”
“I don’t want—”
“Now this time don’t look like you’ve just seen aliens landing. Smile and one, two, three…” Click. Catherine checked the display and nodded. “Great!”
Marissa shook her head. “Did James know he was creating a monster when he decided to buy that expensive camera for your birthday?”
Catherine grinned sheepishly. “Probably not. And the camera wasn’t his inspiration—I’d dropped hints for weeks.”
Marissa joined her sister and glanced at the picture. “Wonderful. Hair in a very sloppy ponytail, no makeup, and the denim jacket I sewed butterflies all over when I was sixteen. I look pathetic.”
“You look great—not a day over twenty-five.”
“I’m twenty-six,” Marissa said dryly.
“And you look twenty-five. You’re aging gracefully.”
“You are, too, for a woman who’s almost thirty.”
“Not for another ten months, and my thirties don’t scare me at all,” Catherine said lightly. “After all, Mom was as beautiful at thirty-five as she was at twenty-five. I’ve seen her photographs. In fact, looking through family albums is what made me want to become a good photographer. I want to leave a record of our lives, just like Mom and Dad left for us. And we’ll want a whole separate album for baby pictures.”
Marissa raised an eyebrow. “Is there something you’d like to tell me?”
“No, but someday I will, and someday you’ll have something to tell me, and then I’ll take hundreds of pictures of our children.”
Marissa laughed. “Pictures that will mortify them when they’re teenagers and we drag out the albums and show the photos to their dates.”
I won’t. I’ll make a point of never embarrassing my children.”
“Catherine, all parents embarrass their teenagers sometimes.”
“I’ll prove you wrong.” Catherine gazed up at the crystalline blue sky, smiled, and headed for her white sedan. “It’s an absolutely beautiful day. Come on before we lose the whole afternoon.”
“Uh, how about taking my car?” Marissa watched her sister’s smile fade. “I know you aren’t crazy about convertibles, but like you said, this is a beautiful day. We won’t have many more until winter.” Catherine’s gaze grew stubborn. Marissa walked behind her and started pushing her gently and relentlessly like a tugboat nudging a steamship into port. “This is the kind of day God made for rides in candy apple red Mustang convertibles! It’ll be fun.”
Catherine sighed. “Okay, but don’t drive like a bat out of hell like usual.”
“I won’t,” Marissa said solemnly. “I don’t want to wreck my car and destroy your wonderful camera. I’ll drive just like you do.”
Marissa put on her large sunglasses and started out at a snail’s pace, looking vigilant as she hunched over the steering wheel she clutched with both hands, not reaching for a CD, and braking with exaggeration at every stop sign.
Catherine finally burst into laughter. “I feel like I’m with a hundred-year-old chauffeur. I don’t drive like this.” Marissa said nothing. “Okay, maybe I do sometimes, but I can’t stand it when you do. Put on some music and pick up the pace!”
Marissa grinned, slipped in a Natasha Bedingfield CD, and pressed her foot harder on the accelerator. Catherine tipped back her head, letting the wind lift her long, honey brown hair. She closed her heather green eyes, listening to “Pocketful of Sunshine” and letting the gentle late October sun warm her face.
Catherine knew family and friends considered her the sensible, cautious sister versus free-spirited Marissa, and during her late childhood she’d started trying to live up to their image. Few people realized how often Catherine had wanted to give in to her own devil-may-care impulses, but after years of constant levelheaded behavior letting go was hard. Ever since she’d moved into the Gray family home left to the sisters after their mother’s death, though, Catherine had felt her restraints loosening and a different side of her personality creeping out to greet the sun.
“I told you it would be fun!” Marissa shouted over the loud music.
Catherine merely smiled and then raised her arms, swaying them in time with the music as if she were at a rock concert. Marissa laughed.
They drove south, away from the city and the Aurora waterfall. Catherine remembered that when Marissa was eight she’d begun telling the story of Sebastian Larke, who’d discovered the falls in 1770, which she’d called ancient times. Sebastian had named the waterfall for a Greek goddess, she’d explained. Catherine had listened patiently to Marissa’s remarkably accurate lectures about the wide, horseshoe-shaped falls that measured 124 feet high and cascaded into the Orenda River, the third-largest river in the “United States of America,” Marissa had always announced proudly. Then, with her brilliantly blue eyes cast down, her voice beyond sad, she’d ended, “And he never, ever got married and had kids, the poor, lonely guy.”
“Remember when you used to make Mom, Dad, and me listen to your account of Sebastian Larke finding the falls?” Catherine asked suddenly. “You got so carried away one time, you announced that you were meant to be Sebastian’s wife—God just got mixed-up and you were born too late.”
Marissa laughed. “I was a weird kid.”
“You were a smart, imaginative kid. I always felt like you could really see Sebastian Larke work during the day building the town, and then go back to his lonely cabin at night. You were wrong about one thing, though. God didn’t mean for you to be with Sebastian. He meant for you to be with Eric Montgomery.”
“Oh, really? Did God tell you that in person?”
“He told me in a dream,” Catherine returned in a soft, undulating voice, her eyes closed. “He said, ‘Eric will become master of Sebastian’s creation, the city of Aurora Falls, and rule it with Marissa by his side. It is meant to be.’”
“Have you been calling those psychic hotlines? Or do you believe you can see the future?” Marissa returned with mock solemnity. “You’ll have to tell Eric about your dream. He’s afraid he’ll lose the election for sheriff and then he won’t become the master of Aurora Falls. Oh, you can leave out the part about me being by his side.”
Catherine’s eyes snapped open. “What? Are you and Eric breaking up?”
“No, but I don’t want him getting too confident.” Marissa grinned. “Got to keep him on his toes, make him think he must still woo me with flowers and candy and give me an impressive engagement ring for Christmas.”
“I think you’re awful for plotting to get a specific gift.”
“I know. I feel extremely guilty about it. I guess I’m just like my sister.”
“I wanted a camera, not an engagement ring.”
Marissa grinned. “Sure, Catherine. I guess if James Eastman had proposed on your birthday and given you a ring instead of a camera you’d have told him to jump over the falls.”
Catherine ignored her sister and closed her eyes again, thinking that just last year at this time she couldn’t have imagined herself riding in Marissa’s car as they went to look at land owned by the Eastmans. When she’d left Aurora Falls at seventeen to attend the University of California at Berkeley, she’d known she wanted to be a clinical psychologist, which would require a Ph.D. Somewhere in a hazy future, Catherine had thought, she’d be married to a man she had yet to meet and have a child. She’d never dreamed she’d end up right where she started and dating a guy she’d loved for years.
“You’re smiling,” Marissa said. “Thinking of James?”
“Why don’t you watch the road instead of staring at me?”
“Oh, I can do both,” Marissa returned airily. “Were you thinking of James?”
“You’ll never leave me alone until I give in and tell you.” Catherine opened her eyes. “Ten years ago I would never have pictured myself coming back to Aurora Falls to live with my sister.”
“I know the thought of living with me would bring a smile to anyone’s face,” Marissa said dryly, “but I believe you were also thinking about James.”
“Okay, I was thinking of him. I remember hoping he’d notice me someday.”
“And he did. Therefore, the smile.”
“Yeah.” Catherine’s thoughts spun over all the years she’d loved James Eastman; then slowly her smile faded. “Do you ever feel like things are too good to be true?”
“Do you mean like things that happen to me are too good to be true?”
“Well, maybe sometimes.” After a moment she said, “When Eric and I got back together after five years I felt at first that it was too good to be true. Maybe that’s why I kept pushing him away.” She paused. “Are you feeling like you being with James is too good to be true?”
“Well, being with James is wonderful. I guess sometimes I feel it’s too wonderful because he was married.”
“Oh no.” Marissa grimaced. “You’ve been thinking about Renée. Why?”
“Mrs. Paralon mentioned her to me the other day.”
“Mrs. Paralon rehashes forty-year-old gossip as if it’s hot off the press. No one pays any attention to her.”
“Maybe. But it made me think of Renée, especially when Dad insisted that all of us attend James’s wedding to her in New Orleans.”
“Jeez, Catherine, that was years ago!”
“Yes, but I’ll always remember it as one of the worst experiences of my life.”
“Well, don’t get mad at Dad about it now. He and James’s father had been friends forever and the families were friends—we couldn’t skip the wedding.”
I didn’t have to go.”
“I know Dad kept pestering you about it, but since you and I weren’t little girls anymore he thought it would be our last trip as a family. And it was.”
“I’ve never been mad at Dad for guilting me into going to the wedding. How could I be? He didn’t know how I felt about James.”
“No, I don’t believe he had a clue. Only Mom and I knew.”
Catherine’s gaze snapped toward her sister. “You and Mom? I told her I cared about James in strictest confidence and she promised she wouldn’t tell anyone else!”
“She didn’t tell me, but I could tell you were crazy about James.”
“Oh no,” Catherine groaned. “If you could, other people probably could, too. What if guests at the wedding were laughing about the girl gazing at James with big cow eyes full of love?” Catherine could feel her face growing hot. “I shouldn’t have looked at him at all!”
“Relax. You did a great job of hiding your feelings. Dad didn’t notice. You were cool and composed, even when James introduced you to the bride.”
“Oh God. Renée. I’ll never forget all the thick, gleaming black hair cascading down her back, those huge, doe-like eyes, her porcelain skin. No wonder he married her barely three months after meeting her. She was so beautiful.”
“She was striking in a flashy, sexy way. You are beautiful,” Marissa said firmly.
Catherine went on as if Marissa hadn’t spoken. “You say no one knew how I felt about James, but she did. I could tell when she looked at me. She was amused by my love and my misery and I hated her, Marissa. I don’t think I’ve ever hated anyone, but I hated her.”
“So did everyone who knew her in Aurora Falls by the time she vanished.”
Catherine glared at her sister. “Why did you say ‘vanished’?”
“I don’t know. I guess because that’s what so many people say.”
“People who think James killed her say ‘she vanished’ because it sounds creepy.”
“Yeah, well a lot of people love drama and Renée gave it to them. For years, she stirred up trouble in Aurora Falls, broke up at least two marriages, pushed James to what everyone thought was the breaking point; then suddenly she was gone. No one saw her leave and no one has heard from her again.” Catherine sighed. “James could have saved himself a lot of grief if he’d divorced her a few months after marrying her, before she had so much time to become a … a legend.”
“A legend! Oh, that’s just great.”
“It’s true.”
“You’re certainly creative today, but your memory is terrible, Marissa. I’ve told you at least twenty times that in this state James couldn’t divorce her on the grounds of irreconcilable differences unless she agreed and they lived apart for a year. Fat chance of her going along with that plan.”
“Then he should have charged her with adultery. She didn’t make a secret of her affairs.”
“James is too much of a gentleman to do that!” Catherine snapped.
“There are times for being a gentleman and times to act like a man.”
Catherine looked at Marissa furiously. “How dare you imply James is a … a…”
“Wimp?” Catherine’s glare didn’t stop Marissa. “Don’t tell me you haven’t thought it, too.”
Catherine went silent for a moment, clenching her jaw. Then she said slowly and distinctly, “He is not a wimp, a coward, or a weakling, Marissa. He just should have taken action sooner to end the marriage.”
“He never took any action to end the marriage until she … left.”
Catherine felt her breath come faster in anger. “What are you saying?”
“That I’ve just never understood why he held on to Renée for so long.”
After a pause, Catherine said, “I never told you this, but after James married her, he found out she was a really troubled woman. He’s never gone into details, but her past wasn’t what you would expect after briefly seeing her life in New Orleans. Anyway, he thought with enough time and understanding and love she’d change. When he saw that she either couldn’t or didn’t want to change, he still hesitated because divorcing her for adultery would humiliate his parents.”
“He didn’t think she humiliated them, too?” Marissa asked incredulously.
“I don’t know exactly what he thought at the time. He just says for some reason he can’t understand, she loved tormenting him and his family. He thinks that’s why she left the way she did—to create suspicion about him by making it look like he’d killed her.” Catherine’s voice rose. “Even if I’m a psychologist, I don’t give a damn if she was troubled! She was a bitch!”
“Finally we agree on something,” Marissa said evenly, “but the best way she could have hurt him would have been to stay. She’s been gone for ages, though, James got his divorce on the grounds of desertion, and people have moved on to new topics of gossip.” After a moment of silence, Marissa said softly, “If all of the past gossip—if James’s marriage to Renée—upsets you so much, Catherine, you should stop seeing him.”
Catherine looked sharply at her sister. “Stop seeing James? Marissa, I love him!”
“Does he love you?”
“What? Of course. He tells me so all the time.”
“Then concentrate on the present and stop being so touchy about the past. Stop even thinking about it.”
Catherine’s anger drained, leaving her feeling foolish and mean. “You’re right. I should think about now and quit being so overly sensitive about James and Renée. They’re history.” She paused. “Sorry I lashed out at you. But if you ever call James a wimp again—”
“I didn’t say ‘wimp.’ You did.”
Oh hell, I did, Catherine thought, her mind scrambling for a quick save. “I just said what you were implying.”
“Whatever.”
The sisters rode in silence for a couple of minutes. Then Marissa asked as if there hadn’t been a harsh word between them, “And now for the age-old child’s question: ‘How much farther is it?’”
“About five or six miles. Why do you care? I thought you love to drive.”
“I do, but not for the whole afternoon. It’s Saturday and we both have dates tonight. Last weekend you missed your dinner out with James because he went alone to that conference in Pittsburgh, so I’m sure he’ll take you somewhere special tonight as compensation. Anyway, we have hair to be curled, nails to be painted, eye shadow to choose, and a dozen lipsticks and glosses to be tried before we reach perfection.”
“Like teenagers?”
“Like females with the romantic spirit of teenagers and the wisdom of women.”
“Yeah, sure.” They’d left the city and Catherine turned her gaze to the countryside, wondering if, even at twenty-nine, she was still more romantic than wise. She was in love with a man she’d known most of her life and loved nearly half of her life. At least, she thought she’d loved him that long. She was a clinical psychologist, though, and she knew how easy it was for an adolescent to mistake attraction for love.
Then, last Christmas when she’d come home for her college break and her first Christmas at home without her mother, who’d died the previous summer, James Eastman had finally entered her life as a romantic interest, not just a family friend. That holiday had been both bizarre and wonderful, and she’d known that as a woman, not a teenager, she passionately loved James.
Afterward, they’d traveled between Aurora Falls and California to see each other and when she’d passed her tests and earned her license as a clinical psychologist in June she had made the decision to live in Aurora Falls. She’d joined the practice of an older, more established psychologist just over four months ago—not long, really, Catherine told herself. Maybe hoping that James would propose by spring was like a child’s fairy-tale wish, especially after what he’d been through with Renée.
Catherine and James didn’t live together. She didn’t want to move into his town house, but James had never asked. Maybe he knew she’d refuse. She wondered if he thought such an arrangement in a city of around forty-five thousand would damage her new position in the psychology practice or even his established law practice. He must realize, though, this was the twenty-first century. More likely, she’d reluctantly decided, James didn’t want her to become a permanent part of his life any time soon. Maybe ever. An immediate feeling of rejection hit Catherine, unnerving her. Idly guessing about James’s possible feelings shouldn’t affect her so much, Catherine thought in concern. She was already too emotionally dependent on him, too—
Absently looking at a browned soybean field and another field full of faded cornstalks, Catherine suddenly emerged from her reverie and almost shouted, “Turn right!”
Marissa hit the brakes, throwing them both forward against their seat belts. “What are you yelling about?” she demanded loudly. “You want me to turn right? Right into that cornfield?”
“I meant just past the cornfield,” Catherine said meekly. “I’m sorry I startled you.”
“You said the cottage was five or six miles away. We’ve only gone three.” Marissa picked up speed again while muttering absently, “You are a driver’s nightmare, Catherine. I don’t know how you ever got a driver’s license. Of course, at the speed you drive, you hardly need one. A horse and buggy would serve you just fine—”
“There’s the road,” Catherine interrupted, still embarrassed over her outburst but determined not to apologize again. “Perry Lane. Isn’t that the name of a Beatles song?”
Marissa said irritably, “Not Perry Lane—‘Penny Lane’ on the Magical Mystery Tour. We have the actual vinyl album, which you’ve heard a hundred times. The CD version, which we also have, was released in 1987 and…”
She’ll go on like this for another couple of minutes, Catherine thought in relief, having known “Perry Lane” wasn’t a Beatles song. She also knew her sister was nearly a walking archive of Rolling Stone magazine and making a blunder to Marissa about a Beatles song was the perfect way to change the subject.
Perry Lane curved left about twenty feet ahead. Marissa soared around the gentle coil and followed Perry Lane nearly a quarter of a mile. Almost twice the normal amount of rain had fallen so far this October, and two inches had doused the area three days earlier. The grass was greener than usual for this time of year, and the dirt on either side of the asphalt road looked damp.
Catherine looked to the right in search of the Eastman cottage. The sun shone brightly and the air smelled fresh, as if both had just gone through the wash, she thought whimsically before pointing and saying, “I think that’s it!”
Marissa came to a slow stop. Catherine stared at a small, shabby, dark gray-green cottage with a covered porch running half the length of the building, a wide front window, and two smaller windows toward the southern end. Paint peeled all over the building and a few roof shingles lay on what passed for a front lawn. The limbs of large trees crowded in from the sides, overhanging the patchy roof and giving the little cottage an air of huddling in on itself, crouching.
Marissa frowned. “Are you certain this place belongs to James’s family?”
“I’m not absolutely certain, but his mother mentioned that it’s gray.”
“It’s not gray.”
“It is gray. I think the green is mildew from all the moisture and shade.”
“Mildew! Ugh!”
“Oh, don’t be so prissy. Just pull up in that little driveway.”
Marissa’s hands dropped to her lap. “I can’t even see a little driveway, Catherine.”
“It’s right there.” Catherine pointed. “The evergreen branches are hanging over it. The Eastmans only have the grounds mown four or five times a year. No wonder the yard is a disgrace.”
“The yard isn’t the only disgrace.” Marissa turned to her sister and said seriously, “Catherine, I’m getting a bad vibe from this place.”
Catherine made herself smile teasingly. “I thought I was the one sensitive to ‘bad vibes.’ You’ve always said you’re too smart to believe in all that illogical, sixth-sense stuff.”
“I’ve suddenly realized I’m not as smart as I thought,” Marissa returned. “I mean it.”
Catherine felt a tingle of uneasiness, but she didn’t want to argue. “The place is depressing because it’s neglected,” she said with bright determination. “It’s just an old summer cottage. Don’t tell me you’re afraid of it.”
“Only because it looks like a serial killer’s lair. Even those evergreen trees look diseased.”
Catherine snapped, “Marissa, you’ve watched too many movies. A serial killer’s lair? That’s—”
“True?”
Catherine looked around, surprised by feeling insulted, and softened her tone. “The place doesn’t look great, but you’re being silly.” She forced another smile. “Pull into the front yard near the cottage.”
Marissa squinted at the scrappy land in front of the cottage and sighed. “Here goes.”
She drove carefully, dodging shingles and a fallen tree limb, and then stopped her Mustang near the cottage. “So much for the obstacle course. Is there a reason James’s father won’t take care of his property?”
“He hates the cottage,” Catherine said. “He told me even though he couldn’t swim and he detested fishing, when he was a kid his father used to drag him out here every weekend to fish. Even during his teenage years.” Catherine stepped out of the car and glanced around. “James’s great-grandfather built this place in the forties.”
“That would be the seventeen-forties?” Marissa asked sarcastically as she emerged from the car.
“Right after World War Two, smart-ass, although it looks as if it’s stood here abandoned for at least a century.” Catherine looked at the desolate cottage and surrounding grounds. “James’s mother wants to sell the property—three acres of land that could be beautiful with proper care. James’s father was an only child and inherited everything, so ownership isn’t a problem.”
“What is the problem?”
“Probably Peter’s guilt about selling family land to strangers. Selling the land to James would keep it in the family, though.”
“Is James interested in buying it?”
“His mother usually brings up the topic of selling. James doesn’t say anything.”
“Then what makes you think he wants to buy the land?”
“It’s only an idea.”
“I see,” Marissa said knowingly. “You think James could buy the land as a site for a new house.”
“As I said, it’s only an idea,” Catherine evaded. “Today I just wanted to show you the land and get your thoughts about how well it would suit a nice house for James. You know how he hates living in a town house.”
“Why, no, I didn’t know,” Marissa drawled. “He hasn’t discussed the matter with me.”
“Well, he does,” Catherine maintained, ignoring Marissa’s grin. “He sold his house after Renée left. I’m sure he wants another one.”
“But he doesn’t know you’re looking at this place as a potential site for his new home,” Marissa said as Catherine smiled serenely. “Okay, let explore.” Marissa looked at the cottage. “Can we go inside?”
“No. I don’t have the key, but we can look through the windows.”
The boards of the long, uneven porch creaked as the women walked across it to the large front window with curtains parted less than a foot. They made tunnels of their hands and looked into a dim room lit only by sunlight coming through a back window to show a sagging couch, an oval coffee table, a hooked rug, and one lamp topped by a crooked shade.
Marissa made a face. “Obviously the cottage wasn’t decorated to impress anyone.”
“They probably kept things simple so they didn’t have to worry about anyone breaking in to steal nice furnishings. It’s better than I’d have expected from looking at the outside. I think someone cleans a couple of times a year and the Eastmans maintain the utilities—water, electricity, and gas for a furnace so they can keep the place warm enough in the winter that the pipes don’t burst.”
Catherine gazed around a large, raggedy flower bed filled with bright sunflowers, purple wild asters, and goldenrod. Several yards beyond the flower bed stretched a line of oak and maple trees shedding their brilliant, late October leaves. When she took a deep breath, she picked up the bitingly sweet scent of apples. James once told her his grandmother had planted a small grouping of apple trees, which she’d called her orchard.
“Forget the cottage,” Catherine said. “Look at this three-acre lot. It could be beautiful with a little tender loving care.” She grinned. “Let’s go look at the river!”
The grass stood tall, some weeds as high as their knees. As they walked around the cottage, Catherine was glad she’d suggested they wear jeans and sneakers with socks. Behind the building, untrimmed trees had blocked most of the sun and the grass grew in patches. She and Marissa linked arms and began down the gentle slope to the river and the old dock.
“How far would you say it is between the house and the river?” Marissa asked.
“I’m not good with distances.” Catherine frowned in thought. “Maybe eighty yards before it drops onto that steep bank leading down to the river. I’d put a fence in front of the bank.”
“Especially if you don’t want your toddlers rolling down into the river. How many are you planning on having? Toddlers, I mean.”
“A dozen,” Catherine answered, seemingly oblivious to Marissa’s teasing. “I think this would make a great backyard.”
“It sure would. You were right about this place. It’s a nice spot for a house.”
“What about your bad vibe?”
“I think it came from that dreadful cottage. The rest of this area is great. There’s plenty of room for a nice, sizable house for all of those children you’re planning to have, a big lawn for them and their little friends, and you’d even have room to build a large boathouse. You could keep the Annemarie here,” Marissa said, referring to the Gray family’s cabin cruiser that their father had named for his wife and the sisters now jointly owned. “And doesn’t James also want a motorboat?”
“Yes.”
“Well, there you go. It’s perfect.” Marissa raised her eyebrows. “What I wonder is why you’re showing this place to your sister as if you’re trying to persuade me it would be a great site for a new house? Why aren’t you talking to James? Do you think he really doesn’t want another house, a real home for a wife and children?”
Catherine sighed. “Here’s my problem. James has talked about wanting a house. He hasn’t asked me to marry him, although he says he loves me. Does he never want to marry again because of the way things went with Renée? Because I won’t be a live-in girlfriend who maybe gives him the couple of kids I think he wants, Marissa. I know a lot of people would consider me old-fashioned, but I want commitment.”
Marissa looked at her seriously. “You should just come out and ask James if he ever plans to remarry. After all, you’re the psychologist and I thought you people believed in talking about your feelings.”
“We do, except—”
“Except this matter concerns you and also you’re afraid of what you’ll hear. In that case, I’ll give you my opinion. I think James wants to marry you, but he’s someone who plans everything and who won’t move ahead with a project until he thinks he has ironed out every wrinkle. The two of you deciding where you would like to live is a wrinkle he wants gone when he asks you to marry him. He’s not impetuous, which is good, because neither are you. You’d have a nervous breakdown if you were married to an impetuous man.”
Catherine stood still for a moment, looking out over the Orenda River. The breeze created ripples that sparkled in the sun. The water lapped softly against the thick layer of granite riprap neatly piled along the shoreline to prevent erosion. Off to her left, she heard a robin singing and she saw a squirrel running back to the trees with a nut in its mouth, storing food for the coming winter. Yes, this place could be beautiful, Catherine thought. What a perfect place for a house to share with James and the children both Marissa and she thought James wanted.
She turned back to Marissa. “This would be a wonderful spot for a house!”
“So give James a little push, silly, and tell him, not me. Don’t be shy about making suggestions to the man you love. I’m certainly not.”
“I know,” Catherine said drolly. “So does your Eric.”
“Eric appreciates my candor.” Marissa paused. “Most of the time. Occasionally he gets stubborn and I don’t think he listens to me. Just because he hasn’t asked for my opinion, though, doesn’t mean he shouldn’t hear it—” Marissa frowned. “Are you even listening to me?”
Catherine had wandered away and was snapping a photo of bright leaves sailing toward the river on a crisp, buoyant breeze. Whimsy swept over her and she whipped around to face Marissa. “More pictures! Just a few more pictures before we go!”
Marissa beamed. “You’ve made up your mind, haven’t you?”
“I’ve decided to give it a try, but if James doesn’t go for it I want memories of seeing this gorgeous spot on this gorgeous day with my gorgeous sister.”
Catherine took several photographs, her smile never fading. She heard herself giggling and felt as if she were listening to someone else—Marissa or her mother, Annemarie, both with their unadulterated joie de vivre. The feeling was foreign and heady.
When they’d worked their way to the front of the cottage again, Catherine insisted Marissa shed her denim jacket and sit on the hood of her red convertible Mustang.
“You’re not going to sell James on this place by showing him a picture of me sitting on the hood of a car,” Marissa protested.
“This is for Eric. He can frame it and put it on his desk when he’s elected sheriff next month,” Catherine said as Marissa slid onto the hood. “Let down your ponytail.”
Marissa pulled the rubber band from her long ash-blond hair with its sunny highlights and shook it free around her shoulders. “How’s that?”
“Great. Now slip your sunglasses on top of your head for that carefree, beach-girl look.”
Marissa laughed but obeyed.
“Wonderful!” Catherine crowed. “Now put your right hand slightly behind you and lean on it. I’ll take a few more steps back.…”
“Do you have to keep backing up to make me look good?”
“No, you look great, but you could look even better. Thrust your left shoulder forward slightly and—”
Catherine’s heel banged against something hard. She looked behind her and saw old, widely spaced wooden planks cut into a circular shape and set on a low, round concrete rim. She took a step up onto the planks and looked back into her viewfinder.
“Perfect! Eric will love this picture.”
Marissa’s eyes widened. “Be careful! You’re standing on a cistern—”
Suddenly Catherine heard the boards groaning. Old wood splintered and snapped beneath her feet, and with stunning shock she plunged into a vat of cold water. Deeper, deeper, deeper she fell until her feet touched a hard surface. She’d swallowed water and fought the reflex to open her mouth and cough. Terrified, Catherine thrust upward, flailing arms weighed down by the sleeves of her sopping-wet flannel-lined corduroy jacket until she collided with something large, something soft yet with a hard core she instinctively knew was a body. She thrashed wildly, panicked, and gulped more water. Then she tried to calm herself. It’s an animal, she thought. It’s just a large animal—
With arms just like mine, Catherine’s stunned mind registered as her own arms slipped beneath the others and slid up to where they joined a torso. She tried to shake loose, but her right hand had tangled in what seemed like thousands of long threads attached to her limp companion. She couldn’t keep writhing to jerk free of them without losing the momentum of her upward surge, though. Her feet paddling frantically, her lungs nearly bursting from the struggle to hold her breath while handling the extra weight, she finally rose to the surface, gasped for air, and opened her eyes.
Catherine shrieked as she looked into the mutilated, bloated face of a dead woman.


 
Copyright © 2012 by Carlene Thompson