If you read only one chapter of this whole thing, read this one. There are no monsters or horror to be found, but there are ghosts, of a sort.
The bright spot of this novel, and in my opinion, one of the better chapters I’ve ever written, this one really set the tone for what I would have aimed for throughout the rest of the novel and would have served to foreshadow the end of the series. Brianna’s melancholic nature throughout this book was also meant to serve as a reminder that it’s not only Garrett that’s suffered throughout their time together. On Hallowed Lanes may have been a honeymoon novel, but it was also not-so-subtly a story about how the metaphorical honeymoon ended for the two of them.
If I had stuck to that central theme as opposed to trying to shoe-horn in the stupid side story about Garrett and Murphy, this book would have worked as an accompaniment to the series proper. As it stands… well, you’ll start to see things go off the rails in a few chapters.
It only took them three minutes to find the key. Around the side of the house was a set of old wooden benches topped by a variety of withered potted plants. Under the third pot was a key duct taped to the bottom. She ripped it off and carefully made her way back through the puddles to Garrett.
After a quick high-five, she tested the key in the lock, but hesitated before she opened the door. “You’re sure no one’s around?”
Garrett nodded. “Took a look in the windows. Mail’s stacked on a table, and there’s a cobweb in a door frame. There’s an antique clock that’s stopped too, but that’s not a sure bet.”
She grinned. “Even without your better half, you’re still pretty good at this.”
“Thanks, I try.”
Inside, they checked beside the front and back entrances to make sure there wasn’t a home security system. The walls were bare but Garrett warned Brianna that if the cops came, they should just tell them the truth – they needed to get out of the weather and fully intended on leaving behind some money for the trouble.
“Should we be careful about fingerprints?”
Garrett shook his head. “We’re protecting ourselves against Mother Nature. At most, we’d get slapped with a misdemeanor.”
The interior had last been redone perhaps in the seventies, with wood paneling in the living room and a plush carpet struggling to identify itself as either orange or brown. Two well-worn couches covered in crocheted blankets and more modern throws faced a small flat-screen TV, ringed with a selection of mostly comedy and romance DVDs. A large wood stove squatted in one corner, its ugly black exterior contrasted somewhat by a pair of beautiful antique brass lamps beside it.
In the master bedroom was a queen-sized bed covered in a light blue comforter and a quilt that looked to be handcrafted. A picture on the single nightstand was of an older couple, her with a tangled swirl of frizzy white hair and a twinkle in her eye, him with a half-formed smile that seemed to speak volumes about his hesitance about the rollercoasters in the background. Reflexively, Brianna lifted it up and blew a minute layer of dust off the picture. There, she thought. That’s how it should be.
If the living room’s general décor spoke of the seventies, another bedroom seemed taken straight from a photograph of the era. A rainbow-colored denim-lined armchair sat underneath a bronze reading lamp, flanked by an end table loaded with books – Bernard Malamud, Stephen King, thin volumes of Vonnegut, and Judith Rossner. Some of the volumes looked as though they’d fall apart if they touched them. A short coffee table loaded with ancient textbooks on biology and math sat at the foot of the bed. Decoupaged Christmas ornaments hung from the ceiling at random intervals. Though kind of ugly, it was obvious some care had gone into their creation. Several pictures on the walls showed a young woman with a pair of kids and the older couple from the master bedroom.
A third bedroom looked to be a much younger woman’s room. A faded E.T. poster on the wall and a pair of well-worn Care Bears on a shelf jarred with the rest of the room, which seemed much more modern than the other two bedrooms. A computer maybe ten years out of date was pushed against one wall on a rickety old drafting desk, and stacks of high fantasy and romance novels bulged out of bookshelves and on stacks on every conceivable surface.
In the kitchen, a calendar on the wall showed a number of dates throughout the last half of June and the earliest parts of July circled off, with a big X on the sixth. There was only one note in the circles – “VACAY!” Garrett grinned and tapped it. “We’re good.”
In the split-level basement was a wall covered in dress hats – fedoras, pork pies, Stetsons, bowlers, even a large sombrero. Much of the furniture down there was stacked to one side and covered in sheets, save for a pool table and a tan loveseat. Brianna plucked a flat-brimmed boater hat off the wall and tried it on before she spun and winked at Garrett. “Whaddya think?”
“Hmm. I like it. Needs less clothes, though.”
She took off the hat and they returned upstairs. Garrett checked the windows to see if the storm was abating and jumped back a foot when a blade of lightning seemed to strike the moment he glanced out. “I think we’re stuck here for the night,” he grumbled.
Brianna glanced around at the worn furniture and the pictures on the wall, at the evidence of a family through the generations. Even as she vaguely understood that they would never grow old together, not with the work Garrett did, she wished for nothing else but to be this couple, to live to see their grandchildren together. “Could be worse,” she said, reaching for Garrett’s arm. “I kind of like it.”
* * *
Brianna started a fire in the old stove in the living room while Garrett brought in their luggage. “Freaking Montana,” she muttered as she lit the balled-up newspaper under the kindling. “Have to start a fire in June.”
As Garrett set about scrubbing the carpets where they’d tracked in mud – an eternal neat freak, he felt guilty about it and wouldn’t let it go – Brianna wandered through the house a second time, looking at all the photos.
The earliest ones, most of which were hung in the master bedroom, depicted the older couple as fresh-faced and were in black-and-white. He was round-faced, earnest-looking, and in every picture with his wife, he looked a little pleasantly confused, as though he couldn’t figure out why the woman on his arm was with him. She was almost always smiling or laughing, and in several they were giving each other smooches while glancing askance at the camera.
In later pictures, a little squirt of a baby joined them, chubby and either squalling or smiling. She grew up rapidly in the photos, first as a teeny toddler in a dress that hung down to her feet, then later as a determined child atop a rusty bike on the dirt road leading to the home. In her teenage years, the pictures depicted her as more serious and almost always with a book nearby. In one, the photographer caught the teenager without makeup, her nose almost pressed to a window, her breath fogging the pane, a mug in one hand and a pair of glasses in her other.
Then the woman was older, her hair longer, her frame filling out rapidly. Pregnant, but there was never a man in the photographs. Just the young woman, either alone, with female friends, or with the parents. In a hospital bed, looking exhausted but happy, holding a baby in a white cap. Then, without much of a break, another shot of her late into another pregnancy, then holding another baby, somehow even happier than the first shot.
The two children, a boy and a girl, started to grow up in the pictures. Brianna guessed the young mom had taken over the role as photographer in the family. She showed up in the shots infrequently, looking a bit wearier but no less happy. The children, a chubby long-haired boy and a wire-thin girl with her grandmother’s mischievous smile, were often at play or posing goofily for the cameras. There was one last shot of them with the young mother, perhaps at a Christmas pageant or something. The woman was wide-mouthed, caught forever in the midst of saying something, and the girl was laughing while the boy posed like a body-builder, growling at the camera while he flexed.
The mother was in no more photos after that.
Brianna wandered around, sure she’d missed something, but no. In later photos, the children grew up, the boy into a serious-looking man rarely without a sport coat, the girl into a plump woman almost always with her grandmother in tow, the both of them laughing. The grandfather disappeared from the photographs too, and that was sad, but that was the natural order of things. The mother, though, was just… gone. No more laughter. No more wonderment. No more of anything. Just the grandmother and her daughter’s children.
Brianna began to weep silently, unsure as to why. As Garrett called for her, she returned to that last photograph of the mother, pressed her fingers to her lips, and brought them to the glass.
Garrett came to her, and she wrapped her arms around him, unable to explain to him why she was crying. “Make love to me,” she whispered to him, taking Garrett by the hand and leading him towards the grandchild’s bedroom. Not the young mother’s. That place was sacred, and belonged to this family alone.
* * *
Afterwards, as Garrett lolled against the stacked pillows, Brianna picked up one of the young woman’s books and flipped through it. She’d slipped on her panties, but apart from that, both of them were still nude, and Garrett was thoroughly enjoying the view.
He’d thought her earlier tears had sprung from the waking nightmares springing from their life together, and he’d felt guilty, but he said nothing. Brianna never wanted his apologies, not when the work he did as a vigilante meant so much. Besides, their lovemaking had put them both in a better mood, and now he languished in the after-sex bliss as he watched his wife page through the books, sometimes clicking her teeth with a fingernail. At one point, she stalked out of the room, murmuring to herself, and returned a minute later with her phone to write down the names of several of the books.
“What are you doing?” Garrett asked, a lazy grin plastered across his face.
“I thought I was pretty on top of my fantasy writer game, but this woman has this shit on lockdown. I haven’t heard of half these writers and almost all of them look interesting.”
“You’re such a sexy nerd.”
Brianna reached out and squeezed his leg absent-mindedly as she finished typing out another name. After a while, finally satisfied, she returned her attention to Garrett. “It’s still early. I think I’m gonna run out to the SUV and grab the thank-you cards. I can wrap them up before we hit Babb tomorrow.”
Garrett patted the blanket. “Forget the cards. We’ll send what you did today and get the rest in Canada. Come to bed again.”
“Mm.” She looked at his nakedness and parted her lips just slightly. For a moment, he thought he’d won, but finally she shook her head. “That’d cost a fortune, I think. I can do this now, and you can tell me the first part of the story.”
Like a child being denied a treat in line at the grocery store, he gave a long-suffering groan. “Fine. But I’m helping you.”
“I lost the bet.” A week or two before the wedding, Brianna had wanted to try out a crazy idea – no sex in the days leading up to their marriage. They’d turned it into a bet as to who would crack first. In the tail hours of their reception, Garrett had pulled a dirty trick and made Brianna practically dizzy with need when he pulled her away for a quiet moment. She’d agreed reluctantly he’d won the bet, and as payment, she had to write up the thank-you cards.
“Forget the bet. The sooner we get them done, the sooner I can get back up in you.” He grinned slyly.
“You know just what to say to a woman to make her naughty bits all messy.”
She chewed on the end of a finger for a while. In the end, his hand, which had wandered south of his hips as he watched her with a growing intensity in his eyes, was what convinced her. She wanted that hand to be hers, damn it. “Fine. But I still feel like I owe you.”
His hand stopped. “Brianna, don’t ever feel that way.”
“I was just jok-”
“No,” Garrett said, and sat upright. His eyes were cold now. Almost angry. “I don’t think you know the depth of what you’ve done for me. The darkness you pushed back.”
“That’s not a joke you ever tell me. Without you, the anger, the depression… I don’t know how much longer I could have survived it. Just the day before we met again, I was losing it. I beat a man nearly to death. That’s not an exaggeration, Brianna. He’ll never, ever think right.”
“He was a Legion fuckbag.”
Garrett shrugged. “And he deserved what he got. But that doesn’t mean I should have done it. You calmed me. You are my heart.” He took her hand and pressed it to the center of his chest, and breathed deeply. “Do you feel that?”
Lower. “Do you feel this?”
“Yes,” she whispered as he stiffened.
“They’re yours. My breath, my body. Yours. You owe me nothing. You take what you want when you want it.”
“Yesss,” she hissed.
His fingers locked with hers and he stood up. She studied his eyes, at the need and the fire there, and gasped when he let go to spin her towards the bed. Taking her hands again, he planted them on the bed, and she glanced over her shoulder, giving him the little nod he wanted. He let out a thin grunt, gripped her panties in his hand and yanked them down her legs.
When he took her, he was not gentle. He pushed his need into her, his gratitude, his existence. He showed her his intensity, how much he craved her, and it was good, so very good, and she cried out with it, loving it, loving him.
* * *
Afterwards, Brianna was so knock-kneed that she needed a few minutes to recover. Garrett slipped out to the SUV, dressed only in his boxer briefs, and retrieved the cards. The rain hadn’t let up. Good, he thought. This place meant more to him than a hotel.
Inside, the spray of a shower was going from the bathroom beside the guest bedroom. he stocked the fire before returning to the bed they were using. Brianna came out of the shower moments later, draped in a plaid robe with more holes than fabric. He took back up his position at the head of the bed and made room for her.
Once they came up with a good system – she’d do five thank yous while he addressed the cards, then they’d switch – she nestled into him a little tighter and he began to speak as they worked. “All right. The cross in my safe.” Garrett smiled, his eyes going vacant for just a moment as he was lost in memory. “Let me tell you about the first woman I ever loved.”