Ami Grandle clutched the stuffed teddy bear to her chest and watched her house burn. Acrid smoke enveloped the waning moon overhead. Hungry flames licked at her bedroom curtains, the blue and white ones that her mother let her pick out at K-Mart in downtown Brighton. Soon the second floor dissolved into a sea of orange. Her mother’s screams penetrated the night, muffled from inside the inferno. Certainly, she thought, her mother would make it out alive. “Mom!” she screamed. Should she go back for her?
But in a moment, the front door opened and her mother ran into the yard. “Ami,” she gasped, stumbling forward into her daughter’s arms. “I thought you were trapped.”
She shook her head. “I’m okay.”
Ami tried to pull her mother back into a comforting embrace, but she pulled away, the outline of her slender form silhouetted by flames reaching up to challenge the darkness of the summer night.
Her mother grabbed Ami’s wrist, lifting her hands to her face.
The kerosene. She smells the kerosene.
“What have you done?”
Ami looked away. “I didn’t want anyone to know. The police would take you from me.”
“I could have told them the truth. He was a monster,” she whispered. “It was self-defense.”
She didn’t care what her mother said. Ami needed the house to burn, needed him to burn. “Mom,” she said, trying to steady her voice. “Tell them I was fi lling the kerosene lantern Grandma gave me. Tell them I stole one of your cigarettes.” She turned to face the sound of an approaching siren. “It was all an accident."
Her mother wrapped her arms around her and began to cry. “Ami, Ami,” she cried. “What has happened to my little girl?”
She let herself relax in her mother’s arms.
“I’m so sorry, Ami. I’m so sorry.”
Her mother lifted her head to face the distant siren. “Go around to the spigot near the shed. Wash away that dreadful smell.”
Claire McCall closed her hand around the pistol’s grip, snapped off the safety, and stared into the darkness. The room was midnight black except for the digital alarm clock that cast an eerie green glow across her pillow: 3:00. The numbers mocked her inability to sleep. Her heart pounded as she tightened her grip and waited for another sound to break the silence.
She mouthed his name. “Tyler.” It had been six weeks since the assault, six weeks since the violent intrusion into her bedroom by Tyler Crutchfield, a former employee who had gone by the name of Cyrus Hensley. She stared at a dim slit of light beneath her door.
A creak from the old floorboards whispered a different message. She sat and listened, nodding her head in quiet resolution. She weighed the pistol in her hand and thought about the last time she’d used it. Right there, at the foot of her bed, she’d defended herself against him. Claire steadied the handgun, lifting it up and steeling herself for a shot toward the door. I won’t just wound him this time.
Outside, a peaceful blanket of night cuddled Stoney Creek and the surrounding Apple Valley. Beyond her home sang the comforting noises of the country. The barking of the neighbor’s dog. The wind rustling pine branches against the roof of the small ranch house. A summer locust. The soprano chorus of the frogs seeking food or love or both.
But she’d heard something else. Inside. A noise in the hall and then in the kitchen. Footsteps. Willing the old box springs not to squeak, she rose and crossed to the door. She twisted off the dead bolt, lifted the locking chain, and turned the doorknob to unsnap the lock. Opening the door, she slipped into the hall with the gun lifted at arm’s length in front of her.
She paused at the end of the hallway and listened. A glass clinked against the counter. She stepped quickly into the kitchen with her arms extended, pointing the gun in the direction of the sink.
After a few seconds, her eyes adjusted to the dim light and she could see a woman, facing away, looking through a window into the night. Claire lowered the pistol to her side and took a deep breath. Her mother turned around. “Oh,” she gasped, sloshing a glass of water on her nightgown.
“Claire, you startled me.”
“Mom.” She followed her mother’s gaze to the gun. “I — ” She halted.
“I thought you were an intruder.”
“Put that thing down before you kill someone.”
Claire slowly uncurled her blanched fingers and laid the weapon on the counter.
“This isn’t rational.”
Claire knew that. She couldn’t dispute it. She shrugged. “Fear is irrational.”
“Tyler is in prison, honey. He can’t get you anymore.”
“I hear you. Just tell that to my gut.”
Della stepped toward her daughter and enveloped her in a hug. “Don’t you think you should talk to someone?”
“We’ve been through this.” Claire broke away, and touched the pistol again. “I just feel safer if it’s near me, that’s all.”
Della lifted gray-streaked blonde hair behind her ear. “How did someone so stubborn come out of me?”
Claire squinted back at her mother, feeling the sting of her accusation.
Della laughed. “Don’t look so hurt,” she said, turning back to the sink. “Want some coffee?”
“I want some sleep.”
“It won’t kill you to get some help.”
“I just need some time.”
“Want to know what I think?”
Claire shook her head and sat at the kitchen table. “When have my desires ever stopped you from giving an opinion?”
“You’re not afraid of Tyler anymore.” Della snapped on a fluorescent light over the sink. “How many locks do you have on the bedroom door?”
Claire didn’t answer. They both knew the answer.
“Tyler is locked away. This is Stoney Creek, one of the safest towns around. It makes no sense for you to have to protect yourself this way.”
Claire sighed. “I told you fear wasn’t rational.”
“You’re trying to protect yourself against the future. Ever since you got the results of your Huntington’s disease gene status, you’ve grown more and more withdrawn. You’ve had locks installed on the doors, alarmed the house, have Mace under your pillow, and a gun on the nightstand.”
“He tried to rape me, Mom. Forgive a girl for being afraid.”
“I know you. You’ve been through similar trouble before.” Della threw up her hands. “Brett Daniels,” she said, speaking the name of a troubled resident who stalked Claire during her internship. “He spraypainted threats on your door and tried to run you off the road.”
“So?” Della shook her head. “You didn’t react this way then.”
“Maybe this is different. It was here. In my own bed. Maybe I should move.”
“Maybe you should admit that you’re trying to defend yourself against the future.”
“So now you’re a psychologist.”
“I’m your mother. That qualifies me to make a judgment.”
“Tyler is only an excuse. There is only one thing stalking you now.”
She looked at Della, silhouetted by the light behind her. “Huntington’s disease.” She spoke the name of the disease she’d inherited from Wally, her father. She couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of her voice. “And you think that I think that this gun is going to keep HD at bay?”
“Of course not. But your fear that HD will strike and spoil your future is manifested in your need for that gun.”
Claire felt like cursing. Was it anger over her mother’s insight? Or has Huntington’s already started to affect me, altering my personality so that I’ ll be less inhibited and more likely to . . . She closed her fist and counted. One, two, three, four, ten! “And where did you get your psychiatry degree?”
Della stared at her daughter. To Claire, it was the look you give a stranger who has mayonnaise on his cheek and doesn’t know. Pity. Embarrassment.
“I need some sleep,” Claire muttered. She stood and walked toward the hallway, but not before picking up the pistol from the counter.
“Claire,” her mother said softly.
Claire looked back at Della without speaking.
“I saw a beautiful wedding dress in Brighton last week. I want to show you.”
She smiled. That was Della. Always trying to get Claire to look at the bright side, reminding her that John had only recently popped the question after learning that Claire carried the HD gene. “Okay, Mom,” she whispered. She paused. “I’m supposed to see my genetics counselor today. Maybe I’ll see what she thinks of your theory.”
Claire walked back down the hall to her room, locked, dead-bolted, and chained her door, and set the pistol on her nightstand. She reached her hand beneath her pillow and closed it around a small canister of pepper spray.
She lay awake wondering about whether she’d ever be able to follow through and marry the man she loved. Mom wants me to look at wedding dresses. Her eyes flooded with tears. Is it fair to doom his future just because mine is ruined?