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Prudence, Chapter 21

"What's wrong?" Steven answered the phone, alerted by his caller ID.

"I think we have a problem," Mark said bluntly. "I helped Kristen from the bathroom back to bed, then went back for a glass of water. In the time it took, a message appeared, scrawled in red across the mirror. It said, 'He is near. Beware.' No one knows what happened to Emma's husband." He paused, sharing Steven's silent horror for a moment, then asked, "Do you have a good set of binoculars? Maybe you could take a look over here from your roof?"

"No, unfortunately. You and Kristen should come stay here tonight, though. You can call the sheriff and say you heard an intruder and they'll come out and investigate the place," he suggested worriedly.

"Good idea. We'll be over in just a little while -- If we're not there in, say, 20 minutes, and I haven't called, something's wrong," Mark said.

"Good. See you soon."

Mark returned to the bed and scooped Kristen up in his arms. He carried her downstairs, out to the jeep.

"Mmm? Sweetheart?" she asked. "I thought we were going to bed?" She sounded a touch more coherent than she had before.

"We're going to stay at your dad's house tonight."

"Why?" she asked.

He hesitated, not really wanting to answer her, but finally said, "There was a warning on the mirror. I don't think it's safe here."

She paled. "Someone was in the house? In our room? What sort of warning?"

He shook his head. "I think it was from the ghost. There wasn't time for someone to get into the bathroom and write it. It said 'He is near. Beware.' "

Kristen swallowed hard. "So what are we doing? Besides spending the night at my dad's house, I mean." She was trying for a calm, unafraid tone, but her arms tightened anxiously around his neck.

He squeezed her reassuringly. "I don't know yet," he said, his eyes darting around, trying to stay aware of everything as he deposited her in the jeep. There was nothing unusual, though, nothing out of place around his house or on the drive to Steven's.

Steven met them at the door. "Have you called the sheriff?"

Mark shook his head. "Not yet. I wanted to get her out of there." He sighed. "And I'm trying to figure out what I can tell them that won't make them think I'm nuts. 'A ghost warned me'? Yeah, right."

Steven smiled. "Lie, son. Just tell them you heard something large in the bushes outside, and thought it might be an intruder. Or better yet, you saw a light in the woods and heard shouting."

Mark grinned sheepishly. "Right. Should have thought of that. I'm going to head back over and call them."

Steven shook his head, laying a hand on Mark's arm. "Don't risk going back there. Call from your cell phone. Say you headed over to see if we'd heard anything."

With a nod, Mark pulled out his cellphone and dialed the small police station's emergency number.

"Sheriff Wilkes," came the drowsy answer.

"This is Mark Hasseran. I've got a bit of a problem -- I think someone's messing around in the bushes outside my house."

"Hmm. Probably kids," the sheriff said, "They used to get together out that way. Want me to take a look around?"

"Yeah, if you would. I'm actually over at Steven Davis' place now -- I wanted to see if he'd heard anything around his house," Mark said.

"Had he? Hmm... his daughter at home?"

"Yeah, she'd just gotten back from the hospital with a broken ankle," Mark answered. "They got in a few minutes before I did, and they hadn't heard anything."

"Damn. Thought it might have been her meeting a boyfriend out that way or somethin'." The sheriff sighed. "Okay, I'll head on down that way. I'll call you back at this number after I check the place out."

"Thanks," Mark said. "I'm going to stay over here until I hear from you."

"Not a bad idea. It's probably nothing, but we have some weird things happening recently. People just seem to get crazy this time of year," Sheriff Wilkes said tiredly.

Mark stated his agreement and ended the call. Kristen was waiting on the couch for him, looking small and scared. He sat down beside her, putting his arm around her and pulling her close. "It'll be okay, love." She cuddled up close, then winced in pain, and he kissed her forehead. "Sorry, baby," he said. "You want me to carry you upstairs and put you to bed?"

"No!" She clutched at him, eyes wide. "No, I don't want to be alone."

"Shhh... Okay, love, okay," he soothed. "You do realize that I can't snuggle you like this once the sheriff gets here, though, right?" he asked reluctantly.

"Oh," she said in a small voice, then sighed. "That's okay, I guess. I just don't want to be by myself."

Mark caressed her cheek, a worried frown on his face. "I don't blame you, love."

Steven looked at her assessingly, then asked, "Mark, you brought her pain pills, didn't you?"

"Yes, I did."

"Kris, go ahead and take a pain pill, sweetie," her father suggested. "That shot has worn off. Sleeping is better than worrying." Mark, in complete agreement, dug in his pocket for the pills, but Kristen frowned.

"If I go to sleep, you'll still stay with me, right?" she asked anxiously. "You won't leave me alone?"

"I won't leave you alone, love," Mark promised.

Reluctantly, but in enough pain that she couldn't really argue, Kristen took the pill, and was asleep before the sheriff called back, about half an hour later.

"We didn't find anything, Mark," he said. "Just some footprints in the mud around the pond, but they could be anyone's. It hasn't rained recently, either, so not sure how old they are."

Mark sighed. "Well, maybe it was nothing, but... eh. Maybe I'm just jittery."

"Understandable," Sheriff Wilkes said, a trace of amusement in his voice. "City boy all by his lonesome out in the middle of nowhere. Could be bears or somethin'. Anyway, I checked it out, and it seems okay."

"Well, thanks for looking."

Steven waited quietly until he was off the phone, then asked, "Well?"

Mark passed on what little news there was, then, remembering the security cameras he'd planted around the house, borrowed Steven's computer to telnet in and check the recordings. Nothing. He sighed, looking at Steven. "Damn. Nothing on the cameras. I don't know. I don't want to overlook anything, but... maybe I'm overreacting?" he asked, almost hopefully.

Steven shook his head. "I don't know, son. I really don't."

"I don't know, either," Mark said unhappily. "I think I'm going to carry Kristen upstairs, put her to bed, and hold onto her."

Steven nodded. "You know you can stay here as long as you need to."

"We might take you up on that, Steven," Mark said, quietly, as he bent to pick Kristen up. She whimpered in her sleep, immediately curling tightly against his chest. He frowned and carried her upstairs. He lay her gently on the bed and she moaned, tossing her head from side to side.

He slid in beside her and took her in his arms, trying to comfort her.

She stiffened, flailing at his arms with her hands, and he shook her gently. "Kristen? Love? Wake up!"

She cried out as if in extreme pain, then froze, every muscle tense. Mark watched her, his arms around her waist, with no idea what to do as she started to shiver violently. She couldn't seem to wake up, so he kissed her, hoping that would bring her back to herself. Kristen's eyes flew open, wide and panicked, and she pushed at him for a moment before her face showed recognition, then she grabbed hold and clung to him, still shivering hard. He held her, stroking her back, worried. "You okay, love?" he asked softly.

"N--nightmare," she whispered.

"Bad?" he asked, and she nodded mutely. He stroked her hair, pressing her head against his chest. "Want to tell me about it?"

She shuddered. "Same dream I've been having. Just... worse."

"Worse how?"

"More detailed." She shuddered again. "More real."

He hugged her tightly. "I'm sorry, love. I wish there was something I could do to help."

"Just hold me," she said, "And don't leave me alone."

"I will," he promised, and held her tightly until her shivering eased and the sedative effect of the pain pill pulled her back into sleep. He lay awake, watching her, for a long while, but she seemed to sleep normally after that.

Eventually, he sat up, sitting cross-legged on the bed and looking down at her while he thought. He didn't want to leave her alone while he went to work the next day. He wasn't going to leave her alone, he decided. Quietly, so as not to wake her, he dialed Steven's cellphone with his own, and the two of the talked about it and it was decided that Steven would take off a few days to take care of her and go in on the weekend to make up the few things that couldn't be indefinitely delayed. But she'd still need to 'eat' during the day, that was almost certain, and Mark had no idea how to handle that, and he didn't want to ask Steven and make things even more difficult for the man. So, naturally, he called Kayla.

The only even vaguely useful solution he'd been able to think of was having Kayla skip the last half of the day, after the test she had scheduled for the morning, go home 'sick', and he'd drive her to Kristen's house during his lunch-break and drop her off for a quickie. She wasn't enthralled with that idea. "Look Mark," she said, "I'll do it that way if you really want, but it sounds risky. If my parents find out I'm skipping school, they'll want to know why. If they think I'm really sick, they won't let me go over to Kristen's . If someone sees you driving me over there... well... that would be bad, too."

He sighed deeply. "I know, but... she's going to need to eat."

"Yes, she will," Kayla agreed. "And she'll need to eat normally, too. And everyone knows how forgetful her father can be when he's working. And not everyone knows he's working from home this week. And everyone knows... most importantly, Ward knows... that you're charged with her health and well-being. So you using your lunch hour to check on her wouldn't be all that unusual. They also know how long of a drive it is. I'd bet you can find someone who'd cover for you for the first fifteen minutes or so of fifth period."

He thought about it for a bit. Now that she'd pointed out the possibility, he realized that he probably could persuade the history teacher next door to him to take his trig class for the last fifteen minutes or so. Mr. Brenner had his conference period right before lunch, and usually spent it visiting in one classroom or another, anyway. He wouldn't mind. Greatly relieved, he thanked Kayla profusely and went to bed, holding his sleeping wife close.

Around 3am, after restless tossing and turning that had Mark already partially awake, she sat up in bed with a scream. More nightmares. Bad ones. Bad enough that, even though he held her and did his best to comfort her, she was too scared to go back to sleep. She felt guilty about waking him, up, too, and keeping him awake, and she tried, but she just couldn't stop shivering. He tried to reassure her, but it didn't do much good. Finally, right before he left for work, she gave in to exhaustion and asked him for a pain pill. He wasn't sure whether it was the pain or the hope that the pain pill would knock her out without dreaming that made her ask for it, but either way he was happy to see her take it, and he waited until she'd fallen into a deep, drugged slumber before he left, nearly making himself late for work.

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