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Prudence, Chapter 24

She huddled on the couch, sobbing, hugging her crying baby to her chest. Her eye was black and swollen nearly shut, and a trickle of blood ran down her chin from a split lip.

"Shut that brat up, slut. I don't intend to listen to another man's bastard scream in my own house." The man stood by the fireplace, a glass of bourbon in one hand and the bottle it came from in the other. He was a good-looking man in his early thirties, with dark brown hair and eyes that were almost gold. He was tall and strongly built, with thick, heavy muscles and huge hands. His handsome face was twisted in a dark scowl.

"I didn't cheat on you, Ryan! Celeste is your daughter!"

"Bitch!" He strode angrily over to the couch. "Lying little slut. I was offshore in February."

"She was just early--"

His hand cracked across her face. "Liar. She doesn't look early to me."

The baby screamed and he snatched it from her arms. "I told you to shut that brat up. Since you won't, I will."

"Ryan, please! What are you doing?!"

Crossing the room, he wrenched open the grate on the fireplace.

"NO!" She threw herself across the room, trying to tug the crying baby away from him. "Ryan! Oh god, stop!"

He easily held the baby away from her with one hand while he stirred the flames higher. "Bitch. Whore. You'll burn in hell and your little bastard with you. He tossed the poker down and started to unwrap the baby, shoving his wife roughly to the ground.

She sobbed in terror, and her desperate hands found the poker, still hot from the fire. As Ryan grinned down at her and prepared to toss the infant in the roaring flames, she swung the hot iron bar with all her strength, striking him across the face. The smell of sizzling flesh filled the air and he screamed, dropping the child.

The woman caught her as she fell and scrambled madly away, lurching to her feet and running for the door. She almost made it.

With a bellow of pure rage he caught her, wrapping his fist in her long braid and yanking her backward.

She curled around her baby as she fell, trying to keep her from her insane husband's reach, but her strength was no match for his, and he unwrapped her as easily as he'd peel a banana and tore the child from her grip.

The poker had slashed deep into his flesh, the skin of his right cheek seared and split, his right eye just a blackened, bloody, oozing mass. She stared at him in horror, knowing that no sane man would be smiling in the grip of such pain.

Tenderly, he caressed her cheek. "Emma darling. Fire would have been fast, but now she'll suffer. And so will you, while you listen to her cries grow weaker and weaker. You'll both pay for this. "

He drug her up the stairs to their bedroom. Opening the closet, he laid the child on the floor and grabbed a handful of belts from the shelf. Closing the door on the screaming infant, he tossed the hysterical woman on the bed and proceeded to tie her tightly to the bedposts.

He tortured her for three days, using knives and fire and his body to torment her as the baby's cries grew more desperate, more terrified, and then faint and weak, and finally stopped completely late in the second day.

Finally, he lay a gentle kiss upon her burned and bleeding lips. "It's been fun, sweetheart, but I have to go to work now. Goodbye." He plunged a knife into her stomach, twisting the blade viciously, and left it. Then he got up and showered. . He took clothes from the closet, ignoring the tiny corpse, and dressed. He smiled into his wife's tormented, still aware eyes one last time.

"You can stay in bed, love. The baby's sleeping." Then he left, never to return.

Mark woke in a cold sweat, every detail of the dream burned into his mind. Retching, he scrambled desperately out of bed, vomiting on the floor as he ran for the bathroom and fell to his knees in front of the toilet. He was sick for a long time, retching and heaving long after his stomach was empty, leaving him with aching muscles and a throbbing headache by the time he was finally able to stand up and splash cold water on his face. He managed to clean up the mess before stumbling back to the bed where he lay, wide awake and terrified to go back to sleep.

It was his tight, shivering grip around her waist that finally woke her. She blinked sleepily as she turned in his arms to look up at him. "Mark? What's wrong, love?"

He shuddered. "I dreamed about them," he said hoarsely.

"Them?"

"Emma... and the baby... and Ryan," he choked out, trying not to be sick again.

"Oh," she said quietly, then sat partway up and cradled his head to her breast, stroking the damp hair back from his temple with cool, soft fingers. He was shivering, even under the blanket, so she tucked him in tightly and held him close, stroking his hair. She kissed his forehead.

"He... he..." Mark shuddered again, squeezing his eyes closed. "He was insane. Insane." He sat bolt upright all of a sudden, grabbing her shoulders, his eyes wild. "He's missing an eye, his right eye. If you see someone like that, get the fuck away from them, promise me!"

"Love, it's okay," she said soothingly. "He's long, long gone. Probably dead."

Mark shivered, shaking his head. "Or he's come back. Remember that message? And the animals... he's capable of that. They suffered less than she did. Promise me."

"What animals?" she asked.

"Oh..." He blinked, calming some. "You weren't at school. There was the body of a tortured, burned, dismembered dog left on the schoolyard this morning, and from what I've heard, it's not the first to be found around here."

"Oh. Fuck," she said. "Honey, I'm sorry. This sort of thing happens every October around here. I think there are some real sickos around who just love to wait for this time of year so they can scare everyone to death. I should have told you."

"It doesn't matter. Just promise me," he begged.

She snuggled down into his chest, wrapping her arms around him. "Okay, love, I promise. Anything that makes you feel better."

He held her close, nearly crying with relief, and let her pet and soothe him back to sleep.

Sleeping, though, turned out to be a bad idea. The dream repeated itself, though not in its entirety. It just skipped from scene to scene, never lingering more than a second or two in any one spot. And apparently his subconscious wanted to scare him to death, because Emma's face kept melting into Kristen's, her dark hair turning red-gold.

He woke with a start when the alarm went off, hitting the button by reflex. He glanced down, and a strand of hair across Kristen's throat looked for a moment like a line of blood. He shuddered, and in that instant realized that there was no way he could make himself leave her alone. He looked around for a phone, but there didn't seem to be one in the room. Not willing to leave her for even an instant, he scooped her into his arms and carried her with him as he headed to look for one.

She yawned, her eyes fluttering open. "Mmm?"

"Looking for a phone," he said. "Calling in sick."

"What's wrong?" She frowned, worried, and put a hand on his cheek.

"Not leaving you alone."

"Love, I'll be fine," she said. "My dad'll be here."

Stubbornly, he shook his head. "Nuh-uh." The dreams were still to vivid, the fear clutching his gut too real. He shivered and tightened his arms around her.

She turned her head and kissed his shoulder. "There's a phone in the guest room, then," she said quietly. "That door, there."

He carried her into the indicated room. It was quite large and well furnished, just somewhat dusty and stale with disuse. It had a much bigger bed than the one in Kristen's room, too, and he sat her down on it before reaching for the phone.

Kristen waited in silence while he called in, his shaking voice making his excuse of a stomach flu sound quite believable. The sympathetic secretary assured him that they'd got a substitute in, and he thanked her and hung up the phone. "There," he said, with a relieved sigh.

She reached for his hand. "Love... you can't be with me every moment of every day."

He sat down and pulled her into his arms. "I can try."

"Honey, you can't. And ever if he were back... there's no reason he'd want to hurt me more than anyone else."

Mark shook his head. "You spend enough time at my house... all he has to do is think you're her. He was insane, love. Utterly insane."

"Then he's really not likely to still be alive, Mark," she pointed out. "Insanity is not a survival trait."

He shivered again, remembering the dream. "Not usually. But sometimes it is. And what if he's been in a mental institution for the past however many years, and just got out?"

"I'll be careful, love," she promised. "I don't go walking anymore, not alone. I don't want to be alone, you know, not at all. But... you can't just stop living to watch over me."

He sighed unhappily. "I know. I know. But humor me today, okay?"

She smiled and rubbed her cheek against his chest. "Okay. I'm selfish enough to be glad to have you with me no matter what."



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