Christine Zephyr puts the keys to her mom's Volkswagen Beetle in the visor, shoves her bag under the seat, and casts a worried glance at the three small white boxes on the passenger seat.
These started appearing a few days ago, balanced on the ledge of her bedroom window. She'd called the police, but couldn't turn them in, until today. Now, she has to ask her friends' advice before going to the police again.
"It's not happening." She cups her belly, feeling the tiny bump there, proving that she really is four months pregnant. "There's so much that I have to tell them, especially how this isn't the biggest mistake of my life." Her smile is soft, loving. "Oh, Maia, my perfect little angel. I know that you're a girl, even though everyone will say I can't, but I just know you are. Jason already loves you as much as I do."
An image of the guy she loves with all her heart rises up. She takes courage from it and looks at the boxes again. Christine wipes away an anxious tear and gets out of the little car, leaving the door open. She parked in the smaller lot at the lake, to avoid anyone who might be here. Not that anyone will be, with snow already falling, but she doesn't want to run into anyone who might brave the weather.
Once outside in the bitter cold wind, Christine opens her iPhone and sends a text to Lisa, telling her to meet at the lake near their spot. Lisa will know what Christine means. They always do this, but today Christine is very nervous, scared of her own shadow, frightened of the stranger who’s been leaving her worthless junk at her home. He could be anywhere at any time—he is a mystery to her, one who poses unknown dangers. All she knows is that somehow he found her, chose her. But for what?
The text jingle startles Christine. She looks at her phone, at a picture of Lisa beside her response.
We're already here, parked near the school entrance. Where U @?
A tiny smile flits across Christine's lips as she answers. Our usual parking place. Hurry. Need to talk.
That Lisa and the rest of their group parked on the other side of the lake bothers Christine. She had hoped to come home, to fall back into the comfortable things she remembered and loved so much, but everything is different from how it used to be.
Mama seems lost in her head, forgetting important stuff all the time. Daddy downright lied to Christine yesterday, when he said that he and Mama had to meet up with Lisa's parents in Savannah. That was after Christine heard him talking to a doctor on the kitchen phone. The conversation was mostly whispers that included a lot of "what ifs," but even she could understand there was something awful going on, and she suspected it had to do with how her mother forgot everything lately.
Mama can't be sick. I'm about to have her first grandchild. She's always wanted a grandbaby to spoil, that's why she can't be sick.
Thrown out of her desperate prayer by the cracking of a twig, Christine glances around the parking lot in terror. Not so long ago, she would have laughed at the thought of anyone thinking that place was scary, but that was before the mysterious gifts, and the sensation of someone watching her all the time.
This particular parking lot has always belonged to Landry's teens. They come out here on warm summer nights, pretty much any night they can get a car and away from their parents, to make out, and sometimes go so far they end up parents at a young age.
Of course, not many young lovers will venture out on a day like this, unless they're in desperate need of privacy. She knows all too well what happens in this isolated area, having conceived her daughter here, on a weekend trip home to introduce her fiancée to her parents. Christine and Jason had received a massive blow, when her mom didn't recognize either of them after several explanations, and they'd come here. One thing led to another, and Christine returned to her studies at JSU in Alabama, aware that she might be pregnant, but uncaring of the consequences.
The way she met Jason still thrills Christine, only a few days after she, Janice, and Lisa reported for the Marching Ballerinas camp for first time participants. He had stopped to watch the practice, and smiled at Christine the whole time. She had almost messed up enough to get thrown off the team, but she managed to return his smile and complete her routine. Then he had asked her to join him in the library's coffee shop. They had moved so fast that she was almost scared of what they were doing, until that night right in this very spot four months ago, when their lovemaking had taken on a desperation that she felt she needed to have to get some normalcy back in her life.
"I still love Jason so much." She stares off into the distance, consumed by an image of her fiancée. "He was so wonderful when I told him that we were about to be parents." Christine looks down at the baby bump. "You and me, Maia, we're taking care of this problem, so we can be with your daddy tonight without this scaring us so much."
Her heart beating a million miles a minute, she slams the door and glances at front of the vehicle.
"I'm sure I left the extra key under the bumper," she whispers. "We won't be long, no matter how much Lisa wants to gather samples. It's too cold."
A small smile relieves some of Christine's anxiety. Her closest friend, with Janice not far behind, just loves to collect samples of any water source. Lisa's obsession with cleaning up the lakes and streams around Landry often had them out at all hours, in any kind of weather when they went to high school. Even now, Christine can't say no to trips to local areas around Jacksonville State University, to continue what they started in their hometown.
Huddling against the wind, she picks her way across the pebble-strewn path. Christine stops near the lake and stares to the southwest, where her alma mater, Landry High School, sits in quiet splendor. Somewhere between here and there, her friends are hiking toward her.
She shivers, but not from the blast of icy wind. This is what she's been feeling since coming home, the sensation of a person watching her every move. Christine begins to wonder how smart she was to come out here on her own. She could have called Lisa or Janice, and suggested that they meet up in Chattanooga, do some Christmas shopping, and stop for lunch, where Christine would have broken her news.
"That would have been warmer." Christine wraps her arms protectively over the baby bump. "And safer."
A year ago, she would have laughed at anyone who told her that she would be pregnant and considering a quiet marriage to a man four years older than she is. Then, all she cared about was being a high school senior. Now?
"I want this baby. I want my Maia in my arms."
Christine stops near the edge of the lake and stares out over the water. "I want my friends to understand."
She shivers again. It's that same sensation, of someone watching her, but this time from up close. Fear choking her, Christine turns around and gasps.
A man stands inches from her. She didn't hear him coming. Christine cups her burgeoning belly, fear drying her tongue to the roof of her mouth.
"Whore!" The man points at her belly. "We had a committed relationship, and you screwed another man. There's the evidence right in front of my eyes. You're nothing but a whore."
His eyes scare the life out of her. They're dead, soulless, compelling. She can't move, no matter how much she wants to.
Tears wash her face. She's trapped, with nowhere to turn, but to dive into the lake and try to swim before the freezing water paralyzes her muscles. That would mean endangering her baby. She can't move, can't put this little life in so much danger. Yet, she's in danger from this man approaching her step by step.
"Nothing to say." The man backhands her. "You told me that you loved me. You accepted my gifts. No whore does this to me!"
He's on her. His hands twist around her throat, and he lifts her from the ground. Christine kicks her feet. Her fingers attempt to claw at his face, a face now drawn into a horrifying scowl.
"I loved you." He shakes her like a rag doll.
Stars dance in front of her eyes. It becomes harder and harder to draw a breath. Blackness takes over. She tries to sob, but his hands deny her that relief before everything goes dark.
* * * *
Fred Trackon shakes his head in disbelief. It has happened again. No matter how hard he tries, all the bitches that he loves turn on him. They call the cops, or tell their parents, or scream at him to leave them alone, and they shouldn't.
A fat belly bumping against his alerts Fred to the fact that this latest bitch is now touching him, pressing her traitorous body against his. He lowers his arms, draping her over the frozen ground. Her blue eyes stare blankly at him. He kicks the side of her baby-filled belly, looking anywhere but at her face.
He kneels in front of her, his hands still clenched around her two-timing neck. This one screwed another man, got herself pregnant, and flaunted it in front of him. She turned her back on him, and now she must pay his price.
"Why, Christine?" he asks the still body before him. "Why did you have to do this? You knew that I would punish you."
Her waist length blonde hair fans beneath her still body. There is still a look of horror, of absolute terror etched into her face. Christine Zephyr had enticed him to come after her. Her private messages, left in places where no one would look, teased him to get closer, to try again for a beautiful, pure girl to make his own.
Yes, he had only known her for a few days, but Fred knew from the first second that he saw her in the grocery store that she was his. The care with which she selected oranges from the display, her slender fingers touching each fruit gently, her beautiful smile as she walked along the crowded aisles, gave him the only message that he had needed.
That she walked out of the store and got into a pickup with some jerk of a guy didn't faze Fred. He knew from past experience that his girl had to dump her current relationship before coming to him. She would, and they would be a couple forever, but no sex – not until they were married. Sex before they married would have made her a whore.
For the last three days, he had left her gifts. She shied away, but he kept on leaving her more presents, to make her like him. Fred knew that she would want him, as soon as she got to know him.
That's why he followed her here, to the lake that Landry maintains for people who like to swim, fish, or just hang out. He learned that much the first few days he lived in this Southern town, where he and his brother, Bart, moved to after Fred had gotten in trouble up in Pennsylvania with a couple of other bitches.
Good thing that no one ever found out about all the others. Who cares about girls that run away from home? They might have looked pretty, but they were whores – selling their bodies for drugs. All they wanted was fifty bucks to blow me. None of them were anything but an empty head, and greedy, grasping hands. The world is better off without them.
Not that he didn't sample what they offered. Fred used whores, but he never paid them. Right about now, newscasters all over the northeast were reporting on the Streetwalker Killer. The name wasn't as cool as the Night Stalker, but Fred didn't let that bother him.
He was free of that fear for the rest of his life. No one would ever connect him to a bunch of whores that got what they deserved.
"You shouldn't have screwed around on me, Christine." Fred brushes a stray hair away from her heart-shaped face. "You and me, we could have been good. I would have let you sing in my band. I really would have."
Her staring, accusing blue eyes reproach him. Fred uses two fingers to close those eyes, to shut out their fear and agony. He can't look at Christine any longer. She is one of the bad ones, the kind of girls that his mama always warned him to stay away from, but he can't.
Like Mama has any room to talk, what with her whoring around just for money to stuff her face, or buy stupid stuff. She's right about one thing, though. I do like girls like Christine.
Girls who are pretty and popular attract him, like ants to a spilled jar of honey.
The specter of spending another year in a place where doctors shove pills down his throat, and none of the female nurses come close to him scares Fred. He can't get caught, and he would have, if Christine had called the police.
A bitter wind blasts through the trees around the lake. Fred stands, and then he leans over. He cups his hands under Christine's arms and pulls her up from the weeds where he punished her for hurting him.
One arm supporting her legs, and the other under her neck, he stares down into the face of an angel – an angel with the soul of the devil. One step and then another brings him to the edge of the water.
There is only one place to put a lying whore.
"Over here," a voice calls. "Christine told us to meet her near the picnic tables. Hurry!"
The voice is female. She sounds pretty, interested, but she also presents a threat. Fred can't let anyone see what he has done to the latest love of his life.
"It's all your fault, Christine," he says softly, not wanting to be overheard. He steps into the water, ignoring the cold seeping through his jeans. "You just didn't get it. No bitch ever does."
Fred has loved a lot of women, but they've all turned out to be sluts. They never understand what love means.
Christine is like all the rest that he's had the bad luck to love. A foot shorter than him, she drew him with special signals – a smile she let everyone else think was meant for a crowd, but in actuality was only for him, laughter that tore at his aching soul, and how she came when he sent her secret messages through his mind.
The first moment she smiled at him, Fred knew that she was his next girlfriend. He had hoped for marriage, but like all the other bitches, Christine had betrayed him.
She didn't believe that to him love meant ownership. The gifts he left her are nowhere in sight, and they should be. Any woman would be proud to have such lovely things. He takes a deep sniff, to see if she at least wore the perfume, but the only thing he can smell is the rot around the lake.
"Just like all the other whores. Nothing is good enough for you," he says softly.
Fred knows that he has to finish with Christine. If he's caught holding her dead body, he'll go back to prison, or to the nuthouse, and he can't have that. Her confession that made him strangle the life out of her doesn't haunt him. He heard her talking about being pregnant. He saw the small bump in her belly, evident against her slender, slight body. And she was proud of her whorish state. She even talked about another guy.
“She’s garbage. Time to throw it out.”
He takes another step into the near freezing water. Her hair drags through the dark liquid, spreading out around them like a loving blanket.
No one can ever find Christine. Never.
He lowers the body and lays her face down in her watery grave. Fred stands in the water and watches the lying bitch sink beneath the ripples.
"I won't go back to that place."
Fred returns to the shore, glances at a cell phone lying to one side of where he caught her. Her iPhone flashes that she's received a text. He opens the phone, stares at the picture of a woman far more beautiful than Christine ever thought of being.
Where u @? We're looking for you.
The person who sent this is Lisa Andres – a beauty queen, a person who looks like she'll never laugh at him, a gorgeous girl that he can be proud to sing to at his concerts. He trudges away with Christine's phone tucked into a pocket. No one will find this lying bitch. She's nothing. She's forever gone.
Lisa occupies Fred's mind now. Lisa is his new girlfriend. Lisa will soon know this.
"No one will stop me from getting to my Lisa." Fred pulls out the iPhone and stares at her picture. "So beautiful. Beautiful face. Beautiful red hair – like fire. She's all mine."