Her grandmother’s shoulders made a funny little up-and-down movement. "I imagine your mother’s upset about that.”

"Big time,” Karen assured her. "Luckily Thom was there. He’s a calming influence?”

Beverly’s pencil-thin eyebrows arched expressively. "A calming influence?”

"Yes. He drove her to the airport. You know what, Grandma? I hope Thom Nichols sweeps my mom right off her feet. That’s what she really needs, a man who loves her. Not someone like my dad, who only knows how to love for a little while. Thom’s the kind of man who loves for a long time.”

"How wise you sound, child,” her grandmother said softly.

Karen sat up in bed and arranged the covers around her hips. "Paula and I’ve got it all figured out,” she said, speaking fast because she was excited and happy. "Paula’s mom died and my dad left us, and she likes my mom and I think her dad’s really cool. So we decided the four of us would make a really, really great family.”

"You think that, do you?”

"Yup. Now all we need to do is convince everyone else involved. Did Mom tell you about the romantic dinner Paula and I cooked for her and Thom?” Karen was proud of that.

"I can’t say that she did.”

"She didn’t tell you?” Karen was appalled, and after all the work she’d gone to, too. "The spaghetti sauce was a little too thick, and the noodles overcooked, but only a little. Mom and Thom did a good job of making it sound like everything was perfect, though. They were great about it.”

"So how’d everything go?”

Karen covered her mouth and giggled. "They kissed, and they weren’t even standing under the mistletoe.” She lowered her voice so her grandpa wouldn’t overhear her. "It wasn’t the first time I saw them kissing, either.”

Karen noticed how her grandmother’s interest piqued when she started talking about the two of them kissing.

"I see,” Beverly Shields said. "Well, that does sound promising.”

"We think so.”

"We?” Beverly questioned.

"Paula and me. You know, Grandma, when we first moved to this neighborhood I didn’t think I’d ever make friends again. Then I met Paula, and it was like God wanted the two of us to be together. Already we’ve decided to be friends for life.”

"That’s wonderful, sweetheart.”

"I just wish…” She lowered her lashes, because it did hurt to think about her mom and her dad and the way they continued to hate each other.

"What do you wish?”

"Nothing.” She didn’t want to talk about it, not even with family.

Beverly stood. "You’ll call me if you need anything.”

"I’m not a kid anymore.”

"Sometime I forget that, Karen,” Beverly said softly. "You’ll need to forgive me.”

"That’s okay.” She rolled onto one side and pulled the covers over her shoulder.

"Sleep well.”

Her grandmother stood in the doorway, her hand on the doorknob. She hesitated, and Karen liked to think that maybe her grandma was saying a prayer over her the way she had that one night. She hoped that she was.

"I’ll sleep good,” Karen promised, but she wasn’t so sure about that. It never felt right when she wasn’t in her own bed with her own pillow that she could beat up and bend just the way she liked.

The room went dark when the door closed, and Karen kept her eyes wide open for a couple of minutes until they adjusted to the lack of light. She’d rather she was home. Not that she was afraid.

It was the dream that worried her. The last time she’d spent the night at her grandparents’ house, the nightmare had come. She didn’t want it to return.

It was a long time before Karen felt herself relax enough to fall asleep.

It happened then the way it always did. She was in a bedroom in a home she didn’t recognize when she heard her mom and her dad arguing. She was younger than she was now, probably only five, because she was sitting on the floor, playing with baby dolls. Doll clothes were scattered all over the carpet, and she was afraid her parents were angry because she’d made such a big mess.

The fighting grew louder and louder, and Karen covered her ears. But even that didn’t help. The words were cruel and ugly and seemed so sharp that they cut at her skin even though they weren’t directed at her.

Karen moved into the kitchen, where her mother and father were shouting, only now they were speaking in a foreign language. She couldn’t understand what they were saying any longer. But the words were just as ugly and spiked, so that each one hurt the other. Not just Karen, but each other. Her father’s face was bloody from all the words. Her mother’s, too.

Desperately Karen tried to get Maureen’s attention, thinking she could distract her mother easier than she could her father. But when she walked over and tugged at Maureen’s blouse, her mother ignored her and gestured for her to move away. Her hands, Karen noticed, had blood on them from all the ugly words.

Frantic now, Karen went to her father next and pleaded with him to stop and listen to her. But he was embroiled in the intense argument and ignored her.

Distraught by this point, Karen stood on a chair and screamed for them to notice her. But it did no good. She held out her arms to them, but they were always just out of reach.

Then there was a knife, a big one that looked like the kind hunters used. It appeared as if by magic. It was polished and gleamed in the light. Sometimes her mother was the one holding the knife, and at other times it was her father.

This time it was her father.

He raised his arm and pulled the knife back, all the while talking to her mother in the language Karen couldn’t understand.

Maureen’s eyes were round and terrified as she backed away. The knife grew bigger and sharper. Her mother’s voice pleaded with him. Karen still couldn’t understand the words, but she knew that her mother was afraid. Karen was afraid for her. Maureen ran and hid in the bathroom and locked the door.

This was the part that always confused Karen, because she could see through the bathroom wall as if it weren’t there. Her mother had a phone with her, and she dialed the police and was screaming that her husband was about to kill her.

But she had the wrong number, and the people on the other line didn’t care.

Karen was weeping by then, crying for her mother to dial 911. She pleaded with her daddy not to hurt her mother. Her dad didn’t listen, and neither did anyone else.

It was at this point that the bathroom door opened, and the stranger who had been her father walked in. Maureen stood inside the bathtub, her back flattened against the wall.

Karen tried to stop him. She threw herself in front of him and held on to his legs, but he moved forward, dragging her with him. Karen tried so hard to get him to stop, but he wouldn’t.

Her mother screamed, and Karen watched as her father lowered the knife, plunging it into her mother’s heart. When he drew out the blade, it was coated red with blood.

Karen screamed. Her mother was dead. Her father had killed her mother.

She screamed and screamed and screamed.

"Karen…Karen!”

Bright lights blinded her. Karen’s heart beat like a race car piston. Her skin felt cold and clammy, and her forehead was damp with sweat.

"Sweetheart.”

The soothing, gentle voice belonged to her grandmother. Karen clung to her, holding on as tight as she could as the image of her mother’s bloody body faded from her memory.

"It’s all right. It was a dream.”

Karen started to sob. She hated it when she cried, but she couldn’t make herself stop. "Sometimes I don’t think it’s a dream,” she whispered. "Sometimes I think it all really happened.”

"What happened, honey? Can you tell me about it?”

"No,” she said emphatically, and shook her head. She didn’t want to talk about it. Didn’t want to tell her grandmother about the knife and the blood and the hate.

Her grandma’s arms were wrapped around her, and she swayed gently back and forth.

Maureen stared at the television screen in the hotel room. It was like a thousand other hotel rooms she’d stayed in for these business trips. She was restless and not the least bit tired, although she’d been on the go since early that morning. By all rights she should be exhausted.

She decided to take a long, hot shower and soothe her aching muscles. In addition, she wanted to think over the things that Thom had said to her.

Forgive Brian?

Clearly the man didn’t know what he was talking about. His wife had died. Forgiving her for dying couldn’t be compared to the craziness she’d been subjected to in the years she was married to Brian.

Thom didn’t know the half of it. She told him about the infidelities and troubles her ex-husband had holding a job. What she hadn’t gone into were the brushes with the law, the get-rich-quick schemes. The stealing.

Only what he’d taken hadn’t been from strangers. He’d robbed his own wife and daughter.

Maureen’s blood pressure rose just thinking about it. Shaking her head, wanting to throw off the ugly thoughts, she undressed and turned on the shower. The water pressure left a lot to be desired, so she cut the shower short.

Dressed in her robe, a towel wrapped around her hair, she moved back into the room. And froze.

The pad by the telephone had moved and was on the bed.

Had someone been in the room? She checked the door and found the chain securely in place.

She picked up the pad and found CALL KAREN scribbled on it. It was the most bizarre thing she’d ever seen.

Generally Maureen didn’t call her parents when she was out of town. They had a number where she could be reached, and if there was an emergency, they could phone her.

It was late, after ten, and her parents were sure to be in bed. Their sleep habits had changed now that they were older, and they retired earlier.

CALL KAREN.

Maureen didn’t know who had left the message or how it had gotten into her room, but she wasn’t messing with fate. She sat on the edge of the bed and reached for the telephone.

"Maureen, is that you? I can’t believed you called.” Her mother’s voice greeted her, sounding worried and distraught. "I was just trying to decide if I should phone you.”

"Mom, what’s wrong?” Maureen’s heart constricted with fear.

"It’s Karen. She’s had another one of those dreams.”

"Oh, dear.”

"It would help if you talked to her.”

"Of course.”

A moment passed before her daughter got on the line. "Mom?”

Maureen could tell that Karen had been sobbing; she also knew how much the twelve-year-old hated to cry. "Hi, sweetheart.”

"Are you okay?”

The kid was scared out of her mind and worried about Maureen. "I’m fine. How about you?”

"Mom?” Karen asked, and sniffled. "Do you hate my dad enough to kill him?”

Paul felt as free as the breeze. The letter of resignation was typed, copied, and ready to be mailed to the list of church elders. And to think he’d managed all that without Leta’s help. Amazing.

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