She knew that they hurt the boy, because he told her, always, the mornings after he was returned.
She was the only one the boy trusted. She was five and he was four. Each time he was returned to the house, it seemed he had grown smaller.
Black walls and candles, he said. Hoods and robes, like the scary people in Scooby Doo cartoons. Except it wasn't a cartoon. He couldn't describe what the people in hoods and robes did to him because he would start shaking and sobbing as he made the attempt.
He told her it must be something they ate that made them so mean to him. Hales.
She didn't know what hales were and neither did he. But he told her about two pieces of wood crossed, and how they trampled it and kept repeating about the hales they had ate in, but he never knew what they ate the hales in, because they never finished explaining. They just said 'hales ate in' and left it at that. On the last night she saw the boy, she was in his bedroom at the foster home. They heard the car drive up and looked out the window and saw it was them again. She had his toy bow and arrow set, and she vowed to the boy that she wouldn't let them take him again.
She was ready when the man in the mask came into the bedroom. She aimed the arrow at the eyes of the tall man, and the rubber suction cup of the toy arrow hit him squarely in his left eye. He cursed and lifted the mask and rubbed his eye before he realized that she was the one who had fired the arrow, not the boy. He dropped the mask into place and, with a snort of rage, stepped forward and swept her away with a blow across her face.
"I am The Prince," he said, as she struggled to her knees. He moved to stand over her. "Bow to me."
His face. She had seen it before. He was someone she saw at church on Sundays. In a robe at the front, handing out bread to people as they bowed down in front of him.
She did not want to bow.
Instead she rose in defiance and spit on his leg. He lashed out again, hitting her across the cheek. She tried to scream, but the pain was too great. Another man in another mask stepped into the bedroom and pulled him away. Then they took the boy.
She never saw the boy again. He went to live at another house, the people at the house said.
But the man with the mask came back. He wore the mask while he hurt her again. In horrible ways. He promised if she told anyone, he could come back and kill her and then kill the people of the house.
So she didn't tell anyone. She tried to believe it was a dream. A very bad dream.
But some nights she would wake up and shiver and cry and wonder where the boy was. And she would wonder, too, what hales were and what they ate the hales in and how it was that hales could make people so horrible.
Evil hunted her.
It had driven her toward the beach, where, protected by the dark of night, Jaimie Piper crept toward the front window of a small bungalow a few blocks off the ocean in Santa Monica.
She knew it was wrong, sneaking up on her schoolteacher like this, but she couldn't help herself. She was afraid --- really afraid --- and she wanted his help. First she had to make sure he was alone. If he was with someone else, she wouldn't bother him.
The sound of night bugs was louder than the traffic on the main boulevard that intersected this quiet street. It was June, and the air was warm and had the tangy smell of ocean. The grass was cool and wet. She felt the dew soaking through her canvas high-top Converse sneakers. Jaimie wasn't one to worry about fashion. She just liked the way the sneakers felt and looked. Okay, maybe she liked them too because none of the other kids her age wore them. Jaimie was twelve. Slender and tall, she had long, fine hair that she tended to wear in a ponytail with a ball cap. If she let it hang loose, it softened her appearance to the point where others viewed her as girlie, something she hated.
The alternative was to cut it herself, because her foster parents didn't like wasting money by sending her to a beauty salon, but cutting it herself would just remind her that she was nothing but a foster kid, so she just let it grow. And wore Converse sneakers that looked anything but girlie.
Not only was it wrong to be sneaking up on her teacher's house, but it was wrong even to know where he lived. Jaimie knew that. But his wallet had been open on his desk once, with his driver's license showing behind a clear plastic window, and she'd read it upside down while she was talking to him and had memorized his address.
Although this was the first time she'd stopped, she had ridden her bike past his house plenty of times, wondering what it would be like if she lived in the little house near the beach.
It wasn't the house that drew her. It was dreaming about what it would be like to have a family, and it seemed the perfect house for a family with a mom and a dad and a couple of girls.
A real family. A house that they had lived in for years and years, with a yard and a couple of dogs. Beagles. She loved beagles.
Her mom would be a little pudgy but someone who laughed all the time. Jaimie didn't like the moms she saw who were cool and hip and trying to outdo their daughters in skinniness and tight-fitting jeans.
Her dad would not have perfect hair and drive a BMW. Jaimie didn't have friends, because Jaimie wasn't a friend kind of person, but she knew girls at school with dads like that, and those girls didn't seem happy. If Jaimie had a dad, he'd be the kind of guy who went to barbers, not stylists, and had hair that was always a couple of weeks past needing a barber, who wore jeans and didn't tuck in his shirt and always dropped everything to listen to whatever story his girl wanted to tell him.
A dad like Mr. G, her teacher. He drove an old Jeep, the kind with canvas top and roll bars. Sometimes she'd see a surfboard strapped to the top of it, canvas top gone. Mr. G had that kind of surfer-dude look, with the long hair and a long nose bent a little. Not perfect kind of handsome, but a face you still looked at twice. Some of the girls in her class had a crush on him. Not Jaimie.
She just wished she could have a dad like him and a house like the house he lived in. Sometimes when she was really lonely, she would ride her bike in the neighborhood, pretending it was her home and that when she got there, she'd be able to wheel up the sidewalk and drop her bike on the grass and leave it there, because if it really was her family, no one would get upset about little things like that.
It wasn't that she just had a good feeling about him. It was that Jaimie knew Mr. G could be trusted. Jaimie had a sense about people, a sense that sometimes haunted her.
Like earlier tonight, when she'd met a guy who had come to her house to talk to her foster parents. She'd watched his eyes as he checked the layout of the house, standing in the kitchen, saying that he was from Social Services. She had taken her bracelet off to hand wash some dishes, and without it on her wrist, she'd felt the Evil that radiated from him. Evil that hunted her.
So while the man with Evil was talking to her foster parents, she'd grabbed her bracelet and snuck out of the house and jumped on her bike. Dusk was just turning black when she began the twenty-minute ride from the large old house toward the ocean, where she often snuck at night anyway to walk the beach. But the feeling of Evil was still so real she couldn't shake it. She wanted --- no, needed --- to talk to someone about it. Wanted --- no, needed --- to feel safe. Somehow.
The one person who had promised to help wasn't answering her phone. That only left Mr. G. The only other person in the world she could trust. She made it to the side of the window at his house. She inched her head up to peek through the glass.
She saw a single candle.
And Mr. G on the couch. Holding a big book open in his lap. She watched, knowing she shouldn't watch.
It looked like he was talking to the book.
And then he glanced up, and for that split second, it seemed like he was staring right into her eyes.
Two hours into the one night of the year that Crockett Grey set aside to get as drunk as possible, he felt someone watching him and looked up to see his long-dead daughter peering in the window with, yes, a haunted look of desperation.
Crockett was only a quarter through a bottle of Laphroaig, still able to enjoy the single malt's peaty-smoky flavor roll over his tongue. Each sip still gave him a warming finish that deepened the intensity of sadness that came with missing Ashley, a blanket of grief that covered him daily, as he woke or began to sleep.
He would have preferred to get drunk every night, but that would have cheapened his grief and reduced memories of Ashley to a foggy haze. It would also have stopped him from being the best father possible for his son, Mickey. So as much as he wanted the crutch of alcohol, Crockett allowed himself to get drunk only one night a year, an anniversary that marked the horrible night when Ashley slipped away from him into the eternally black chasm. Nanna, the elderly widow next door, knew Crockett well enough to respect his solitude the day before, the day of, and the day after the anniversary of Ashley's death. Crockett lived in a two-bedroom cottage he rented from Nanna, on a large lot in Santa Monica, a few blocks from the ocean, built just after the Second World War. The hardwood floor was not level, but the simplicity of the house suited him, and he had decorated it accordingly. Three times already, Nanna had turned down obscene offers from couples who wanted to knock down the house to build a McMansion among the palms that had been there for half a century; she didn't like change, and she liked having Crockett as a neighbor. She and Crockett had become friends while he helped her with yard work and house maintenance.
He sat at the corner of a black leather couch, with the bottle of Laphroaig and a large flickering candle on the table beside him. The candlelight was not manly; he knew it and didn't care. Couldn't have a vigil without candlelight. In his lap was the photo album.
He sipped at the scotch, testing the sensation on his tongue. He knew from the year before, and from the year before that, when he could no longer detect the smokiness, he'd be one stage closer to passing out.
By the candlelight, he saw one of the rare photos of him with his ex-wife, Julie. Most were of Ashley or Ashley with Julie. Not Mickey; he hadn't been born yet. Crockett had been designated family photographer, which made him largely invisible in the accumulated years of memories.
It was a beach photo. Crockett remembered the day, on the beach at Paradise Cove, north of Santa Monica on the Pacific Coast Highway. A passerby had offered to take the picture. Crockett was sitting on a towel in swimming trunks and a hooded sweatshirt. The wind threw grains of sand against his skin, tugging at his hair. He had cared enough about vanity then that he was proud to wear his hair long, not indifferent to it like now. Julie had been on a beach chair beside him. Her hair fine and ci