The darkness was overpowering.
She swept her hands through the emptiness until her frantic fingers touched a cold, moist wall. Was she in a tunnel? Was she blind? Though she could see nothing, she sensed the room was small --- and getting smaller. Walls don't move. She shivered and wrapped her arms tightly around her body. Was this a prison cell? It smelled dank and musty, like the dungeons in the storybooks her daddy used to read her.
But Daddy wasn't here now.
Where was she? She opened her mouth to scream, but the sounds only vibrated inside her head. She felt along the wall until she came to a door. She began to bang and pound, but no one could hear her. No one could see her ---
Wait! There was a window, and she could see people walking past. They were laughing and calling to each other. Relief coursed through her, and she beat on the glass of the small window, but no one paid any attention. They were out there! Why wouldn't they answer her? She turned her head and searched the darkness but still saw nothing. She pounded on the door, harder now, with growing panic. They had to hear her --- they had to! Prickles of fear tingled along the back of her neck. There was a different odor now. . .sweet, pungent --- stinging her nose. She shivered again. It was. . .repulsive. Something --- or someone --- was behind her. In this room. In this darkness. She could hear him breathing.
Her heart was pounding so hard --- could he hear? She couldn't breathe, she couldn't move. . .
But she must! She had to run and hide --- quick --- before he found her, before he ---
Mallory kicked her legs, fighting the bonds that held them. She screamed, jerking herself awake. Her ragged breathing and thumping heart rate broke the nighttime silence. Cool air touched her damp skin, and she pulled the sheet closer, her eyes searching the darkness.
It was just a dream. She sat up and forced her fingers to relax their grip on the covers, willing the numbness away. The red numbers on the alarm clock glared with the hours that remained until the morning light.
She lifted her eyes to the ceiling and tried to pray, but the heaviness of the dream persisted so that all she could manage was a whispered "the Lord is my shepherd" over and over. She lay back down in the king-size bed. It was too big and too lonely without her husband's strong presence to ward off the terrors of the night. She curled her arms around his pillow and buried her nose in the downy softness. His scent remained even though he was gone.
"Jake" --- she whispered into the darkness, caressing the pillow --- "I need you." The minutes ticked by, and Mallory's eyes grew heavy with sleep.
Her world was moving. Bouncing up and down...
"Mommy! Wake up!"
Mallory rolled over and came into contact with knees and elbows. She opened tired, heavy eyes and stared into the face of her enthusiastic six-year-old.
"Mommy, I want pancakes, 'kay?"
Renee's warm body draped over her shoulder did much to dispel the lingering fear that followed Mallory out of sleep. She smiled at her daughter."What? Not even a 'good morning,' first? Just, 'Mommy, I want?' "
Renee grinned back."Morning, Mommy. I want pancakes."
"Is Angel up?" Mallory scooped her daughter up into a hug.
Renee's dark hair bobbed in wild disarray."She's watchin' cartoons. I told her she wasn't allowed, but she wouldn't listen."
Mallory reached for her robe and shuffled to the bathroom.
Dark smudges pocketed her eyes. She rubbed them and looked again. Not even Jake would find these eyes sexy this morning. Usually he called them his beautiful emerald jewels. . .
She leaned against the edge of the sink. It was just a dream; it didn't mean anything. Stress, overtiredness, eating pizza at midnight --- a lot of things could have caused it. She hadn't been plagued with nightmares since she was a little girl and had to sleep with a night-light. It's nerves. That and Jake being out of town.
Mallory splashed frigid water against her heated skin.
"Mommy, will Daddy be home today?"
"No sweetie, not until Tuesday. Two more days." It feels like forever. Mallory headed for the comfort of a hot shower. "Are we going to Grandma's today? Can I take my bike?" Renee's never-ending questions, shouted over the rush of water, kept her disturbing thoughts at bay."I want breakfast! Mommy, are you ready yet?"
Tossing her wet towel toward the hamper, Mallory opened the bathroom door."Yes, we are going to Grandma's today, but later, after church. It's Sunday, remember? And I'm almost ready for breakfast."
"Mommy, Angel tried to dress herself again. She put her shirt on backward! I tried to tell her she's too little to get dressed by herself." Renee planted her small hands on her hips.
Mallory laughed, glad to leave her tortured thoughts and self-doubt and face the familiar tasks of another day, even if it did mean playing referee to her two energetic daughters."Then I guess there's nothing to do but go help the squirt, is there?" Renee raced out of the room."Yeah, and hurry up 'cause I'm hungry."
Mallory followed Renee down the mauve-carpeted hall. Probably a bad color choice for a house with active children, but she had loved the plush texture and color. She straightened a photograph on the wall. It was one Jake had taken of the girls chasing her along the lakeshore. Jake had captured Mallory with her head thrown back, Renee tugging on the edge of her T-shirt, and Angel right on her heels. All three of them were laughing. They had gone to Lake Erie for a week last summer. Was that only seven months ago? It seemed much longer than that now. She touched the frame once more then hurried to the girls' room.
The long, spotted neck of a giraffe peeked out at her from the window of an enormous wooden boat angled on the side of a mountain. When she had painted the mural of Noah's ark, complete with life-sized animals parading around the walls, her mother had shaken her head, Jake had laughed, and the girls had loved it.
So did she, and that was all that mattered.
"Mommy, I dressed myself!" Angel stood on the bed with both arms outstretched.
Mallory laughed. Her three-and-a-half-year-old's shorts were twisted, and her shirt was indeed on backward."And you did a wonderful job, sweetheart, but let Mommy fix your shorts for you." Mallory lifted her off the bed and kissed the top of her head. She went downstairs to make the girls pancakes. By the time she'd cleaned the kitchen, dressed the girls for church, and then sat them at the table with crayons and large sheets of drawing paper, she had just ten minutes to spare before they needed to leave. She studied the clothes in her closet and pulled out the green jumper. It would do for today. Her priority in clothes was comfort first and style second. She pulled her straight hair back and clasped it at the base of her neck; no time to fuss with it this morning. She reached for her Bible and glanced at the devotional book beside it. She was four days behind in her read-the-Bible-through-ina- year commitment. She had planned on trying to catch up this morning, but she was late.
They arrived at church, and Angel balked at going into the nursery when she found out that Renee had been promoted to junior church. When Mallory finally slipped into a back pew and took a deep breath, the service was well under way. The pastor, James Gates, was preaching from Isaiah."In the sixty-first chapter, we find encouraging words..."
A narrow, stained-glass window rose from floor to ceiling behind the pulpit. It depicted Jesus' baptism, with Christ rising out of the water. Mallory loved the way the startling white dove was arrested in midflight, seeming as if any second now it would come to rest on Pastor James's head. For Mallory the dove was more than a sign of the Holy Spirit. It was a sign of peace. Peace.
That was what she needed this morning.
"He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound."
Mallory shivered. A prison was easy to imagine after her nightmare. She glanced down to follow the Scripture reading: "To comfort all who mourn...to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness." The spirit of heaviness --- that's what she felt. A cloud of unease, unrest that was so nebulous she couldn't even describe it. Why do I feel this way, Father God? I want to find Your joy, but all I sense is a dark cloud all around me. Don't let it consume me, please. With a start she realized the music for the final hymn had started playing. Mallory glanced around and snatched up her bulletin to find what page everyone was on.
After the service she collected the girls and their papers and hurried them to the car. She checked her watch, fighting the urge to honk at the line of cars in front of them. All she needed today was a dose of her mother's wrath for being late.
"Mommy, Angel took my doll!"
Mallory looked in the rearview mirror and saw her daughters locked in a tug-of-war over the toy.
"Girls, that's enough. We're almost at Grandma's. Look out the window. There's Willow Hill, the park Grandpa takes you to."
The afternoon's pale light glinted off a spinning merry-go-round. Two girls lay on their backs, hair flying straight out as another child ran, small legs pumping hard.
"I want to go to the park."
"No. You always do what I want to do."
"Mommy, Renee's being mean!"
Mallory glanced in the mirror in time to see Angel reach over and slug her sister.
"Ow! That hurt!"
"I said that's enough. Both of you." Mallory pulled into her parents' driveway and parked beside her brother's red jeep. She turned the key and listened to the cooling engine's ping, ping, ping. The three-bedroom bungalow her parents lived in was the home of her childhood.
She gripped the wheel of the car, then massaged the bridge of her nose and clenched her jaw. She could handle this. She would not cry. If only her mother hadn't insisted this birthday celebration be today. Not even Jake being out of town had gotten Mallory out of it.
"Let me ring the doorbell; you're not old enough."
"I'll get the door, girls, move back." Mallory got out of the car and followed her daughters to the front porch. Please, dear Lord, get me through this day.
Before she could reach for the latch on the door, it swung inward, and Mallory sucked in her breath. Her eyes darted up the six-foot-plus frame of her older brother to land on his bearded face.
"Well, well, the princess has arrived."
Mallory frowned. Eric knew how much she hated that childhood nickname. Which was why he used it.
"Hi, ya rug rats!" Eric chuckled as his eyes shifted past Mallory, down to his nieces. Like a big, burly bear, he faked a growl and chased the squealing girls into the house.
Mallory slipped out of her coat and hung it on the hook behind the door as Eric swept Angel up in his arms, turned her upside down, and planted a loud raspberry on her exposed belly before swinging her around in a circle. Angel squealed in delight, and Mallory cringed. Eric flipped Angel upright and carried her into the living room.
"You don't have to carry her, Eric." She knows how to walk. He set her on the floor."What's with you?"
"Nothing, Jake and I are trying to break Angel of believing she needs to be held all the time." Ease up, Mallory. Don't let his teasing ruin your whole day.
"Angel didn't seem to mind my carrying her."
Mallory rolled her eyes and followed her brother through the archway and into the living room."Well, that's just the point..."
"What are you two squabbling about now?" Her father was stretched out in his favorite easy chair, suit jacket, tie, and shoes discarded beside him. Lazy curls of smoke rose above the section of newspaper he held. The rest of the Cleveland Plain Dealer lay scattered across his lap.
"Hi, Daddy. Smells like Mom's been busy this morning." Mallory leaned over the back of the chair and kissed his receding hairline. She smiled and greeted Eric's daughter, Lindsay, who was in the corner of the living room surrounded by a three-sided dollhouse and miniature furniture.
Her dad rattled his paper and spoke around his pipe. "Yes, she has. Roast beef, mashed potatoes, noodles, green beans, and fresh rolls." He patted her hand and pointed to the paper."That fool zoning board gave the Simon Company a permit to build down on Broadview. Mark my words, there'll be trouble over that one."
"Building is growth, growth is business, business is progress." Eric dropped his bulk onto the couch and propped his feet on his mother's glass coffee table.
"Humph." Her father's teeth clicked against his pipe stem.
"If you don't like how they handle things, maybe you need to run for city council. Then you could straighten things out. You're good at that..."
Mallory decided to leave before Eric's needling got the anticipated response. Her father and brother had been arguing ever since she was old enough to remember. The subject matter changed, and the volume sometimes rose, but the result was always the same.
"Smells good in here, Mom." She dropped a kiss on her mother's high cheekbone as she entered the kitchen.
"Are you all right, dear? You look pale." Her mother tucked a strand of blond hair into the French twist she always wore, then patted her hands on her crisp apron.
Mallory tossed her purse onto the kitchen counter."I'm fine. I've just been fighting a headache all day."
"You're late. What happened?" Her mother tapped the last of the mashed potatoes off the beaters and dropped them into the sink.
"I'm sorry." She tucked her head, refusing to look at her mother, and fought back another round of tears."Church was late getting out, and I forgot about the detour."
"Well, you're here now. Help me get the food on the table so we can eat before it gets cold." Her mom's voice was clipped as she thrust the steaming serving bowl toward Mallory."I hope the meat isn't too dry. It sat longer than I wanted it to."
The sharp click of her mother's high heels and her ramrod back spoke for themselves. Yet again, without even raising her voice, the indisputable queen of "how could you do this to me?" had made her disappointment in her daughter painfully clear.
"Everybody come to the table. Martin, see what you can do with this roast." Her mother slipped off her apron and straightened the belt on her print dress."Girls, wash your hands. Marty? Eric, where is that boy?"
"In the basement. I'll get him." Eric opened the door to the basement, the floorboards creaking under his weight."Christopher Martin! Get up here. And remove that thing growing out of your ears." Eric held the door wide for his son, snatching his earphones.
"Put your iPod away. Your grandmother has dinner ready." Mallory smiled in sympathy at her nephew's scowling face. It was tough to be a teenager in this house. She tucked the napkin under Angel's chin and sat down, giving Renee a stern warning to sit still."We're going to say grace."
"Lord, we thank You for what we are about to receive. Amen!" Angel's shout at the end of the prayer said in unison rose above the other voices but was ignored in the bustle of passing the serving dishes.
"Your centerpiece is gorgeous, Mom. Did you get it at Avery's Florist or at that new place downtown?" Mallory wiped a streak of gravy off Angel's chin.
"Your brother sent it; Geoff hated to miss today."
"And I bet the flowers got him off the hook, too." Eric reached for the card tucked in the spray of roses and baby's breath."Money and charm. The kid always knew how to get what he wanted. Where is the jet-set playboy anyway?"
"Eric. That's no way to talk about your brother." Her mother's reproof was mild.
"He's in Las Vegas," her father replied."One of his clients needed him to go repair one of those new computerized slot machines. I don't know why he has to take on clients that run gambling casinos. I thought we raised him better than that." At his words, an awkward silence fell across the table. Mallory bent her head to her food, letting the chatter of the children and the clink of silverware against the china flow over her head.
She passed the mashed potatoes when Marty asked for seconds, buttered a roll for Angel, and sipped her water. If only Jake were here. His stories had a way of keeping a conversation going. Why is it so hard to connect with my family? Sometimes just talking to them is impossible.
"When do we get to eat the cake?" Lindsay asked.
"I'll get it." Mallory scooted her chair from the table, and the screech of wood across her mother's polished floor earned her a frown.
"Just sit still. I'll get it. Marty, why don't you get the ice cream out for me?" With less grumbling than usual, Marty went to help his grandmother.
"It's too bad Jake couldn't be with us today."
Mallory eased her chair back to the table and smiled at her father."There was some kind of delay with the photo shoot, but he thinks they'll be back by Tuesday." She pulled her hand from the spoon she had been playing with and laid her hand in her lap.
"Bad timing, I guess."
The plate holding the double-tiered chocolate cake tipped as her mom set it in the center of the table."I know Eric and Marty's birthdays aren't for another week and a half, but this was the one free weekend we could have their party."
"Ma, this is fine. So what if everybody couldn't make it?"
"Eric's right, dear. We should just be thankful to have whatever family here we can." Her dad handed his wife a pack of matches from his shirt pocket, and she lit the candles. Mallory was grateful for the distractions of singing "Happy Birthday" and coping with the melting ice cream. Any further down this conversational path and her mother would be harping on how much Jake was away from his family.
Not that she would be wrong.
It wasn't long before the girls clamored to be excused from the table. Mallory pulled Angel's chair out and watched her run from the room after Renee and Lindsay.
"Yes, well" --- her mother gave a quick glance at the open doorway and Marty's departing back --- "children need both their parents..."
"Don't even start, Ma."
"Eric! In this house you will speak to your mother with respect!" As usual, her father's sternness didn't faze Eric. Mallory began gathering her daughter's dirty dishes and stacking them. Her mother sniffed."I just meant your divorce is so hard on the children, and heaven knows what the Ladies Aid will think. It simply isn't proper..."
As her brother let it be known what the people at church could do with their opinions, Mallory slipped out of the room and escaped to the safety of the kitchen, which hadn't changed in fifteen years. She slumped against the country-print wallpaper. Proper. That's one thing the Benningtons always were: proper. God forbid anyone in the family should be improper.
Mallory leaned her back against the wall where she and her brothers had been disciplined as children. She could still see her mother lining up her three naughty children against the small ducks printed on the kitchen wall and could still hear her mother's firm, disapproving tone...
"Your father's position is important, and you will be on your best behavior at all times. This family has a reputation to uphold. Is that clear? We will put our best foot forward for Daddy, to make him proud of us." Mother leaned down to within inches of Mallory's face."Is that understood?"
The hand that touched Mallory's arm startled her, and she knocked over her purse as she tried to squelch the tremor running through her body. The contents of her handbag scattered over the counter, and a small container of pills rolled across the Formica.
"You okay, honey?"
Mallory nodded at her father."I'm fine, Daddy."
As he went to pour himself a cup of coffee, she began picking up the contents of her purse. Her mother's dining room clock chimed the hour, and Mallory turned back to the sink, drew a glass of water, and reached for the bottle of aspirin. If she could just get through cleaning up, she could get out of here.
"Mom says you're not feeling well today." Her dad squeezed her shoulder and started back toward the dining room."Oops." He bent to retrieve an envelope from the floor."Looks like a bill. You don't want to lose this one."
I'd like to lose them all. Mallory looked at the envelope in her hands. She knew what it was and how angry Jake would be. The thought drove her to rip apart the envelope and look at the contents.
Her whole being stilled. She thought for a moment her heart might even stop, but it kept right on beating. What am I going to do? How could she have done it? She knew it was easier to spend money using a credit card, but forty-six hundred dollars? The tears Mallory held in check all day silently ran down her cheeks. Jake was going to kill her.
Excerpted from LOVE ME BACK TO LIFE © Copyright 2011 by Missy Horsfall and Susan Stevens. Reprinted with permission by Barbour Books. All rights reserved.