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Scared to Death

It is a fearful thing to love what death can

– anonymous

Dallas, Texas


“Mind if I turn on the TV?”

Hell, yes, Jeremy minds.

Minds the disruption of television, and suddenly having a

Until an hour ago, when an orderly pushed a wheelchair through
the doorway, Jeremy had the double hospital room all to himself. He
should have known it was too good to be true.

Most good things are.

An image flashes into his head, and he winces.

Funny how even after all these years, that same face --- a
beautiful, female face--pops in and out of his consciousness. He
doesn’t know whose face it is, or whether she even

“Hey, are you in pain?” the stranger in the next bed
asks, interrupting Jeremy’s speculation about the face: is
she a figment of my imagination --- or an actual memory?

He almost welcomes the question whose answer is readily at

Am I in pain?

He feels as though every bone in his face has been broken.
That’s pretty damned near the truth --- and not for the first

“I can ring the nurse for you,” the man offers,
waving his good hand. The other hand --- like Jeremy’s face
--- is swathed in gauze. Some kind of finger surgery, he mentioned
when he first rolled into the room, as if Jeremy might care.

Reaching for the bedrail buzzer, he adds, in his lazy twang,
“That Demerol’s good stuff, ain’t it?”

“No, thanks.” Jeremy starts to shake his head.

Bad idea. The slightest movement above the neck rockets pain
through his skull. He fights the instinct to scream; that would be
even more torturous.

“You sure you’re okay, pal? You look like
you’re hurting.”

Jeremy’s jaw tightens--more agony. Dammit. Why won’t
this guy leave him alone?

Jeremy closes his eyes.

He’s in another hospital, long ago and far away. In pain,
terrified, surrounded by strangers…

“You don’t have to be a hero, you know,” his
roommate rambles on.

But there’s another voice, in his head, the one that
belongs to a face he still sees in nightmares even after all these
years: “All you have to do is triple up on his pain meds
tonight. Maybe quadruple, just to be sure. Then tuck him into

“If you’re in pain, pal, all you need to do is call
a nurse and she’ll give you something for it.”

Jeremy’s eyes snap open.

“I’m fine. Really. Just--go ahead, turn on the

“You sure? Because if it’ll bother you I don’t
want to --- “

“I’m positive. Watch TV.”

“Yeah? Thanks.” Working the remote with the healthy
hand, his roommate begins to channel surf.

Face throbbing, Jeremy gazes absently at the barrage of images
on the changing screen, half-hearing the snippets of sound from the
speaker. Audience applause, country music, stock reports, a sitcom
laugh track, meaningless words.

“…ladies and gentlemen, please

“…be mostly sunny with a high

“…and the Emmy-nominated drama will return

His roommate pauses to ask, “Anything in particular you
feel like watching?”


“You a sports fan?”



“Sure,” Jeremy lies.

“News should be on. Let’s see if we can get us some

More channel surfing.

More fleeting images.

More meaningless sound, and then…

“…in Manhattan today indicted the Congressman

“Here’s the news.” The clicking stops.
“I’ll leave it. Sports should be coming up

“Great.” As if Jeremy gives a damn about sports, or
the news, or --- unlike the rest of the world, it seems--television
in general.

“You don’t know what you’re missing,”
someone said to him in a bar not long ago, when he professed
ignorance about the reality show finale playing on the television

True. And when you grow up deprived of something, you
can’t miss it.

Or can you?

“…kidnapping the seven-year-old son of Elsa and
Brett Cavalon. In an incredible twist, the

A close-up flashes on the screen: a photograph of a striking
couple. The woman…

Jeremy gasps, his body involuntarily jerking to sit up.

“What?” Glancing over, his roommate immediately
mutes the volume. “What’s wrong? Pain, right? I knew

Jeremy can’t speak, can’t move, can only stare at
the face on TV. It’s as if the pain exploding inside
Jeremy’s head has catapulted a piece of his imagination onto
the screen. Of course, that’s impossible.

But so is this, unless…

As suddenly as she appeared on the screen, she’s gone, and
the camera shifts back to the anchorman.


Unless she’s real.

She was there. On TV.

She does exist. She has a name --- one he’s heard before,
in another place, another time…

Now, the name --- her name --- echoes back at him from the
cobweb corners of his mind.


Norwich, Connecticut

Another day, another dollar…

Which about sums up my salary, Roxanne Shields thinks as she
cuts the incredibly loud engine of her aging car, desperately in
need of a new muffler --- or something.

“You need to get that fixed,” her boss at the agency
told her just yesterday. “It’s just not appropriate to
visit clients in a muscle car.”

“Muscle car?” She snorted. “It’s a seven
year-old Hyundai.”

“Well, it sounds like a muscle car. Fix it.”

Yeah. Sure. She’ll get right on it --- as soon as
she’s taken care of two months’ back rent on this dumpy
apartment, her overdue utility bills, and the student loan
that’s about to default.

How ironic that she was the first in her family to go to
college, yet she can’t even afford a nice wooden frame to
display her Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work from Southern
Connecticut State. The BSW is still in its cardboard folder, tucked
away in the back of her underwear drawer since graduation last May
--- over a year ago already.

“When I grow up, I just want to help people. I don’t
care about money,” she always liked to say, mostly because it
made her mother beam with pride as Roxanne’s less-noble
siblings rolled their eyes.

These days, her brother --- a welder in Waterbury--is driving a
BMW and her sister --- a cocktail waitress at some fancy Newport
restaurant--just bought a waterfront condo.

Meanwhile, how is Roxanne supposed to help people --- namely,
kids --- when the agency is so underfunded and understaffed that
she can’t possibly keep up with a caseload that grows larger
by the day?

She gets out of the car, opens the trunk, and picks up a box
filled with client files.

“Looks like somebody’s got a pile of homework to do
tonight,” a voice calls, and she looks up to see old Mr.
LoTempio waving from his aluminum lawn chair under a tree across
the street.

“Not really,” she calls back. “I just
don’t want to leave anything in the car overnight. It’s
been broken into a few times lately.”

“Who’d want to steal a big box of papers?”

“You never know --- next time, they might want to steal
the car itself.”

“That bomb? Anyway, the whole neighborhood would hear it
driving off down the street.”

She can’t help but grin at that. Mr. LoTempio isn’t
one to mince words.

“You know,” he continues, “this isn’t
the kind of weather for you to be wearing all that

Here we go again.

“Would it kill you to try on a little color

“It might,” she replies tartly.

“You must have been sweating all day in that.”

She was, but she’ll never admit it.

After a cool spring, summer weather literally arrived overnight.
Today has been freakishly hot --- particularly when one is wearing
leather boots. But her style isn’t about fashion or comfort
--- it’s a way of life. She doesn’t expect an
eighty-year-old man to understand that, though. So few people

“Have a good night, Mr. LoTempio.”

“You, too, Morticia.”

Morticia. He’s been calling her that since the day they
met last fall, not long after she moved in. She doesn’t mind,
considering that she never much cared for her real name, inspired
by the old Sting ballad. “I just liked the song. Who knew it
was about a hooker?” Ma would say with a helpless shrug.

Roxanne lugs her box of files across the patch of
dandelion-sprinkled grass to the two-family house sorely in need of
a paint job --- as well as a handyman to fix the wobbly
wrought-iron rail and the broken lock on her bedroom window.

If she ever manages to catch up on her rent, maybe she’ll
dare to mention it to the landlord. For now, she’ll deal with
what she’s got.

The stairwell smells of Pine-Sol and roast pork, courtesy of the
downstairs tenants, who cook three hot meals on even on the most
sweltering day of the year.

In her apartment, Roxanne she plunks the file box on the floor
just inside the door and bolts it behind her. As she starts for the
kitchen, trying to recall whether there’s anything edible in
the fridge, a floorboard creaks behind her.

Seized by a paralytic rush of fear, she realizes she’s not

Then the knife slashes deeply beneath her right jaw, and her
left, and it’s over.

* * *

Groton, Connecticut


Elsa Cavalon stirs in her sleep.


Jeremy is calling me.


No. Jeremy is gone, remember?

There was a time when that realization would have jarred her
fully awake. But it’s been fifteen years now since her son
disappeared, and almost a year since Elsa learned that he’d
been taken overseas and been murdered shortly afterward.

The terrible truth came as no surprise. Throughout the dark era
of worrying and wondering, she’d struggled to keep hope alive
while harboring the secret belief that Jeremy was never coming home

All those years, she’d longed for closure. When it came
last August, she braced herself, expecting her already fragile
emotions to hit bottom.

Instead, somehow, she found peace.

“It’s because you’ve already done your
grieving,” her therapist, Joan, told her. “You’re
in the final stage now. Acceptance.”

Yes. She accepts that Jeremy is no longer alive, accepts that
she is, and--


Jeremy isn’t calling you. It’s just a dream. Go back
to sleep…

“What’s wrong?” Brett’s voice, not
imagined, plucks Elsa from the drowsy descent toward slumber. Her
eyelids pop open.

The light is dim; her husband is stirring beside her in bed,
calling out to a child who isn’t Jeremy, “What is it?
Are you okay?”

“I need Mommy.”

“She’s sleeping. What’s wrong?”

“No, Brett, I’m awake,” she murmurs, sitting
up, and calls, “Renny, I’m awake.”

“Mommy, I need you!”

Elsa gets up and feels her way across the room as Brett mumbles
something and settles back into the pillows. With a prickle of
envy-tinged resentment, she hears him snoring again by the time she
reaches the hallway.

It was always this way, back when Jeremy was here to disrupt
their wee-hour rest --- and when his palpable, tragic absence
disrupted it even more. All those sleepless nights…

Brett would make some halfhearted attempt to respond to whatever
was going on, then fall immediately back to sleep, leaving Elsa
wide awake to cope alone with the matter at hand: a needy child,
parental doubt, haunting memories, her own demons.


“I’m coming, I’m coming.” Shivering, she
makes her way down the hall toward Renny’s bedroom.

The house is chilly. Before bed, Elsa had gone from room to room
closing windows that had been open all day, with ninety-degree
sunshine falling through the screens. The weather was so glorious
that It was so nice out that she and Renny had spent the whole day
outside, even eating their lunch on a blanket beneath a tree.

Now, however, it feels more like March. Late spring in coastal
New England can be so unpredictable.

And yet, Elsa wouldn’t trade it for the more temperate
climates where Brett’s work as a nautical engineer
transported them in recent years: Virginia Beach, San Diego, Tampa.
It’s good to be settled back in the Northeast. This is

Especially now that we have Renny.

Technically, she isn’t their daughter yet, but
optimistically thinking, it’s only a matter of time and
paperwork. As far as Elsa and Brett are concerned, Renata Almeida
became Renata Cavalon on the October day she came to live with

Or perhaps, just Renny Cavalon. Elsa isn’t crazy about the
given name bestowed by the abusive birth mother who has since,
thank God, signed away her rights.

Renata --- it’s so lofty, pretentious, even --- better
suited to a European princess, or supermodel, than a cute little
girl who looks far younger than her seven years. Elsa and Brett
shortened it immediately, with Renny’s blessing. Maybe
they’ll make it official on the adoption papers.

Any day now…

Elsa will feel a lot better when the adoption process is behind
them and they’re on their way to Disney World for a
long-planned celebratory trip with Renny. Until then, with all of
them under the close scrutiny of yet another new caseworker --- the
overburdened, underpaid agency staff seems to turn over constantly
--there’s always the nagging concern that something will go

No. Nothing can go wrong. I can’t bear to lose another
child. I just can’t.

Renny’s bedroom door is ajar, as always. Plagued by
claustrophobia, she’s unable to sleep unless it’s open.
That’s understandable, considering what she’s been

Whenever Elsa allows herself to think of Renny’s past, she
feels as though a tremendous fist has clenched her gut. It’s
the same sickening dread that used to seize her whenever she
imagined the abuse Jeremy had endured --- both before he came into
their lives, and after he was kidnapped.

But Renny isn’t Jeremy. Everything about her, other than
the route she traveled through the foster system and into
Elsa’s life, is different.

Well --- almost everything. She’s a docile child with a
sunny personality, unlike Jeremy --- but with her black hair and
eyes, Renny resembles Elsa as much as he did. No one would ever
doubt a biological connection between mother and child based on
looks alone.

Their bond goes much deeper than that, though. From the moment
she saw the her photo on the agency Web site, Elsa felt a
connection to the little girl whose haunted eyes stared out from
beneath crooked bangs.

And yet…had she felt the same thing when she first saw

I just don’t know. I can’t remember.

There was a time, not so long ago, when her memory of her son
was more vivid than the landscape beyond the window. Now,
it’s as if the glass has warped, distorting the view.



Now that I know Jeremy is dead?

Now that there’s Renny?

Elsa pushes aside a twinge of guilt.

Her daughter’s arrival didn’t erase the memories of
her son. Of course not. She’ll never forget Jeremy. But
it’s time to move on. Everyone says so: her husband, her
therapist, even Mike Fantoni, the private eye who had finally
brought the truth to light by identifying Jeremy’s birth

“Why would you want to meet her now?” he’d
asked Elsa the last time they’d seen each other, over the

“I didn’t say I want to…I said I feel like I
should know more about her. About him.”

“Has she been in touch with you?”


“Then let it go,” Mike advised, and for the most
part, Elsa has. Just once in awhile… she wonders.
That’s all. Wonders how the other woman is feeling, and
coping. Wonders whether she has questions about Jeremy; wonders
whether she can answer some of Elsa’s.

She finds Renny sitting up in bed, knees to chest. Her worried
face is illuminated by the Tinkerbell nightlight plugged into the
baseboard outlet and the canopy of phosphorescent plastic stars
Brett glued to the ceiling.

“What’s wrong, honey? Are you feeling sick?”
Elsa is well aware that her daughter had eaten an entire box of
Sno-caps at the new Disney princess movie Brett had taken her to
see after dinner.

“Why would you let her have all that candy?” Elsa
asked in dismay when he recapped filled her in on the
father-daughter evening.

“Because we wanted to celebrate the end of the school
year, and it’s fun to spoil her.”

“I know, Brett…but don’t do it with sugar.
She’s going to have an awful stomachache. She’ll never
get to sleep now.”

Renny proved her wrong, drifting off within five minutes of
hitting the pillow. And right now, she doesn’t look sick at

She looks terrified. Her black eyes are enormous and her wiry
little body quivers beneath the pink quilt clutched to her

“I’m not sick, Mommy.”

“Did you have a nightmare?” It wouldn’t be the
first time.

“No, it was real.”

“Well, sometimes nightmares feel real.”

And sometimes, they are real. Renny knows that as well as she
does. But things are different now. She’s safe here with Elsa
and Brett, and nothing will ever hurt her again.

Elsa sits beside her daughter and folds her into an embrace.
“Do you want to tell me about it?”

“It wasn’t a nightmare,” . It was real,”
Renny insists, trembling. “A monster was here, in my
room…I woke up and I saw him standing over my bed.”

“It was just a bad dream, honey. There’s no

“Yes, there is. And when I saw him, he went out the

Elsa turns to follow her daughter’s gaze, saying,
“No, Renny, see? The window isn’t even --- “


But Elsa’s throat constricts around the word as she stares
in numb horror.

The window she’d closed and locked earlier is now, indeed,
wide open --- and so is the screen, creating a gaping portal to the
inky night beyond.

* * *

Not a creature was stirring, not even a

Which nursery rhyme was that?

Does it matter?

Really, right now, the only thing that matters is getting away
from the house without being spotted.

Yet this is far less challenging than escaping Norwich earlier
in broad daylight. That went smoothly; no reason why this
shouldn’t as well. At this hour, the streets are deserted;
there’s no one around to glimpse the dark figure stealing
through the shadows.

Not a creature was stirring…

Damn, it’s frustrating when you can’t remember a
detail that seems to be right there, teasing your brain…

Sort of the way Jeremy had forgotten Elsa Cavalon until, by
chance, he caught a glimpse of her on television back in

Anyone who doesn’t understand what Jeremy’s been
through might wonder how a person can forget his own mother.

How, indeed.

The human mind doesn’t just lose track of something like
that, like the name of a nursery rhyme. More likely, out of
self-preservation, the brain attempts to erase what’s too
painful to remember.

What’s too painful to remember…

Hmm…Wasn’t that a long-ago lyric?

Maybe. But the song title, too, is elusive --- and

One thing at a time.

Not a creature was stirring…

Excerpted from SCARED TO DEATH © Copyright 2011 by Wendy
Corsi Staub. Reprinted with permission by Avon. All rights

Scared to Death
by by Wendy Corsi Staub

  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Mass Market Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Avon
  • ISBN-10: 0061895075
  • ISBN-13: 9780061895074