Branches remained bare, a bitter chill lingered. Old man winter was defiant (or perhaps senile and had simply forgotten it was time to move on), was presently mired in a brutal tug of war with Spring.
The gardenias, however, bore tiny buds, soon the days would lengthen and the Japanese magnolias burst into full bloom. Winter would assuredly yield; life, invariably, goes on.
Rose bushes demarcating the property danced in the crisp breeze as if to compel her attention, remind her of their purpose, remind her that death, too, is unceasing. Parker wasn't thinking of Jarod just then, however, or Sydney, and wouldn't until summer, on the thirteenth anniversary of their deaths when the white roses became the envy of the neighborhood and she'd collect two dozen to lay on their graves.
There was a time for remembrance; not this morning, however; this morning burst with life.
"Mommy," Avery called. Parker paused and returned her daughter's wave with a soapy hand and observed the girl circle the basketball stand twice. The child recklessly dismounted the bicycle, leaving the wheels in motion and the machine on a collision course with a bougainvillea hedge.
Daredevil, mused Parker with a grin. The smile curving her lips faltered when—just over the child's brunette locks—she glimpsed an unusual shadow in the rear corner of the yard where photinia and wild lavender contended with a camellia for sunshine.
"Avery," cried Parker, her voice filled with something foreign: panic. Her daughter was already running, arms swinging rapidly, towards the steps, and then, at last, bounding into the house. "Mommy, what's wrong?"
"I just remembered," explained Parker coolly. "Your recital gown hasn't been put away."
The child was incredulous. "Now?"
"Now," repeated Parker sharply.
"Oh, okay," the child conceded with a petulant groan, relieved but annoyed. Pulling her robe closed, Parker stepped outside and squinted at--- nothing. She was vaguely concerned, her radar pinged.
Ultimately, she dismissed the event (trick of light and leaves, fatigue, eye strain) until she no longer could.
The morning sun glinted on the traffic behind her, the silver sedan a safe three cars behind. Nothing flashy, a nondescript sedan struggling to fit in with the heftier automobiles on the playground; Parker observed as it did precisely that for two miles.
Acting entirely on instinct—on unsubstantiated suspicion and irrational fear—she swerved, deftly slung her husband's SUV onto the highway. "Mom," exclaimed her son, Eli, "the market isn't this way."
"There are other markets," Parker assured with a cursory glance at the rear-view. The car materialized, hanging back; there, nonetheless; ominous but non-threatening.
The message was for Parker only. And was received.
The barrage of afternoon telephone calls that followed the incident was slightly disconcerting; the calls absolutely untraceable. Parker placed a call of her own to the Bureau of Prisons and confirmed that Lyle was still basking in maximum security warmth, which raised the question: if not Lyle, who?
The answer could have very well been the question.
The grim reaper, however, had died approximately thirteen years earlier following a helicopter crash
Inexplicably and as abruptly as they had begun, the peculiarities ended; they remained an unsolved puzzle, but only because Parker didn't have all of the pieces.
The final piece, the missing piece, fell into place with a jarring thud that Parker would have sworn was audible. Lured outdoors by the first gardenia of the season, she set aside her tea, gathered her robe tightly around her lissome form and stepped onto the grass.
She inhaled languidly, gently plucked the flower, and then pivoted to return to the house.
And came to a halt.
Parker studied the closed door, walnut finish, the brass knocker in the center and its matching brass knob. The door often stuck and could only be reopened from inside. Greg had intended to fix it- to fix the door, clean the gutters, and paint the outbuilding. But he hadn't and that was precisely Parker's reason for leaving the door ajar.
Everyone, including the neighborhood children, knew to leave the door open unless they wanted to walk all the way to the side entrance or farther on around to the front. The wind, she speculated, knowing even as the thought formed that there had been no breeze.
Someone had been deliberate and cunning. Someone who has a death wish. Parker squared her shoulders, approached the house cautiously, and craned her neck to see past the single blind spot.
Greg had promised to move the young maple to an ideal site, possibly to the southern border of the property. He hadn't done that either and when a rather imposing figure stepped out from behind the aforementioned tree, Parker yelped in surprise, thinking in that brief instant before she could identify the figure, that Greg had decided to take a personal day during which he might perhaps relocate the tree and tend to the door and the gutters. But the man she glimpsed was not Greg.
Parker's visitor wore an olive henley, jeans, a solid black tuque, and a cordial smile.
"Oh, I'm sorry," the voice cooed. Mocked? "I didn't mean to frighten you, Miss Parker." A single thick eyebrow arched steeply above dark aviators when Parker drew back in bewilderment. With a hand pressed to her chest, she laughed brokenly, mirthlessly, unintentionally revealing her apparent distress regarding the visitor. "I- for a moment I thought I'd-" she fell silent with a smile that approximated sheepishness. At last, Parker regained her aplomb; relief was replaced with sorrow. She expelled a ragged breath.
"Seen a ghost?" Her visitor supplied amiably with a frown of sympathy.
"I forget," she faltered briefly, "Jarod's gone," she concluded, strangling on the name. "Levi," she whispered, her voice catching. "It's been a long time," she added hastily, stepping forward with open arms. Her guest apprehended her intent and gently reciprocated.
Parker felt his sharp inhalation and his arms close around her. Their embrace was chaste and comfortable, sorrowful, and, she believed, long overdue. When Parker withdrew he didn't immediately relinquish his hold; instead, he clung to her elbows, held her at arm's length, intensely scrutinized her, noting the tears standing in her eyes, her smile, even as it faltered, morphed into skepticism.
When apprehension flitted across Parker's face, he withdrew awkwardly, stammered, "Oh, uh, I'm sorry," and promptly released her.
With an inquiring look and charitable smile, she asked solicitously, "Levi, is everything okay?"
Parker started at the soft laughter, stared piqued and vaguely alarmed. "What's funny?"
"Oh, nothing really, Miss Parker," he returned dryly, removing the tuque and the mirrored aviators, "it's just not every day I'm mistaken for someone half my age."
Jarod observed the smile evaporate from her face. But that smile wasn't intended for me anyway.
"I," she said with a mute gasp and a deep frown of consternation that Jarod believed might become a permanent fixture there, etched into her forehead. "The remains were positively-" Parker fell silent with an unnatural abruptness, paled considerably. When her body sagged, Jarod extended his hands, intercepted her collapse.
"Levi's," Jarod concluded for her with a grimace of pain that he quickly dismissed, shoved aside. This is neither the time nor place. Nor the person. "And Sydney's."
Jarod tightened his hold on her and mused aloud and rather remorsefully, "I suppose I could have approached this with a bit more tact. Take a deep breath," he advised her gently.
"Oh, my god," she murmured weakly, twisting herself from his grasp and ignoring his earnest counsel: "I'm not certain that's a good idea, Miss Parker."
Reluctantly, Jarod released her, but only because he knew she'd wrench herself away (he vividly envisioned her forceful face-plant into the rock garden). He cautioned her against sudden movements, reminded her to breathe. His arms, however, remained extended, his eyes intent. After a moment, he inquired softly, "Are you all right?"
"What," she began tremulously, "the hell kind of question is that?"
"Do you need to sit?"
"What do you want," she counterquestioned sharply.
Crestfallen, Jarod winced, blinked rapidly and illy concealed his wounded feelings; he was quite unable to adjust his mind and eyes to the magnitude of scorn she exhibited. The woman had knelt at his grave in the stinging mist, hair unkempt, face tear-streaked, and had sobbed herself breathless. Her voice had been brittle, hoarse, and it had taken several attempts—a number of halting starts and agonized gasps—to profess her love for him.
He'd erroneously assumed she'd been struggling to say goodbye—the one word she'd never uttered to his headstone; each visit had been, thus far, concluded with a wearisome inhalation, a melancholy head-shake, and a soft, "I wonder."
Her grief had been genuine, even if wholly unforeseen, and its duration protracted and excruciating.
It's truly astounding. She only loves me when I'm dead.
And how tragic that his presence had vanquished her wonder. He'd effectively and swiftly demolished her what-if reveries simply by being attainable, alive. His death had simplified her life, her feelings. Death had eased anxieties, complexities, had unshackled her from the chains of their adversarial inheritance.
"What. Do. You. Want," she fairly screamed at him. "Why are you stalking my family?"
"I'd never stalk children."
"Me," she said. "Why?"
"Not the greatest feeling in the world, is it?"
"This is revenge?"
"No," answered Jarod with a sudden edge in his voice. "I'd have to do a lot more than stalk you if my intent were revenge."
"Shall I telephone the police?"
Jarod responded with an indifferent shrug and, forgoing meandering commentaries, unceremoniously revealed FBI credentials and a triumphant smile, perfect teeth. Parker blanched at his imperiousness, pivoted, struggled to process his presence.
"Eager for me to leave already, Miss Parker? Hmm. I'm certain you are," he said to her back, his voice dripping with arrogance. "I'm not going to do that until I get what I want."
"Which is," she snarled impatiently.
"Coffee," he answered resolutely. "Invite me inside."
She swiveled on bare feet, swung her incredulous gaze at him, his oversimplification. Coffee? After a moment, she nodded. "I'll bring it out to you."
"No," he demanded sharply, his eyes hard and narrowed suddenly. "Inside and preferably before the neighbors begin asking questions. You'd better hurry before that old gossip hound Mrs. Jones catches a glimpse of me and telephones Father Andrews. This entire little backward hamlet," hissed Jarod in abject disgust, "will be reading about your scandalous behavior in the church bulletin come Sunday and I don't think you want that. A backyard dalliance with a handsome stranger," he purred, preternaturally aware that she'd intentionally hemmed herself in with rote domesticity, antiquated notions, apocryphal hospitality—a rather quaint illusion; she inhabited it with ease.
The price of security—and even that was bogus. "How absolutely blasphemous, Miss Parker."
Jarod was correct. Nor was Parker keen on him shouldering his way into her home. She'd grown accustomed to normality and monotony and would do anything to ensure it wasn't disrupted.
"My husband is going to be home-"
"Your husband, Greg, isn't going to be home until ten," countered Jarod brusquely, interrupting her, "But it's funny you should mention him, even if you did lie. Your husband's in some trouble. Now," he asserted with strained patience, "are you going to invite me inside or not?"