The Guardian (Part One) by Dana Rodgers

Spring was beautiful in coastal North Carolina, peaceful. Annabel loved the slower pace of life. Of course, after attending college and working in Washington D.C. almost any place would seem slow-paced, she thought, turning onto Eden Street.

The neighborhood was cute, much better than the cave of an apartment they’d been living in, where the neighbors partied every weekend. She understood Marines’ wanting to blow off a little steam, but it was hard enough raising a baby by herself without doing it in the middle of a frat party. With Jack gone another five months, she was looking forward to the safety and quiet of their new home on base.

The two-story federal style homes that lined this street were identical, except for the color. Three windows across the top floor and two windows on the ground level with a front door and raised concrete stoop in the center. Each house had a small screened in porch on one end and a one-car detached carport on the other with mature trees shading spacious front yards.

Base housing reminded Annabel of Norman Rockwell paintings and the nineteen-fifties. Everyone went to work about the same time and came home about the same time. Vigilant mothers watched over their toddlers at the playground and kids rode their bikes to school. Although here, there were more pregnant women, minivans and SUV’s than you’d find at a maternity hospital.

Not surprising, considering that most Marines were between the ages of eighteen and thirty, and in phenomenal shape. Sweaty men displaying six-pack abs could be seen running or biking on the paths all over base any day of the year. What sane, straight woman could possibly resist that?

Not her, that was for certain.

She’d taken one look at Jack and practically melted into a pile of gooey lust at his feet. Now, five years later, she didn’t regret marrying him one bit. Not even when he deployed for months at a time. The sacrifice was painful, but it meant the time they had together was that much more precious. Something to be cherished, like their baby boy. When Jack left, Jeremy had still been mostly baby. He’d be a toddler by the time his daddy returned.

If he returned.

Slowing, she counted off the addresses. There it was, next to the last house on the left, the beige one with black shutters. It really was beautiful. Enormous azalea bushes bursting with pink flowers flanked the raised front stoop, and colorful flowerbeds rested under an eight-foot Camilla tree. A bright sea of impatiens would be beautiful there this summer. She pulled the Explorer under the carport and turned off the ignition. Home.

She grabbed the box of cleaning supplies off the backseat and used her new key to unlock the side door. The house was spacious with a long galley kitchen, large dining and living rooms, and a wood-burning fireplace. The plaster walls and pine floors added the final touches, giving the place a warm, homey feel.

The housing office had said the house was built in 1937. Marine families moved every two to three years so a lot of families had probably made their home here. Upstairs, she immediately decided the smaller back bedroom should belong to Jeremy. A private smile touched her lips. He would have his own room, and so would mommy and daddy.

Jeremy would have a great view of the back yard and the limbs of the giant oak tree that hung over the back corner of the house offered lots of shade. Glancing out the window, Annabel smiled. Two school-aged boys played with a little blond girl still in diapers. These must be her neighbors. She hoped they’d become friends.

The master bedroom was large, except for the miniscule master bath. Annabel snickered, imagining her six foot four, two hundred fifteen pound husband squished into the tiny shower stall. It would be a miracle if his shoulders didn’t bump into the walls. “Well, I think it’s safe to say there will be no hot shower sex in this house.”

If Jack comes back.

She shook her head. “When. There is no if.” She moved to the windows and admired the view, then opened the door she assumed was the closet. It was bigger than the bathroom and had a window in it. Even stranger, there was a full-size door inside. Frowning, she jiggled the handle but it was locked. An icy shiver rolled across her skin. Rubbing her hands up and down her arms to dispel the strange chill, she hurried downstairs to get started on the kitchen.

The minutes ticked past but she still couldn’t stop thinking about the locked door in the closet. Why was it locked? And what was behind that door?  She was putting the cooler’s contents into the now clean refrigerator when she felt it. That same unsettling feeling she’d had in the closet, as if someone were watching her. She looked around, but no one was there.

Stop it, Annabel. You’re just being paranoid. Telling herself her lingering unease was just being alone in a new place, she spent the next hour and a half wiping down cabinets, fitting them with shelf paper, scrubbing countertops and unpacking dishes and glassware. She was sweeping the kitchen when the hairs on the back of her neck raised and something moved at the corner of her vision. She whipped around, but nothing was there.

Her cellphone rang and she jumped. “Hello?”

“Hey baby. Just wanted to say good night and see how the move is going.” Even half a world away Jack’s voice soothed her raw nerves. She hated not seeing him, talking to him, everyday.

“Great!” she said, her voice overly bright.  She grabbed a diet coke from the refrigerator and stepped out onto the back stoop, trying to put some distance between her and the lingering creepy vibe. “I’m putting stuff away so I can find dishes and silverware tonight without rummaging through boxes. The movers are supposed to be here around eleven.”

“Hey, you okay all alone in that big house?” Jack asked, concern lacing his voice.

“Yeah, the house is great. Just trying to get as much as I can done before I have to pick Jeremy up this evening.”

“That was really nice of Anita to watch him. Wish I could be there to help.”

She sighed. “I know. Me too.”

“You sure you’re okay? You sound a little off.”

Annabel wondered for the millionth time how he always knew when something was wrong. She was just being silly, and he was thousands of miles away. There was no reason to worry him over her crazy imagination. “I’m good. I just miss you.”

“Me too, baby. Only a few more months.”

“Did I mention Jeremy has his own room, and that it’s all the way down the hall from ours?” she said trying to lighten the conversation. “Maybe I’ll pick up a little something to inspire you to stay home more.”

“I hope it’s a very little something.”

“So if I wear a little something for you, are you going to wear a little something for me?” A mischievous smile spread across her lips. “How about a leopard print thong?” She burst out laughing at the choking sounds that came from the other end of the line. “Relax, big boy. I’m kidding.”

“Vixen. You know you’re going to pay for that when I get home.”

Annabel loved the wicked intent that dripped from his every word. “Mmm, I hope so.”

“You’re killing me, woman. Go clean my house and take care of my boy. I’ll be there soon.”

“Stay safe. I love you.”

“I will. Love you too, baby.”

After they hung up, Annabel stared at the phone. These conversations were precious, but bittersweet. Life would be easier if he had a normal nine to five job, but he loved being a Marine and she’d never take that away from him. She stood and stretched. Time to get back to work.

The sense of being watched dogged her while she cleaned and outfitted the bathrooms. Like before, a movement caught her eye and she turned toward it, but there was nothing there. The hall was empty. So why didn’t she feel alone?

Unexplainably anxious, she walked back to the closet. The door was open. Funny, she could have sworn she closed it. She tried the handle of the inner door. Still locked. She couldn’t explain the compulsion, but needed to know what was behind that door. She fished her new house key from her pocket and tried the lock. Not even close. She needed a big, old fashioned style key, from the look of the lock, a tarnished brass one. She’d been through the entire house and she hadn’t seen anything like that. A loud beeping and the roar of an engine caught her attention. She glanced out the window and saw the moving truck backing into the driveway. Finding out what was behind door number two would have to wait.

* * * * *

 Annabel lugged the last box of clothes upstairs and dropped it on the bed. After a week, she still had the constant sense of being watched, especially here, in the master bedroom. She glanced toward the closet, and shivered. The door was open. Again. Trembling, she walked over and firmly closed it.

Three days ago she’d called the housing office about the inner closet door being locked but all they could tell her was the door led to an attic. They didn’t know anything about a key. Someone was supposed to come out and take a look, but the housing lady had been pretty clear about where a missing mystery key ranked in her level of importance—somewhere below the sand at the bottom of the ocean.

So far, the only things hanging in the huge walk-in were Jack’s dress uniforms’, his suit, two pairs of his dress trousers, a jacket and two floor length gowns she’d worn to previous Marine Corps Balls. Things they rarely used. She’d hang up what she had to, but there was no way she could use that closet everyday. Everything else would just have to fit in the dresser and armoire.

With Jack gone, she had expected to feel safer living on base, but now that she was here, she didn’t feel safer at all. She didn’t feel threatened, just constantly on edge.

She crawled into bed, worn out after days of unpacking and chasing a two year old. She just wanted to sleep. And Jack. She closed her eyes and tried not to think about the closet…watching.

 Come back tomorrow for part two of The Guardian by Dana Rodgers.