The Guardian (Part Two) by Dana Rodgers

Annabel stopped at the guard shack and handed over her military ID to the Marine on duty. He examined the ID, then returned it. “Have a nice day,” she said.

“Uh-Rah! You too ma’am.”

Jeremy bounced up and down in his car seat, “Uh-Rah! Uh-Rah! Uh-Rah!”

Annabel laughed. “Settle down back there. I know you like the Uh-Rah people, but you don’t have to burst mommy’s eardrums. Are you going to help mommy put your new big boy bed together when we get home?”

“Yep. Yep. Yep.”

An hour later, Annabel wondered if she should have put the bed together while Jeremy was napping. Or better yet, she could have waited another two months for Jack to come home. “Come help mommy.”

“No!” he shouted but ran over to where Annabel knelt in the corner of his room.

“Can you give mommy the pliers?”

“No!” Jeremy shrieked again but he handed her the pliers.

“Thank you for being such a good helper.”

“Help. Help!”

“You are helping. You’re helping mommy put your new bed together, aren’t you?”

“Yep. Yep. Yep.”

Annabel tightened the last bolt. “What do you think, buddy?” she asked patting the bed.

“I wove it!” Jeremy scrambled up and flopped onto his new bed. “Amals wove it too!” He climbed back down and moved every stuffed animal from the floor to the bed. “See mommy, I share.”

“I’m glad. Do you want to help mommy put the tools away?”

He shook his head. “No. I pway.”

“Okay, I’ll be right back.” She put the tools back on the shelf in the laundry room and washed her hands. When she started back down the hall, she heard Jeremy’s baby voice. He was so adorable talking to his animals. She rounded the corner to his room and froze. Her son was standing in the middle of the floor looking up at empty space, nodding. He burst out laughing and shook his head. “No! Twucks!… He wike twucks?… I good sharer… Uh huh… for mommy?… ‘kay.”

The hair on Annabel’s neck and arms stood up like she’d been electrocuted and the temperature seemed to have dropped twenty degrees since she’d left the room three minutes earlier. “Who are you talking to, buddy?”

“Da uh-rah man,” he said pointing to empty air. For the first time she noticed Jeremy had something cradled in his hand.

“Come show mommy what you’ve got?”

He stepped closer, stretching out his arms and opened his fat little fingers. “See. He say, give mommy. Here.”

Annabel stared at the key. A big tarnished brass key. Just the right size to fit the lock on the attic door.

* * * * *

Annabel sat on the floor beside Jeremy’s new bed, studying each line of his sturdy little body. It was nothing short of a miracle that one tiny egg and one itty-bitty sperm could find each other and create this whole new life, complete with so much personality and two-year-old temper tantrums. But what she wanted to know right now was where had Jeremy gotten that key? She had combed through this house a dozen times looking for it. And if the—Annabel swallowed past a lump the size of Nebraska—ghost had given it to Jeremy so he could pass it on to her like he said, why now? Why drive her crazy for the past two months, and then give it to her now?

Jeremy yawned and then relaxed back into sleep. She loved the little sounds he made. He was so beautiful, just like his daddy. She climbed to her feet, brushed his hair back and pressed a gentle kiss to his forehead. “Don’t worry baby boy, Mommy’s going to figure out what’s going on.”

Annabel eased Jeremy’s door closed so the cat or dog wouldn’t disturb his nap and strode toward her bedroom. It was time to get some answers. As usual the closet door stood open, beckoning. Pulling the tarnished brass key from her pocket she slid it into the lock. Her hand shook as she turned it.

Click.

Taking a fortifying breath, she turned the knob. With a slight tug the door swung open on squeaky hinges. She flipped the switch and illuminated a staircase complete with cobwebs. Annabel squared her shoulders and put one foot in front of the other, each squeaky stair made her heart pound faster. At the top of the stairs, a dark wood rocking chair sat at an angle in the middle of the floor. Despite the stifling summer heat, she rubbed her hands up and down her arms to fight off an icy chill. The floor was wooden and the rafters were exposed, along with the brick chimney that came up through the center of the house and divided the attic. She walked from one end of the attic to the other but didn’t see anything unusual. A few loose boards were stacked to the side of the chimney, but aside from that and the chair, the room appeared empty. More than empty, abandoned, as if it hadn’t been used in years.

Her skin prickled and the hair stood up on the back of her neck. He was here. Whatever he was, she could feel him watching her. She stood in the middle of the floor, feet braced apart, eyes scanning every corner. “Look, I know you’re here. I don’t know who you are, or how long you’ve been here, but this is our house, too.”

Annabel almost jumped out of her skin when something brushed against her calf. She was halfway down the stairs when the, “Meow” registered.

She turned and slowly trudged back to the top of the stairs, glaring at the cat. “Not funny Tinker. You almost gave me a heart attack.” She stood there. Watching. Waiting. And feeling monumentally foolish. She had no idea what she’d expected, but was relieved that some specter hadn’t appeared and demanded that she get out of his house. He was probably too busy laughing at her for jumping three feet in the air over a cat.

“I-I don’t know what you want. Or why you’ve given me the key?” Her voice dropped to a low mutter. “But you’re really freaking me out so please don’t do anything scary.”

There was a hollow thump near the chimney and Annabel glimpsed something small and yellow hitting the floor. She shivered. Shit. Shit. Shit. Why couldn’t Jack be here to deal with scary-ass ghosts?

She edged closer to the chimney. A faded yellow and red cigar box lay upside down on the floor, its lid partially open. It had definitely not been there a minute ago. Examining the chimney, Annabel noticed a small alcove in the brick. Perhaps the box had fallen. Or been pushed. She knelt and picked up the box, careful not to spill anything. At the top of the stairs she glanced around again. Nothing exploded. There were no creepy voices or blood running down the walls so hopefully that was the end of that.

The cat refused to follow her down so Annabel turned off the light, but left the attic and closet doors open and settled on her bed. Tentatively, she opened the cigar box. Pawing through the mementos felt intrusive. A man’s wristwatch was on top along with a set of dog tags.

COOPER

S. A.           A POS

USMC       M

PROTESTANT

There were several black and white photos of a dark haired woman with a boy close to Jeremy’s age. Annabel flipped each picture, but there were no names. A snapshot toward the bottom of the stack caught her eye. Four men stood together wearing jungle camouflage, holding rifles. They looked alert, but unruffled. One had a cigarette dangling from his lips. The hairstyles, dated uniforms and style of the picture screamed Vietnam. The last picture was a portrait of a handsome man with piercing eyes and lean features in his dress blue Marine Corps uniform. Annabel compared the group photo to the portrait. She was certain the man on the far right was the same man in the portrait. Was this S.A. Cooper? Could he be her ghost?

Glancing at the nightstand, she noticed she’d missed a message. “Oh no, I hope it wasn’t Jack.” She pushed the voicemail button and was surprised to hear her sister’s voice.

“Hey Annabel, it’s Beth. How are you? Is everything okay? I’ve been thinking about you all day and well, just call me. Let me know you and Jeremy are alright.” Beth’s voice sounded anxious. Annabel smiled. She and Beth had always been close, somehow sensing when something was going on in the other’s life. It would appear that having the entire North American continent between them hadn’t changed that.

She was just getting ready to call her sister back when something came barreling down the attic stairs. Tinker flew out of the closet, all puffed up and wild eyed. The cat sprinted through the bedroom and slid around the corner, thundering down the hall. Annabel stared back at the empty closet. It looked like S.A. Cooper wasn’t a cat person… or cat ghost.

* * * * *

The days dissolved into a countdown to the day Jack would come home. Six weeks. Five. Four. She and Jeremy were almost home from their evening walk when Annabel saw the car. Her heart stopped, but the car kept going, passing her house to stop in front of one down the street. Her relief was followed by guilt and sadness as she watched the uniformed men get out, a look of grave duty etched in their faces.

They were the ones that came to tell you your husband was never coming home. Or that he’d had his leg blown off. Or any number of horrendous fates, every one of which she’d envisioned a hundred thousand times in the last few months. She turned away, unable to watch.

The rest of her evening was a dull blur. Going through the motions she locked up for the night, double-checking windows and doors, turning off lights. Upstairs, she checked on Jeremy again before washing her face and fishing one of Jack’s favorite t-shirts out of his drawer to sleep in. She pressed the soft cotton to her nose and inhaled deeply. It smelled masculine and spicy, like him. She climbed under the covers, but the bed felt too big and cold without him. Scooting over to his side, she wrapped herself around his pillow and, now that Jeremy wasn’t there, let the dam break.

Apparently sensing her mood, Tinker jumped up on the bed, curled up beside her and purred like a Corvette. “Thanks Tink,” she sobbed, absently scratching the cat’s cheeks and behind her ears.

Annabel lay there for what felt like forever, bawling. She hated this weakness, but she was lonely. And scared. What if they came to her house next time? What if Jack never came home…never saw his son again?

An awareness settled over her, a warm feeling like a blanket tucked in close. Her tears slowed. For weeks now, the familiar presence no longer frightened her. If anything she felt protected, almost as if he watched over her. Rolling over, she sat up and looked into the open closet. Only clothes and shoes peeped back at her.

The cat stood and faced the closet, growling low in her throat. Her twelve-pound tabby body puffed up to hilarious proportions, her tail fluffed out like a bottlebrush. A heartbeat later the cat bolted off the bed, skidded around the corner and down the hall. Looking from the hallway back to the closet, Annabel sniffled and said, “You really shouldn’t screw with the cat like that. It’s not nice.”

She climbed out from under the blanket and walked to the closet. “Thank you for making me feel better, but I can’t sleep with someone watching me.” After closing the door, she slipped back into bed and somehow, as crazy as it seemed, felt consoled and not nearly as alone.

Just one more month and Jack would be home. She could do this.

Come back tomorrow for the conclusion of The Guardian by Dana Rodgers.