The Guardian 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 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 exactly, 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.

* * * * *

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 heavy, 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.

* * * * *

“Hey gorgeous.” Annabel turned to find Jack leaning against the doorframe, his lips turned up in a perfect curve, dark eyes heating. He reached up between his shoulder blades and tugged his navy blue t-shirt off over his head. “Baby’s down, house is locked up and you’re looking mighty fine in that towel.”

She giggled, pushing the long ropes of wet hair out of her face. God, how did she get so lucky? He was perfect. From his bare feet to the short dark hair that was always deliciously messy from running his hands through it. His t-shirt dangled from his left hand, showing off his sculpted chest and six-pack abs. He was leaner than he had been when he left. Her eyes were automatically drawn to the happy trail of dark hair that disappeared down the front of his low-slung jeans. He popped the top button and slowly sauntered into the room.

“I’m glad you’re home.”

“Me too.” Jack pulled her close. “I would have been crazy thinking about you and Jeremy here by yourselves with this hurricane coming.”

Another torrent of rain slammed into the side of the house and Annabel tensed.

Jack trailed callused fingertips over her cheek. “It’s okay, baby. Don’t be afraid.”

“I know. But some of us didn’t grow up dealing with hurricanes. A good blizzard, three feet of snow—that I can handle. This scares the crap out of me.”

“Bet I can help you with that.” He leaned in to nibble her neck and ear.

This time her shiver had nothing to do with fear. “Mmm…” She reached up and wrapped her arms around his neck, then pulled his face down to hers. Heat exploded between them. Running one hand up her spine, he cupped the back of her neck, his hungry mouth exploring hers. She moaned as her tongue slid against his. With one tug, the towel that had been wrapped around her, puddled at her feet. Jack’s hands slid down her back to her bottom and she rocked her hips into him.

Breaking off the kiss, he let her go long enough to move his sea bag from the bed. Annabel felt the familiar tingle and glanced toward the closet. Before Jack could pull her back into his arms she closed the closet door and, ignoring Jack’s curious look, kicked one of his boots in front of the door to keep it that way.

Flipping back the covers, he took her hand and pulled her onto the bed. “Now where were we?”

* * * * *

Rain battered the house and powerful winds rocked trees back and forth, and rattled the shutters. Annabel frowned. “The storm is getting stronger. I don’t like being up here with all these trees whipping around.”

“Me either.” Jack sat up, pulled on jeans and slapped her behind playfully. “I got Jeremy. Grab some blankets and pillows and meet me downstairs. Clothes are optional.”

Ten minutes later Annabel adjusted the thin blanket over the toddler that lay snuggled between them on the foldout sofa in the living room. “Sorry. I just didn’t feel safe with him upstairs.”

“It’s okay,” Jack said, rubbing Jeremy’s back. “I’d been lying awake for twenty minutes thinking the same thing. I feel safer with you both down here.” He’d barely spoken the words when something exploded like a shotgun blast, followed by a loud crash.

Jack was on his feet in a flash, straining to see out the window. Annabel followed, with Jeremy nestled in her arms, crying. “Can you see anything?”

“Nope. Too dark. Sounded like we lost a tree. It’ll be light soon, then we’ll be able to see the damage.”

The winds were dying down by the time the sun came up. Jack was back at the window. “Looks like we lost a big branch out of the oak tree in the backyard.”

She laughed. “Don’t sound so upset about it.”

“Wha-at?” Jack asked dragging out the word into two syllables and doing a horrible job of looking anything but gleeful.

“You are such a guy. You can’t wait to get out there and play with your chainsaw.”

“Cha-saw!” Jeremy squealed in agreement.

“Damn straight, woman,” Jack said with a wink, “And when the baby goes down for his nap maybe you can pay me back for keeping me up all night.”

Annabel slapped his chest. “Such a guy.”

When the rain stopped, they went outside to assess the damage. There were lots of leaves and sticks that would need to be raked up. “Roof looks okay on the front,” Jack said. “I’ll meet you around back with the chainsaw and we can take care of that branch and see what the damage is on the back side.” He headed toward the carport with a grin.

Cradling her son in her arms, Annabel rounded the corner into the backyard and abruptly stopped. Her stomach churned and bile rose in her throat when she saw the downed limb. It was the same branch that stuck out over the back corner of the house. Over Jeremy’s room.

Over Jeremy’s bed.

The branch was bigger around than her body and had snapped at it’s base, but instead of obeying the laws of physics—and hitting the house—the enormous branch lay at least twenty feet away and had even missed the HVAC system.

“Holy fuck!” Jack strode into the backyard and set the chainsaw down. “How the hell did that not hit the house?” He pulled Annabel into a tight hug and kissed the top of Jeremy’s head. “Thank God he was downstairs.”

It took effort to croak out the words “I know” from her too tight throat. Her eyes traveled up to Jeremy’s window where a shadow moved away from the glass. Maybe she was imagining it. Hell, maybe she was crazy. It didn’t matter. She still whispered, “Thank you.”

* * * * *

“You gonna be okay playing blocks in here while Mommy gets ready for Grandma and Grandpa?”

“Yep, yep, yep.”

Annabel watched three-year-old Jeremy stack one colorful block on top of another. He flashed his father’s mischievous grin and sent the blocks flying. “Knock it down!”

“You are so your father’s son.” Retreating into the guest bedroom, which was right next to Jeremy’s room, Annabel pulled off the quilt and stripped the bed. She was almost finished remaking it when she heard Jeremy talking.

Tilting her head, she listened more closely. It was quiet, then Jeremy said something about his blocks. He paused, and then Jeremy spoke again. A chill washed through her as she realized that he was holding a conversation. She tiptoed to the doorway and peeked around the corner. Jeremy still sat in the middle of his bedroom floor manipulating the primary color blocks, but now his eyes were fixed on a spot in the empty air.

“Really?” Jeremy stared at the spot intently for a moment and then nodded enthusiastically. He turned toward her and asked, “Mommy? When I get a sister?”

Annabel’s eyes widened and her hand dropped to her stomach. She’d just taken the test this morning. She hadn’t told a soul. Not even Jack. “Who said you were getting a sister?” she asked, her voice hoarse.

Jeremy pointed to the empty space beside him. “Da uh-rah man.”

“What else did he say?” she whispered.

“Dat we go bye-bye soon and he miss me. Why we go bye-bye?”

Annabel slid to the floor. “Come give mommy hugs. Mommy really needs hugs right now.”

* * * * *

Three months later Annabel watched the back doors close on the moving truck. That was it, everything was out of the house. Jack’s truck and her Explorer were packed with everything accept the dog and the cat, who were locked in the downstairs bathroom, and Jeremy, who was at the neighbor’s. She’d tried to find S. A. Cooper’s family but it was a dead end. Apparently he’d lived here and died in Vietnam, but there were no records of what might have happened to his family after that. Unsure what else to do with them, Annabel had tucked the cigar box of mementos back into the chimney alcove in the attic along with the key. She hoped he’d be rejoined with his family one day.

Strong arms wrapped around her, and a large hand settled over the slight swell of her tummy. “How you feeling?” Jack asked, brushing a gentle kiss on the sensitive spot below her ear.

“Good. A little tired. And a little sad. I’m going to miss this place.” She tilted her head toward the house.

“Me too,” he agreed glancing toward their bedroom windows.

Annabel took a deep breath. “There’s something I’ve wanted to tell you. I didn’t say anything while we were living here because I didn’t want to freak you out, but this house has… a ghost.”

Jack’s arms stiffened and he spun her around to face him. “You knew?” He threw his head back and laughed. “And all this time I didn’t want to tell you because I didn’t want to freak you out.”

“Oh, the ghost has freaked me out plenty of times,” Annabel laughed wryly, “but I’ve never felt threatened by him. He feels more like a guardian angel. I think he’s from the—”

“Vietnam era,” Jack finished.

“Oh my God!”

“Yeah, I think he died in the war,” Jack said in a somber voice. “Maybe by the time his spirit made it back here his family was gone.”

“I think he stayed here to watch over other Marine’s families. His presence is always strongest when you’re away. Sometimes he’s downright irritating, especially since I’ve been pregnant.”

Jack’s eyes sparkled with mirth. “So I’m not the only one who annoys you by being overprotective?”

“No, but I have it on good authority that we should concentrate on girl names.”

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