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Petra immediately sought the warmth of the fireplace. The logs had burned down to embers, and she tossed kindling and pine cones on top, blew on it until it ignited, then added one medium log. Holding her frozen fingers to the warmth, her thoughts whirled.
She had to get her mind back in a good space. She wanted to focus on Jade. She wanted to forget the ugliness that had transpired in the attic. The fear she had felt on that road when she saw the Jeep coming toward her.
Her favorite comfort food waited in the kitchen. Fried baloney sandwich on white bread with Miracle Whip. She made the sandwich and bit into it with a singular pleasure that few other things could give her. Soon, she wouldn’t need comfort food. She’d have Jade. But she’d still make her a fried baloney sandwich. She’d promised her that in their last Skype chat.
She wanted to think only about this blissful meeting that had been eight long months in coming.
Petra was so proud to have bought this cabin, now. At first, she had rented it as a getaway for her novel-writing, but she fell in love with it. Soon after the sabbatical to write her first novel, she had met Rex, who was there in his professional capacity as a construction superintendent, renovating a cabin next door. They had dated, and eventually married, and he bought the other house, a fixer-upper, and did the renovations himself.
Once ensconced in domestic routine, she discovered he had an ex-wife and a child, along with alimony and child-support. His loving demeanor was also a facade. He had only wanted another wife, and he pulled out all the stops to get her. But once he had, the facade fell away, and she found herself in a marriage that did little to please her. She did cling to the idea of having children, but eventually decided that no amount of maternal longings could erase the dangers of being with a man like Rex. She would not subject a child to such things.
After the divorce papers were filed, she was drawn back to her Zen Place. The owner had several cabins along the lake, and this one, as it turned out, he was willing to sell to her when she desperately needed a place to go after Rex booted her out. So she immediately set about taking on new clients and saving the down payment to buy it.
Now, she would have to start locking the doors so Rex couldn’t make another appearance, invade her personal space and visit his anger upon her.
Her ruminations were interrupted by Participle, the cat, as he made a pass around her legs, purring. Petra sat down on the rug and pulled the soft warm creature into her lap. Massaging its ears.
Grown weary of the fondling, the cat decided to wriggle free and perched himself on the notebook lying open on the coffee table, open to a page Petra had been taking notes on.
That cat would perch on anything flat and cool…a book, a piece of paper…she kept putting smaller and smaller things down, and damned if that cat didn’t find a way to perch on it. One of these days she was going to drop a postage stamp. That ought to be entertaining.
Just as Petra was thinking this, the cat got up off the notebook and instead laid down on her cell phone. Maybe the paper was too cold and there was heat in the phone. Whichever, he was covering it with his body like a furry blanket, writhing a little. Was he expecting a call?
The phone alarm shrilled and Participle shot straight into the air, landing wide-eyed on the mottled rug, and Petra almost choked on her bite of sandwich. Laughing, she tried to soothe the cat. It wasn’t that Participle was jittery, but he was still sleeping on top of the cell phone. Usually, it was set on vibrate. And the cat apparently knew that, Petra realized, and liked it when it rang. It sent him into paroxysms of writhing. But Petra had changed it to ring because she had been in the kitchen, frying baloney for a sandwich, and needed to hear her first reminder alarm to go pick up Jade at the airport. She wanted to be able to hear it, but couldn’t carry it around. She had only her underwear on, having hung her wet clothes by the fireplace. And she wanted to remain in her underwear for a just a little longer, out of some perhaps-misplaced fear that she wouldn’t be as fresh for her meeting with Jade, if she wore her clothes around for a while before leaving. She was wearing the outfit that Jade had complimented her on, in one of their video chats.
Her airport clothes were upstairs in the wardrobe. Her laptop was still up there, too. The trigger for Rex’s rage. Erotica, of the lesbian variety. She headed for the steep staircase.
Stepping onto the top landing, she froze. Petra stared at the lump near her feet. She couldn’t see it very well, and realized the structure of the house blocked the after-noon sun as it drifted toward the horizon on the other side. The room had dimmed considerably. She reached for the light switch and startled when a loud pop flashed in the room. She’d just blown the bulb. No light.
The inexplicable lump on the floor was equal parts confusing and fraught with meaning. It was like reading Shakespeare: at first, you think it’s a foreign language, for which you have no understanding, and then you recognize that it’s English, just well-wrought. And then you develop an ear for its cadence, a clarity for its depth and humor. Now, she wished she could recall all his works, as they might have helped her understand the current predicament in which she found herself.
This. The human-shaped lump at her feet.
This confusing, shocking, Shakespearean tragedy on the floor in front of her.
She stood there with the half-eaten fried baloney sandwich in her hand, staring down at the dark form.
Straining to verify what she was seeing, her brain finally made the pattern out. It was a man, face down on the wood. Rex? She felt silly asking him if he was okay, so nudged him with her foot, to no response. Hesitantly, she leaned down and placed her fingers on what she hoped was his carotid artery. His skin was awfully cold, and no discernible pulse.
She stood abruptly, dropping the half-sandwich she forgot she was holding, with a splat to the floor, almost losing her balance and falling backward down the staircase.
He was dead. There was a dead man on her floor.
And the niggling question erupted in her mind. If this was Rex, and she really had killed him, why was his car gone when she returned with the mechanic?