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One second Julia was jogging the narrow path, swerving to avoid overgrown evergreen branches, the next she was flung forward onto the hard-packed dirt. Skidding on her knees and the palms of her hands, she slid to an abrupt stop and collapsed onto her stomach. Too shaken to move, she gulped deep breaths, trying to regain her equilibrium.
"Damn shoelaces!" she muttered, knowing the replacements on her Nikes had been too long in the first place. But she had been in her typical hurry. Pressed for time because of her six part-time jobs, she'd skipped a stop at the store to buy the right length.
Julia Farley, Jill of all trades, she thought, mocking herself. It'd be a laugh if it wasn't so damn pathetic -- and frightening.
Meeting work deadlines was why she was jogging during the evening rather than taking her usual early morning run. Today she'd had too many commitments, but being compulsive about exercising, she had squeezed in the time despite the late hour. Exercise helped her stay positive about the scary aspects of her life right now.
Her mind lingered on the thought: six part-time jobs. Oh God. Some things never changed. Years ago when she was in high school her mother used to caution her against taking on too many activities. But back then being too busy had meant being popular, having fun; these days it was an issue of survival. She needed all six little jobs to support her family now that she was the main source of income. She was not qualified for a high-paying position, as she lacked a college degree and an established career.
Despite throbbing knees and hands, Julia grinned. She had always believed a person could accomplish anythingthey set their mind to, come hell or high water. And she meant to work from home, make a living from the skills she did have, and stay close to her teenage daughters.
The fading sunlight filtered through the high pines and firs above her, splashing shadow patterns onto the final stretch of Highland Trail near her home in rural Issaquah, a bedroom community close to Seattle. The Cascade Mountain foothills to the east seemed to embrace the lowering temperature of approaching night, and the darkening blue sky, ringed by ominous clouds, threatened rain by morning. Typical fall weather in the Northwest, she thought, shivering. Despite having worked up a sweat, she now felt chilled to the bone, and in agony from her sudden fall.
Julia held up her hands. Pinpoints of blood dotted the heel of her palms. Her knees were in even worse shape, bleeding profusely. "Oh shit! -- shit! -- shit!" she chanted aloud as she managed to retie her laces. Gingerly, she got to her feet, testing her weight on them to make sure that no bones were broken.
She steadied herself, regaining her balance. She still had a way to go before she completed the run.
A snapping twig startled her, and she jerked her head to the left in the direction of the sound. Nothing moved within the dense underbrush, where the night was already settling its black presence. She was suddenly aware that she jogged alone on the remote wooded path. Other people had more sense than to be there at nightfall.
Because someone was killing prostitutes in the south Seattle area and dumping their bodies in just such a secluded place.
The hair on the back of her neck felt stiff. Was someone hidden in the woods -- watching her?
She strained her ears, listening, hearing the faint rustle of dried leaves, the gentle slapping of branches caught by the strengthening currents of wind.
Did the sounds denote someone in the woods -- someone creeping closer?
Don't be silly, she instructed herself. You're a morning runner, unaware of the strange, indefinable noises of nocturnal creatures that come out at dusk. Just because Peter was playing mind games, trying to scare her back to their marriage with his prowling around the house and dumb, if frightening, terror tactics, didn't mean that a serial killer was hiding in the bushes. Her former husband was emotionally disturbed, but she didn't believe he was a murderer. I'm just on edge because of Peter, she thought.
But her movements were quick as she jerked her headband from her head, allowing her long blond hair to fall free. She wrapped the elasticized strip of material around her right knee, which was the most injured, to stop the flow of blood. Then, without glancing around, she sprinted forward, gradually regaining her earlier speed, ignoring a sense of danger. Although she knew the rustling sounds that seemed to keep pace in the forest beside the path were normal, Julia's apprehension would not go away. Getting home -- being safe -- meant everything at that moment.
"The Paranoids are getting you, the Paranoids are getting you," Julia repeated over and over, punctuating each footfall with the words from a card her sixteen-year-old daughter, Alyssa, had given her as a joke.
Her headband slipped from her knee, and the blood ran down her leg into her athletic shoes. Julia stopped to adjust the makeshift bandage. The other skinned knee had stopped bleeding. About to start running again, Julia hesitated.
The woods had gone silent. There were no sounds from the underbrush, even though the wind still whispered through the high branches above her.
Because she was there, on the trail? Or because something -- or someone -- was in the underbrush, disturbing the rhythm of the forest?
A prickle of apprehension touched her spine. Something was wrong. It was as though the instincts of the night creatures had sensed danger, freezing them into place, waiting for what would happen next. Their fear was transferred to her, and for a moment she, too, was immobilized.
Shivering, Julia realized how vulnerable she was at that moment. Stupid idiot, she told herself. Out here in the dark by yourself. Who cares if your body is in shape if you're dead? Your daughters won't. They'll only know that their mother is gone. She glanced down the path. It was almost dark now; she could barely see the trail ahead of her.
Julia started forward, knowing she was almost to the end of her run. She gave a final burst of speed, anticipating a hot shower, antiseptic on her wounds, and a soothing glass of wine before she prepared supper for herself and her two daughters.
In all the years she'd been jogging the woodland trail near her home in Issaquah, she'd never been afraid. Her small community was nestled in the Cascade foothills and was far enough from the Seattle clamor of traffic and people to feel safe. But her apprehension now was not surprising, she reminded herself as she broke free of the woods into a lighted housing development near her house. Aside from a serial killer being on the loose in the Seattle area, she had never before been the target of someone dedicated to making her suffer -- threatening her safety -- so that she sometimes wondered if her life was in danger as well.
That someone was Peter, the man she had once loved.
The tension went out of her body as she jogged down the street to her house. She no longer felt an ominous presence near her. Now the woods behind her were only a backdrop to the big homes in the development. She had come back to civilization.
Once inside her Tudor-style house, the home her husband Peter had once built for them, Julia began to feel foolish. No one had been watching her. But as she closed the door between the garage and laundry room, went through the kitchen to the front hall and upstairs to her bathroom to tend her wounds, she also realized how a woman could get into trouble by ignoring good sense and jogging a remote trail alone at night. And as she showered, her thoughts lingered on the recent murders of women in the Northwest. Had they also flouted safety, disbelieving that anyone would be after them? That they could be murdered?
The thought was troubling.
Julia stood at the stove, stirring sautéed vegetables and low-fat marinara sauce into the cooked pasta. She sprinkled dill, a favorite herb from her own garden, onto the finished dish, checked the sourdough rolls in the oven, then walked to the doorway that opened into the front hall and called up the steps.
"Dinner's ready!" There was a silence. "Hey, you two, now!"
"Coming!" Alyssa answered.
"Be right there!" Samantha called. "As soon as I get off the phone."
Julia turned the food down to simmer, knowing that it would take at least five minutes for her teenage daughters to get downstairs. Resigned to their idea of promptness, she walked through the laundry room to the garage to check on the flowers that were drying in her work alcove. A boutique had ordered ten fall wreaths, and she was pleased to see that her hanging assortment of flowers and greens was ready to work into arrangements. She would do that first thing in the morning, after she had jogged and the girls had left for school. There would still be time before noon to prepare her talk on writing technical manuals for an annual writer's conference on Saturday. Her panel was in the late morning.
She sighed. There was scarcely time to accomplish all of her various projects: the three-tier cake she must bake and deliver for a Friday night wedding, her speech on Saturday, the ten wreaths by Monday, two wallpapering jobs in the next seven days, and writing her bimonthly children's story for a small publishing house in California.
"Whew," she said aloud. She would not think about the computer program manual she had been commissioned to write by mid-November. Although she had already done one manual this year, the latest, a sophisticated upgrade by a local international software company, promised to be the most challenging yet. And she still needed to get up to speed on the latest advances to the program, a fact that she hadn't told her employer -- because she knew she could do it.
She could not let them down; a close friend, another writer, had recommended her for the job, knowing she needed income after her divorce. Although she had been using a computer for years, as a writer and in her former husband's general contracting company, she was far from the brilliant computer nerd her employer believed her to be. While married, she had done all of the office and financial part of their business -- billing, contracts, estimates and bookkeeping -- on the computer. Creating a program manual required an expertise far beyond average computer knowledge, and each subject had taken weeks of research before she could write it up correctly. But she'd hung in there, working all night if necessary, because the pay was good. In fact, it was that income that tipped the balance and allowed her to be a stay-at-home mom.
She stirred her pasta dish and called the girls again, her thoughts on her own lack of a real profession. A glance out of the kitchen window reminded her that the weather was changing. There would be rain before she even went to bed tonight. She would have to cut her rosebushes tomorrow to save all the blooms for drying.
She turned back to the kitchen table, which was set for three, and added napkins. The only time she had ever regretted graduating from high school at seventeen, being married at barely eighteen, and a mother before she had turned nineteen, was after she had been divorced and needed a college degree to land a decent-paying job. Practical experience, common sense, and intelligence had not mattered to potential employers once they realized she was mid-thirties and lacked a B.A. They had not cared about her role in the family business, and her artistic accomplishments had been dismissed.
Their loss, she told herself. I'll make it without being conventional -- despite academic prejudice.
"Hey Mom," Alyssa said, coming into the kitchen, her large blue eyes concerned. "Dad just drove up." A tall, slender girl of sixteen, Julia's firstborn was the more serious of her two. She wore her long blond hair straight and parted in the middle, an unintentional throwback to the late seventies, when Julia was a kid.
"Oh no," Samantha said behind her, her unruly red curls clipped into a ponytail. She gave a dramatic sigh and would have gone back upstairs but for Alyssa grabbing her sweatshirt. "I love Dad, but I can't stand another fight," she protested, trying to pull free of Alyssa's hold. "Dad is always mad at us," she said with the blunt wisdom of a fourteen-year-old.
"We could pretend we're not home," Alyssa suggested.
"Can't," Samantha said, her blue eyes darting to Julia. "Mom turned on the lights."
"I promise I won't get in a fight with your father." Julia swallowed hard. She hated the confrontations with Peter even more than the girls did. She could not dismiss the negative effect he had on them. The type of emotional abuse Peter had lowered on his family after they'd separated was horrific: rages and threats, sobbing and promises, and often all at once, his mood changing like a light switch. His mother had tried to help, explaining that Peter's first breakdown had happened in college, when the stress of grades and being away from the safety of his parents and home had caused him to flip out, family history Julia had not known about. With medication, counseling, and constant reassurances from his mother, Peter had gotten back on an even keel and stayed there -- until years later, when business stress had overwhelmed him and a divorce had again threatened his sense of safety.
Dr. Hornsby, their family doctor, had referred him to a psychiatrist over two years ago, long before their separation, but neither the doctor nor medications had made an improvement in Peter's unpredictable personality and swinging moods. Living with him had been a frightening nightmare, and finally a matter of life and death. Julia had worried that he would snap and do something drastic, like killing her, as he had threatened each time he'd had a temper tantrum.
Dr. Hornsby had told him many times, "Peter, you're not listening." And when Peter would go into a tirade, "Peter, you're digging yourself another hole to fall into." It had been a scary time, and finally Julia had had no other option but to end the marriage, knowing she must avert a tragedy. Divorce had finally been her only option.
And then all hell had been unleashed on her and the girls. Peter wanted his family back. His abuse did not register with him; only his own needs did.
When reconciliation didn't happen, his fear tactics began and then escalated into terrifying situations as he tried to manipulate her back to the marriage. And there was nothing she could do about it legally, since he had not broken the law -- as far as anyone could prove. No one could pin him to the frightening incidents that kept happening to Julia; no one saw who flattened her car tires, stole her gas cap, cut her brake cable. No one witnessed the phantom in the night who threw rocks against the house, peeked in the windows, called her phone incessantly only to hang up, flooded her computer e-mail with spam, and hired people to chase her car and run her off the road. The police could do nothing without documented proof. As far as they were concerned, Peter had not broken the law. But after each incident Peter hinted to his daughters that he was behind everything, that it would all stop when they were a family again, that he would protect them. Alyssa and Samantha had recoiled, and they'd begged him to let go of their mom. He'd only smiled, said that wasn't possible, and repeated that they needed to be a family again.
Now, as Julia went to the door, she schooled herself to be calm. For the sake of the girls, she did not want a scene of histrionics and threats. Tomorrow she would call her lawyer, have him report Peter's infraction to the judge...again. She knew that the monthly child support check was due and that, court order or not, Peter had not been able to pass up the chance of coming to the door and delivering it in person.
"I'm going upstairs," Samantha said, bursting into tears. Then she rushed up the steps.
Julia turned, uncertain. It was another ruined evening -- because everyone feared what Peter would do next. She started after Samantha, knowing how upset she was, afraid that a high-strung girl like Sam could break down one day, act out, and maybe run away from home as she had once threatened.
"Don't worry, Mom," Alyssa said. "I'll see to Sam, you take care of Dad." She hesitated before running after her sister, who'd just slammed her bedroom door. "Just tell Dad that Sam and I are gone."
Julia hesitated, hating the scenario that had become all too familiar of late: lie to save the peace -- because no one could control Peter.
But she nodded. For the moment there was no other option. Alyssa went upstairs as Julia continued to the door, where the knocking had become urgent.
There was one other option, she reminded herself. She could sell the house and move, but both girls resisted the idea. Alyssa and Samantha had gone to school with their friends since kindergarten, and Julia realized a move would be the last emotional straw for them. Alyssa had said she wouldn't go, that her best friend's family would take her in. Samantha had simply threatened to run away. Somehow Julia needed to keep the status quo and hope that Peter would eventually come to his senses.
She grabbed the knob, hesitated, and then opened the door.
And wished she hadn't.
Copyright © 2003 by Donna Anders