Authors: Brian Freeman
First published in Great Britain in 2012 by
55 Baker Street
7th Floor, South Block
Copyright © 2012 by Brian Freeman
The moral right of Brian Freeman to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
eBook ISBN 978 1 78087 796 9
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblanceto actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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As Alison Malville dreamed, black ants marched over her body.
Like an army of intimate invaders, they sought out the puckered folds on the buttons of her nightshirt and trooped relentlessly across the silk onto her damp skin. From her pillow, they climbed through the thick forest of her red hair, clung to her eyelashes, and explored the orifices on her face. She tasted them on her tongue. She inhaled and exhaled them through her nose. She drowned them in her tears as she cried. Unable to move, she screamed soundlessly as thousands of ants mounted her feet, her thighs, her torso, and her neck, violating the crevices between her limbs.
Wake up, her brain told her.
Alison flew upward in bed. Awake, she could still feel the ants crawling on her body, and she tore at her clothes, popping buttons as she stripped naked. She scrambled out of the tangled sheets and threw herself against the wall, rubbing and slapping her skin as if she could kill them. Finally, exhausted and sobbing, her chest hammering, she sank to the floor and hugged her knees.
Again. It had happened again.
She dreamed of the ants almost every night now. When she closed her eyes, there they were, waiting to slip out through the walls. They had even begun to march from her sleep into her waking life. She couldn’t escape them. Wherever she went in the house, she heard them massing in the ceiling, watching her like spies.
Alison understood what was happening to her. It wasn’t about the ants at all. It was about her husband. He was driving her into madness.
As she sat on the floor, she stared at the glowing clock on her nightstand. The time said six o’clock. There was no light through the curtains, but it would be morning soon, and she was already late. She’d failed. She’d meant to stay awake – to listen, to see what Michael did – but sometime after midnight, her eyes had blinked shut despite three cups of caffeinated tea. She’d slept heavily.
The ants had come back.
Alison got to her feet in a rush. Gooseflesh pebbled her bare skin. She lifted a robe off the hook on the back of the closet door and slipped her arms inside the sleeves and tied it at her waist. She removed the chair wedged against the doorknob, unlocked the bedroom door, and peered down the upstairs hallway, which was dark and quiet.
She smelled something odd in the stale air, blowing through the vents with the furnace heat. It was an essence of perfume. Hers.
She checked on Evan first. Her ten-year-old son slept in a bedroom that was crowded with monster posters thumb tacked to the walls. He was obsessed with old Frankenstein movies. Vampires. Werewolves. Unlike his mother, Evan was fearless, immune to bad dreams. She found him on top of the covers, his skinny limbs sprawled, his mouth open, and his messy mop of brown hair covering his eyes. She navigated the minefield of toys littering the carpet and stroked his cheek with the back of one hand. Evan murmured but didn’t wake up.
Alison heard something behind her. She spun, but there was nothing.
She clutched her forearms as she hurried downstairs. The house was so cold and dry that the metal railing gave her a shock of static when she brushed against it. The ceramic tiles on the floor of the foyer were like blocks of ice, making her dance on her tiptoes. She passed quickly into the dining room, where the carpet was lush, but she grimaced as she cut her foot on something sharp buried in the weave. She bent down and kneaded the pile with her fingers until she located a triangular shard of glass, which she cupped in her hand. When she peered into the dusty shelves of their hutch, she saw that a Russian crystal tumbler – a wedding gift from her parents – was missing.
“Oh, Evan,” she breathed.
She didn’t have time to worry about the broken treasure. She continued to the rear of the house where Michael kept his private office. The door was closed, as it usually was now. The room was off-limits to anyone but him. Her husband claimed that Evan had been playing with his computer, but she suspected that Michael was more afraid of what she would find hidden in his personal files.
She put her ear to the door, and she could hear him lightly snoring. He’d been sleeping down here, away from her, for several weeks.
Alison was relieved that he was still in the house. She told herself that her paranoia was just a dream, like the ants. That was how it worked when you suspected something you didn’t dare believe. You used every opportunity, every excuse, to tell yourself that you were wrong.
Michael was not a monster.
Even so, Alison knew that his being here now, in the morning, meant nothing. She’d slept most of the night, and in those hours, anything could have happened. She had to know the truth. She backtracked to the foyer, where the vaulted ceiling loomed over the entryway. Michael kept his keys in a ceramic bowl by the door, and she scooped them into her hand. She threw open the double front doors and ran outside. They lived in the country. She heard morning birds squawking in the spruce trees beyond the field. The fieldstones on their walkway were freezing. She could see her breath.
Michael’s black sedan was parked outside the garage. There were needles of frost on the windows. She put her palm on the hood, and it was cold, but in the twenty-degree lows overnight, cars cooled down almost as soon as the engine stopped. She opened the driver’s door. The car was never locked; there was no need for locks here, in the middle of nowhere.
She remembered the exact number. She’d slipped outside to memorize the odometer before she went to bed. It was her lifeline.
Alison sat inside, wracked with shivers so severe she could barely hold the key and slide it into the ignition. She turned the key just far enough to jolt the electrical systems. The dashboard blinked to life in red and white lights. She leaned forward over the steering wheel to study the mileage, and her hand slapped over her mouth in horror. She read the number three times to be certain she wasn’t wrong.
The odometer had changed.
Thirty miles. He’d driven thirty miles overnight.
Evan sat at the kitchen table, slurping cereal from his spoon and turning the pages in a comic book. Alison heard the shower pipes overhead and knew her husband was awake. She was dressed smartly for work and wore an apron over her pink blouse to avoid spatter from the bacon in the frying pan. Michael liked a hot breakfast, and she still cooked it for him each morning the way she had for years, as if nothing had changed between them.
“Can I have some orange juice?” Evan asked.
Alison glanced at the boy. Her grim face softened. “Sure.”
She opened the door of the side-by-side refrigerator and grabbed a carton of juice from the top shelf, but when she shook it, she realized the carton was empty. She blew out her breath in frustration. It was a stupid little thing, but she couldn’t handle the little things today.
“Sorry, kiddo, no juice.”
“Did you finish it and not tell me?”
Alison gave her son the mock evil eye. “Because when you finish it and put the carton back, I don’t know to buy more, right? So you don’t get any juice that way.”
“I didn’t do it,” Evan insisted.
“Whatever you say,” Alison replied, but she was sure that Evan was the culprit. She returned to the bacon, which was blackening rapidly from crispy to burned. She pulled the pan off the range, but the charred odor was strong. She was upset because she hadn’t had time to cook breakfast before getting dressed. Now her pants suit and her long red hair would smell of bacon fat, not her subtle French perfume.
“Is there anything else you want to tell me about?” she asked her son.
“Like what happened to the crystal glass in the dining room? The one that was in the bureau you’re not supposed to touch?”
The boy gulped nervously. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, somebody broke it. I found the pieces at the bottom of the garbage bag.”
Alison cocked her head in annoyance. “Evan, you remember what I always tell you? Mistakes are okay, but not lies.”
“I’m not lying.” He stared at her with big, sincere eyes and lowered his voice to a whisper. “I think a spitting devil did it.”
“A spitting devil.” Evan held up his comic book, where Alison saw a caricature of a red-skinned devil leering from the pages with his tongue lolling out of his mouth. “See, they make bad things happen in the night, and the only way you know they were there is because they spit blood onto the floor.”
“Nice try,” Alison said.
Evan pointed. “Look, there’s blood! See!”
She studied her feet and realized that Evan was right. Tiny red drips of blood were dotted and smeared from the dining room across the kitchen floor. “That’s from my foot, young man,” she told him. “I cut myself on glass because someone broke my Russian tumbler and tried to hide it.”
“Not me,” the boy repeated. “It was a spitting devil.”
“We’ll talk about this more after school,” Alison told him. “Don’t think you’re off the hook.”
She didn’t like Evan’s excuses, but she didn’t have the energy to challenge him now. This wasn’t the first time recently that she’d caught him lying. As the relationship between her and Michael had grown strained in the past three months, Evan had felt the tension in the house and begun acting out. He craved their attention, even if it came with blame and discipline.
“Good morning,” her husband said from the doorway. He nearly filled with space with his tall frame.
Alison tensed and didn’t reply.
Michael Malville kissed the top of Evan’s head and tousled his son’s hair. She saw him out of the corner of her eye. He wore a sport coat and black turtleneck over gray slacks and polished dress shoes. It was his CEO uniform, classy but casual. When you owned the company, you chose the dress code. Michael had started his technology business a dozen years earlier, shortly after they were married, and he’d built it into one of the largest software development enterprises in the state. He worked with nerdy engineers who wore t-shirts and jeans, but he never allowed anyone to forget that he was the boss. You knew it by looking at him. Even now, when he’d laid off half his staff thanks to the recession, he never looked anything but perfect.
Alison knew looks were deceiving. Looks hid all the stress, the pent-up anger, the arguments, the secrets. She missed the early days when they struggled with no money in a small apartment in the city. Wealth hadn’t given them peace of mind.
“Morning,” Michael repeated as he stood next to her.
“Yeah,” she murmured.
“You sleep okay?”
He put a hand on her shoulder, and she stiffened at his touch. Her rejection made him freeze. That was how it was between them now. Distant. Like strangers. She couldn’t bring herself to pretend anymore.