Fiction Friday: Curve Ball

I also did some research on stalkers to get some of these details right.


Chapter Twenty-Seven

Grant stood, hands on hips, the sling on his right arm askew, as he delivered the lecture. He looked down, sorrowful at having to speak so strongly. “I’m disappointed in you. I expected better.” He shook his head. “I want to trust you but you’ll have to earn that back.”

Petey’s shoulders drooped, like he understood Grant’s words and was sorry. Grant pointed into the laundry room the dog had destroyed. “Who’s going to clean that? You tore up some of Cami’s mail. You scattered the food she brought. That was supposed to last all week. What happened to the wimpy dog we all know and love?”

Petey stood and shuddered, like he was shaking off the reprimand and getting ready to ruin the rest of the house. “Am I going to have to keep you confined to one room? I don’t want to treat you like a two-year old, Petey. But I will if you insist.”

Grant exhaled, blowing out irritation as well as pent up air. “After telling me her story yesterday, she’s going to be fragile today. She’ll need me to be supportive, which will be hard if I’m mad at you.” Now he was talking to himself, instead of Petey. That dog was on his last nerve, pacing and moping. The demolition of the laundry room when Grant had been busy activating yeast and measuring flour finished off his patience.

Petey stared at him, as if wondering what Grant was so concerned about. “Okay. I need to start the figasa dough rising and Cami will be here any minute. Can I trust you to stay out of trouble?”

Petey flopped down on the kitchen floor, but kept an eye on the laundry room, as if he didn’t want whatever was in there out of sight. Grant poked his head in as well, but the vision of the slobber-encrusted floor, scattered dog food, and mangled envelopes sent him back to the kitchen. Figasa first, clean-up next.

He set the bowl of dough on the island as the doorbell rang. Finally. He wiped his hands on the towel slung over his shoulder as Petey clambered to his feet and rushed to the entryway.

“Who is it, Petey? Is Cami here?” The dog whined, getting louder as Grant moved closer to the front door. Grant fumbled with the doorknob and dead bolt as Petey’s distress increased in proportion to how long it took to get the door unlocked. Grant finally opened it to Cami waiting on the porch. Petey hurled himself at her, crying with what could only be joy.

She dropped her purse as she buried her face in his neck. Grant waited for her to stand and greet him, but she sat on the floor and continued to pet Petey.

“You must be feeling better,” she said to him.

“He’s fine,” Grant said, more of an edge in his tone than he’d intended.

“Is something wrong?” She finally looked up and met his gaze.

He took a deep breath. Get a grip. “Let’s say he’s been waiting impatiently, and it’s contagious. He’s glad you’re here. I’m ecstatic.”

She flushed, and he set his teeth. She hadn’t even made it all the way inside the house and he’d already managed to stir her insecurity. Maybe he should have lectured himself rather than the dog. How could he convince this woman she was special? She saw herself as damaged but to him, she was uncommonly sensitive and compassionate. He’d seen it in her interactions with Anita at the laser tag arcade, and with Ellen Spencer.

She returned her attention to the dog. Exasperation continued to nibble at him as he offered his left hand. “Let’s go into the kitchen.”

She took his hand and pulled herself up. He wrapped his good arm around her in an embrace. She was stiff, not at all the woman who’d left last night. He smothered a sigh, released her, and led the way into the kitchen. “I’m making figasa and it’s almost done rising.” He indicated the table and chairs set in the bay window overlooking the golf course. She dropped into a chair and Petey set a paw on her lap.

“I know, sweetie,” she said, rubbing his muzzle. “I miss you, too. How is Grant treating you?”

“Better than he deserves. Orca, on the other hand….” He let his voice trail off. He needed to tell her about the destruction, but a few minutes of chatter would help ease into it.

“Is that cat mean to my boy?” She continued running her hands over the dog’s nose and past his ears. “What’s he done that’s so awful?” She sounded defensive and he spoke quickly to let her know how annoying Petey had been.

“Besides the constant whining and pacing and looking for you? He got into the bag of dog food and treats you brought over yesterday and tore it all up. You had some mail in there, too. My laundry nook looks worse than the locker room after a double header.” He filled the stainless steel teakettle with water and set it on the stove. He turned the burner on, then leaned against the island, legs and arms crossed in front of him.

“He’s not being intentionally bad,” she said. “He’s been through a traumatic experience. He’s in a strange place. With a cat and without me.” She wrapped both arms around the dog’s head, as if protecting him from any more danger.

Petey huffed with contentment. Or victory. Grant wasn’t sure which. “I know, and I’m trying to be understanding.” But you haven’t seen the floor in there, he thought. Better change the subject. “How was the luncheon?”

“Interesting.” Her voice lightened. “I met your replacement’s wife. Ellen put me between her and Yvonne West.”

“Did you do something to tick her off?” He forced a chuckle to lighten the atmosphere. “Ellen is the most even-tempered person I know.”

“She put me by Melinda Wrightson because we were both new but she forgot about the whole replacement thing. And, someone had to sit by Yvonne.”

“Lucky you. Did you get coerced- I mean volunteer for anything?”

“I had lectured Melinda about saying no to things she wasn’t interested in. And since she was listening to every word, I had to practice what I’d preached.”

“Good for you.”

“The whole day seemed weird though.”

“How?” The kettle began to whistle. He poured the boiling water over a Lipton tea bag and set the mug in front of her. “Sorry, I’m out of Raspberry Delight and Lemon Passion.”

“This is great, thanks.” She cupped her hands around it. “I’m not used to all the designer clothes and everyone’s perfect looks. I felt seriously out of place with paint under my nails instead of polish on them, hair that takes up a whole extra seat at the movies, and no initials on my purse.”

Curious, he asked the obvious question. “Do you want that stuff?” He hadn’t thought a Rolex or Jag would impress her.

“I never did. But looking around today, I started to see how people get sucked into the mindset where it matters what name is on their clothes. I didn’t like it.”

“I don’t care what name is on your stuff.”

“I know. And I love that about you.”

His neck got hot. She had to have realized what she’d said because she was staring intently into her tea. She took a gulp from the mug, and then turned red as it must have scalded her tongue.

A timer went off and he grinned, turning his back to hide it. “I want you to finish that thought in a minute.” He ducked out of his sling as he moved around the center island and brought the heavy ceramic bowl from the counter. He sprinkled flour on the marble slab, then tipped out a mound of dough. A soft cloud rose. Setting the bowl aside, he plunged his fist into the middle of the mass and began to knead.

“Is it okay for your shoulder to be doing that?” she asked.

“Just like some of my exercises.” It did pull a little, but no worse than therapy.

She moved to a stool and watched as he folded the top half of the dough down, pushed it into the bottom half, shifted the whole thing a quarter turn and repeated. They talked about the luncheon as he worked.

He had already sprayed a large baking sheet with olive oil. Keeping the dough cradled in both hands, he slipped it onto the pan, then working from the middle out, he pressed with both fists, spreading the soft dough until it covered the pan. He finished with a brushing of more olive oil across the top, pricked it all over with a fork and then a sprinkling of coarse salt. It would later be served warm with sliced salami and wedges of dry jack cheese.

“350 degrees for thirty minutes.” After sliding it into the oven, he began washing the bowl and other dishes.

“Let me do that.” Cami stood and took the dishrag from him.

“I’ll never argue with a lady who wants to do dishes.” And who felt at home in his kitchen.

They traded spots as she finished the washing. Twenty minutes later, she put the last dish away.

“Let’s sit,” Grant said. Finally, the chance for a few minutes alone with her.

The doorbell rang. Great. Petey looked up, found Cami, and laid his head down again.

“If it’s not you, he’s not interested.” Grant went to the entry and opened the front door. His parents stood on the porch.

They walked in, Mom practically in the middle of a sentence. “-thing smells good.”

“I just put figasa in the oven.” He returned her hug and cocked his head toward the kitchen.

“I’m such a good mother.”

He laughed out loud. “How do you figure that? Not that you aren’t.”

“I must have done something right to raise a son who will bake for his mother.” She saw Cami as they entered the kitchen. “Never mind. Now I know who you’re baking for, and it’s not your mother.”

“I didn’t know you were coming,” he protested.

“Nice try. Hi, dear.” She hugged Cami who stood and shook Dad’s outstretched hand.

“We dropped by to see how your therapy was going.” Mom bent over to scratch Petey’s head. “Is this the invalid?”

“That’s him,” Cami said. “He’s feeling much better. But he had me worried.”

“What’s this about a stalker? Grant told us a little bit.” She sat at the kitchen table and Cami joined her.

Uh oh. Grant leaned against the counter next to Dad and tried to send a message via body language. Don’t be a military problem solver. Just listen. Don’t give her any reason to get mad at me for telling you.

“Someone has been watching and following me.” Cami recapped a few events of the past weeks.

“Are you okay?” Mom asked.

“Physically, I’m fine.” Cami paused before continuing. “Mentally and emotionally, I have good days and bad.”

“I don’t wonder.”

“It’s a student.” Dad spoke at last.

Grant shot him a glance. “Wait a-” he said, ready to argue.

Dad silenced him with a glance, like when Grant was eight and had skipped a scout meeting for a trip to the batting cage with a friend. But he wasn’t a kid and Cami wasn’t Jimmy Farris with a stance problem. He tried a different tactic. “Why do you think so?”

“It adds up. Sounds like most things have happened during non-school hours.”

“But couldn’t it be someone from a job site? Or the rec center?” Cami asked.

“Could be. But there’s an immaturity to the vandalism that screams ‘adolescent.’ Antifreeze is readily available. If it were an adult, he’d take pride in using something harder to get hold of. Like cyanide or strychnine. To prove he’s serious.”

Alarm clouded her eyes. “But you’re talking about kids.”

“Now, Cap,” Mom said, “don’t go scaring her with speculation.”

“Evil can be found at any age.” Dad hadn’t moved, standing like a sentinel next to Grant, arms folded and intently focused on Cami.

“I know that’s true.” She searched her tea mug again.

Grant’s timer went off and he moved to the oven. Maybe a distraction would help. “Petey hasn’t been fed yet, Cami,” he said. “Do you want to do it?” Then he remembered the state of the laundry room. He hadn’t had a chance to clean it up after Petey’s rampage.

“I’d love to.” She stepped into the adjacent laundry room where she’d left the sack of supplies for the dog last night. Sounds of dismay came from her direction.

He moved to the doorway as she glanced around. “Hard to know where to start, isn’t it?”

“I am so sorry. I had no idea.” She grabbed the broom leaning against the washing machine and began sweeping up kibble and bits of shredded flyers and envelopes. Petey trotted in and nosed at the mail. “Bad dog.” She glared at him and he sat with what sounded like a sigh of disgust.

Grant backed up. “Leave it for later,” he called. “Just feed him and come back in here.” He shot Dad a look, trying to tell him she needed tenderness, not tough love. And not a military debriefing. Dad looked right back.

Mom asked Grant about his shoulder as Cami returned with a scoop of dog food that she deposited into the navy blue ceramic dish with Petey’s name on it in white script.

“Getting stronger every day,” he answered, watching Cami sit and sort through the stack of bills and letters.

“I just want to throw the junk away,” she said, flipping through it and setting most of the stack aside. At the bottom was a large padded envelope. She looked it over, then shrugged and ripped open the end. Tipping it, she shook the contents onto the table in front of her.

A scream died in her throat as a dead bird tumbled out.

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