12 Rickety Floorboards

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Driven by the wind, rain falls sideways, slapping the screen and covered porch. It sounds like God striking pennies against the tin roof.

Balling my hands inside the arms of my sweatshirt, I say, "Thanks again. For everything."

"Stop thanking me, Moriah." Colt leans against the side of the house, trying to hide his shiver. "Just showing you some hospitality."

The wind is fierce, but not enough to wipe the smirk from his face.

"See you at school tomorrow. I'll protect you from all the bad guys," he says. The porch light makes his pale face appear gaunt. Pointing his keychain at his Range Rover, he flashes its lights with a beep beep, and turns towards the porch steps, the wind gnashing at his thin frame.

Something about the way he said protect needles at me.

"Colt! Wait!" I scurry across the porch.

He turns when I reach the top step. I haven't put shoes on yet, so the wet planks immediately soak my socks. "Those notes Bella left for me? It was signed by the Shields of Broken Hearts. Ever heard of that?"

Lifting the hood of his sweater over his head, he raises one perfect eyebrow. Rain clings to his eyelashes.

He stiffens. "No."

I follow his eyes to the tall oak tree swaying in Thatcher's yard. Its branches knock against the gray shingles on the house.

"Get inside and lock your doors. I'll tell my dad about the notes. Bring them with you to school tomorrow. And, Moriah," Colt says, backing away from me, the wind almost eating his words. "Don't forget to get that split landing step on your staircase fixed. I'd hate for you or your mama to have an accident."

Once the door is locked, dead bolt in place, I peel my socks off and find I've been holding my breath.

Colt's lopsided smile lingers in my mind as I plod, with cold feet, to the kitchen to throw his leftovers away. The boy must be used to someone cleaning up after him. After placing Mom's burger in our empty refrigerator, I eye the 2017 calendar hanging on it.

Photos of multi-colored flowers are on the front. "This is the day that the Lord hath made" is printed in bright, pink lettering.

I shake my head, chuckling. Sheila would appreciate this.

Removing the calendar from the magnet, I scan Aunt Shannon's handwriting on the dates. It's a scripture calendar, each month boasting a different verse from Proverbs. All of her appointments mark the new and full moons. Moon schedule and scriptures? Maybe everyone around here was right about Aunt Shannon being loony after all.

I instinctively flip to April. My least favorite month.

The scripture at the top of the page reads, "Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God."

My eyes scan dates and the hastily scrawled script. I gasp when I see a large, red circle.

April 23rd is marked. The day Mercy died.

In the box next to the date, a note is scribbled: She came to visit me today.

The motor on the fridge clicks on with a heavy hum. I back away from it, my chest tightening. Wind batters the back door. Hammers the shutters.

It must be a coincidence. Aunt Shannon's visitor could've been anyone. There's no way she's referring to Mercy.

Mercy's dead.

With trembling hands, I put the calendar back on the fridge.

With another break of thunder, the house quivers. The yellow bulb hanging over the kitchen table flickers.

Then complete darkness.

Shit. As if this day couldn't get any worse.

The hall carpet leading from the kitchen is lined in clear vinyl. My dampened feet make a smacking noise as I inch towards the staircase. A moan greets each step I take on the rickety wood.

Shadows stretch on the foyer's wall like spindly fingers. Flashes of lightning break through stained glass on the front door, puncturing the darkness like paparazzi bulbs.

The floorboards squeak behind me.

Oh shit oh shit oh shit

I whirl around, feeling with fingers. Where's a cellphone with a flash when you need one?

The long hallway behind me is ink-black. Nothing back there but the kitchen and pantry. And the back door.

I strain to listen over the roar of wind and drumming of my heart.

Mercy, is someone here?

Is this how you felt before you died?

I know it's foolish, but I want to scramble upstairs and hide under my bed. It always worked as a child when ghosts chased me.

I wave my arms in front of me, my fingertips brushing the oak banister.

I take the first step. A cold hand wraps itself around on my ankle.

Crashing to my knees, a red, hot sting spreads across the spot I scraped my skin during my tussle with with Mom last night.

"Momma, is that you?" The smallness of my voice echoes throughout the house.

With a hard yank, I'm pulled back from the staircase. With my arms pinned at my sides, I'm held tight against a chest.

A man's chest.

I struggle against bulky arms, kick my feet, and throw my head backwards.

But he's stronger than me. And I know for certain this is how Mercy felt before she was murdered.

The man's calloused hand covers my mouth to stifle my scream.

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