Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Night Chill by Jeff Gunhus


Jack Tremont was late. That he would be running so far behind schedule was unthinkable, especially since the two clients waiting for him were his most important. The traffic light ahead of him turned yellow. He thought about running it until he saw a stop sign thrust into the air behind the row of cars to his right.

His Jeep Cherokee, a far cry from the BMW 750 he drove just a few years before, braked easily before the intersection. Still, the school crossing guard shot him a withering look for stopping a foot into the crosswalk. He returned her scowl with a smile but it was wasted. With a look of disgust the guard held up her stop sign in front of his bumper. She stared Jack down as she waved the mass of school kids across the street.

Jack knew the woman, Mrs. Hilder. She was no-nonsense New England and she had little tolerance for the relaxed southern attitude abundant here in western Maryland. All of the kids and half of the adults in Prescott City were scared of her. The parents remembered her as the crossing guard when they were in school and they carried the same fearful awe as their kids did now. One of the parents had admitted to Jack that she still stood up a little straighter each time she saw her coming down the street.  Tough as woodpecker lips, the parent had whispered, laughing but glancing around as if the crossing guard would come charging at them any minute. Mrs. Hilder’s stare was enough to convince Jack of the truth of it. He tried to ignore her and watch instead the stream of colorful jackets, cartoon lunch pails, and action hero backpacks parade in front of him, all headed toward a carefree afternoon. No stress. No worries.

Jack took a deep breath and felt the tension drain from his shoulders. He couldn’t help but laugh at himself. When would he learn to relax? He and Lauren had moved to Prescott City a year ago for exactly this reason, to undo the mess they had created trying unsuccessfully to balance two high-paced careers while starting a family. To be fair, it had been more his mess than hers. She was an overachiever but always seemed to keep things in balance. He was the workaholic to whom family had become something squeezed into planned increments in a schedule.

The outrageous materialism of living in Orange County, California  hadn’t  helped matters either. They had chased success so hard that they hardly noticed they were failing every day.

Then the accident happened.

As horrible as it was, in some strange way, Jack realized the accident had probably saved his marriage. Almost two years later he was still paying for this marital help with nightmares and a constant black guilt that clawed in his stomach like a living creature. He bore the suffering without complaint. For what he had done, he knew he deserved worse.

The last of the kids skipped across the street and with one last glare, Mrs. Hilder returned to the sidewalk to let Jack pass. He smiled and gave a little wave.

“C’mon Mrs. Hilder. Give me some love,” he murmured. Nothing doing. The crossing guard’s stern mouth grew more wrinkled as she scowled. Jack shook his head and laughed. “Playing hard to get, huh? Maybe next time.”

A few minutes later he pulled into the pick-up area and saw his important clients hanging out on the swing set next to the head office. They saw him and squealed in delight. Grabbing their matching purple Groovy Girls backpacks, his daughters ran over to him and gave him a huge hug.

“Sorry I’m late girls.”

“Are you late?” Becky asked.

“Yeah, a little,” he smiled. Every day he was away from the business world he was reminded that life didn’t have to be so difficult. In the real world, being five minutes late wasn’t such a big deal. He looked back at his girls piling into the Jeep. “You girls know what today is, don’t you?”

“My birthday. I’m gonna be seven!” Sarah shouted.

“Your birthday’s not for months, silly. And you’re only six.” Becky said, poking her sister in the arm.

Jack twisted around in the front seat and said in a serious voice, “I can’t believe you don’t know what day this is. How could you possibly, possibly forget that today is…” he paused for added drama, “ice cream day!”

The girls screamed and then giggled at their dad. Soon they were lost in an important discussion about the relative coolness of different flavors of ice cream. As Jack edged into the after school traffic he thought that moving to Prescott City was the best thing he had ever done.  He actually knew his kids now. Even he and Lauren were starting to feel normal again, as if the worse was finally behind them. Lauren had started to talk about plans years from now, not just weeks and months. It was a subtle change, but its significance hadn’t been lost on him. 

Prescott City had been good for the Tremonts. In California they had sped through life, racking up accomplishments and wealth instead of memories and relationships. Here they were all taking notice of life and enjoying it. Besides some periodic consulting work, he’d even taken the time to dabble in writing mysteries. Sure, life was simple here, but he was learning that simple wasn’t the epithet he’d thought it was. Simple was good and he hoped things stayed that way.

Jack Tremont moves his family to the quiet mountains of Western Maryland hoping to leave behind a troubled past and restart his life. Instead, he finds himself caught up in a nightmare when his daughter Sarah is targeted by Nate Huckley, a mysterious and horrifying stranger driven by a dark power that will stop at nothing to possess Sarah.

When Sarah goes missing, suspicion falls on Jack and he must uncover the secrets of the small mountain town of Prescott City and face the evil secret hidden there. As he digs further, he learns the conspiracy reaches more deeply than he could have imagined. Finally, he will have to face the question, What is a father willing to do to save his child? The answer? Anything. Anything at all.

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Genre – Supernatural Thriller

Rating – PG13

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