There was never anything good in the newspaper. It was a local affair, written by and for Linden natives, and thus rarely reported anything of interest to those members of the town who did not possess the gene for gossip. Keely Kenzie read it primarily out of habit at this point; the curl of disgust that rose like smoke in her breast at the sight of the myopic headlines had become a solid part of her routine. She did not read the stories, only scanned the front page then flipped immediately to the obituaries. Linden being a relatively small town, and Keely having grown up in it, she recognized most of the names and ticked her way down the columns as she had her morning coffee, penciling in causes of death next to each name. Those that she did not know, she left blank. Lee would fill them in for her later. He had been a cop in Linden for nearly twenty years and was privy to information that even Keely’s nosiest neighbors did not know.
It was morbid, she knew. Lee told her often enough, feet propped up in her lap as he ate his breakfast and she drained cup after cup of coffee. She couldn’t seem to stop, though; it had become as much a part of her life as brushing her teeth and taking the dog for a walk. Briefly, once, she had entertained the thought of therapy and had rejected it just as quickly. There were things that she would not say to anyone, not even her husband, and the thought of paying a stranger to drag those secrets to light did not particularly appeal to her.
“I’m off,” Lee murmured, hurrying past her chair. Their quiet morning had been shattered once again by the blare of Gail’s alarm clock. Keely made a soft noise of affirmation as she wrote “cancer” next to Rosa West’s name. After a moment, she added a comma and appended “pancreatic” to the notation. Lee’s car keys jingled as he darted past again and she tipped her head back. He dropped a quick kiss on her mouth and then was out the door, off to another day of responding to domestics and busting the occasional teenager with beer or weed.
What an exciting life we live, Keely thought wryly, folding the paper and standing to gather the dishes. Might as well let the kids sleep in a little. They’d come home late last night looking troubled. Gail in particular seemed to have had a hard time of it, and though they staunchly refused to unburden themselves, Keely recalled her own youth and had surmised that Gail and Paloma had argued over something. Knowing that Gail was just starting to wade into the prickly maze of adolescence, Keely had allowed her to slouch up to her room after dinner without questioning her too strenuously.
She carried Lee’s breakfast things into the kitchen and dumped them in the sink before pouring herself another cup of coffee. She had time to whip up some waffles and there were fresh strawberries in the fridge. That ought to cheer Gail up a little, and Nolan was at the age where any food was wonderful food. She bent to dig for ingredients as the bathroom door slammed upstairs. By the count of three, she could hear Nolan whining at the door before giving up and stomping into the bathroom attached to the master bedroom. Her children were just as predictable as she was now, a thought which brought her great comfort.
Humming to herself, she turned to fetch the waffle maker from the cabinet above the sink and shouted in surprise, her hand spasming. Coffee spilled across the counter, filling the kitchen with its scent. “That’s hardly any way to say hello,” he said, quiet as always.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded. Above her, the pipes gurgled. Gail was in the shower. Nolan would be pretending to use the bathroom while he read comics. She was safe for a while longer.
“I told you I would come back, didn’t I?” he asked, stepping into the kitchen. He looked the same as he had the last time she saw him, liquid brown eyes, dark hair, the hint of a five o’clock shadow. He was handsome in an unassuming sort of way, casually rumpled and always smiling with the very corner of his full mouth. It had been nearly thirty years now. She could have gone another thirty and it still would have been too soon.
“I didn’t think you were serious,” she said, turning her back on him. She sopped the coffee up with a towel, wondering if he could hear her heart hammering in her chest, wondering if he would even know what that meant if he could. Did the heartless understand anything about the inner workings of the living?
“I rarely joke,” he said. “Keely, we must talk.”
“No,” she said flatly. “I’m done talking to you. All of you. You ruined my life.”
“You have a perfectly good life,” he said patiently. The truth of his words stabbed at her and she hated him for it. If only she had ended up in the gutter, addicted to heroin, selling her body, no use to herself much less to him. Such spiteful thoughts…
“Seems that way,” she acknowledged. “But you don’t know.” Tears pricked the corners of her eyes, hovering on her eyelashes. How many times had she prayed for him to come back? How many times had her heart leaped when she saw a dark-haired man out of the corner of her eye? It had all faded with age, the hurt becoming less and less, the bitterness taking root inside her until she had almost convinced herself that she hated him. The sound of him, though, that rich, low voice that caressed each word like it was a song, and the smell of him, sweet and warm…
“You don’t know,” she repeated, flinging the towel into the sink. She would not look at him. He didn’t deserve that.
“I do,” he said simply, and she knew that it was true and she hated him all the more for it.
“Fuck off,” she said, low and throaty. “I’m not helping you. I let you make a murderer out of me once, I won’t do it again.” There was a long pause, punctuated by the soft rustling sound that she had come to associate with him.
“Then we will find another,” he said. His voice was tinged with regret, loss, and she made her heart hard against it. “Your daughter has inherited your gifts.” He did not say it in a threatening manner, but she took it that way, rounding on him with fire in her eyes.
“You stay away from my little girl,” she snarled.
“Or what?” he said, raising an eyebrow. His voice did not change in pitch or volume, but there was a power to it now, power that she had heard only once before. It clanged like brass in his throat, turned the blood to ice in her veins. “You would do well to remember to whom you are speaking, Keely Kenzie. I allow you much license because of the services you have rendered us, but I will not be commanded by you.”
Keely wanted to apologize, wanted to quell that terrible voice. There was a time when she would have wept and begged his forgiveness. Not now. Before, she had been a girl. Now, she was a woman and a mother. “You can’t have my baby,” she said. “Not Gail.”
“Gail is already a part of this,” he said. “She has seen.”
A sob bubbled up in her throat before she could stop it, and Keely pressed her hand to her mouth. “Seen what?” she murmured. Gail had been so quiet last night, so troubled. How could she have been such an idiot?
“I will be back, Keely,” he said. His fingers met her cheek, smooth and warm. “Consider well where your priorities lie. You helped us once before and you may yet help again.”
“Gabriel…” She dashed away the tears that wet her cheeks and stood straighter, but he was leaving already, his back to her, his shadow spreading far beyond the bounds of his body.
“The child must not be born, Keely,” he said, and he was gone and she sank to the floor, her head in her hands, sobs wracking her body. Ten minutes later, her children found her there, wet-faced but determined.
Neither of them went to school that day. Instead, they took a walk down the tracks.