Marilyn Meredith and F.M. Meredith author of mysteries and Christian thrillers

Astral Gift


  "I want a drink of water," Elaine said quite plainly for a 3-year-old. She wasn't thirsty, just hoped to delay bedtime. But her mother's expression warned her not to try any more tricks.

     Her mother leaned over the lowered side of the wooden baby crib to tuck the blanket around Elaine, kissing her forehead. Mommy must be tired from working overtime. Probably why she didn't want to observe their usual bedtime ritual. She hadn't even read her a story!

     It wasn't fair. Not the least bit sleepy . . . Elaine felt like playing. When she gazed across the room at the shelves holding her toys, Raggedy Ann, slumped in a corner, winked a button eye, and her embroidered mouth lifted in a smile. The fuzzy teddy bear beckoned to her with outstretched paws.

     "Good night, Elaine." Mommy raised the side of the bed and switched off the overhead bulb before going out, leaving the door ajar when she left. A yellow rectangle of light from the hall spilled into the room and over her toys, enticing her to play all the more.

     Heavy footsteps came down the hall. The huge form of her stepfather blocked the warm glow as he filled the doorway.

     No, no, please don't come in.

     "Sweet Elaine, you didn't think I'd let you go off to sleep without a good-night kiss, did you?" His gravely voice dripped a false sweetness.

     Dread clenched her, and she turned her head away before he reached the crib. But she imagined his rough hands with their ragged and dirty fingernails, black hair sprouting from the backs, even before they lifted her nightie.

     Elaine shut her eyes tightly. But she was unable to block out the smell of stale cigarette smoke clinging to his clothes or the acrid odor of his dried sweat mixed with his beery hot breath.

     Without knowing how she did it, Elaine lifted out of her body just as her stepfather's rough fingers touched her skin. She glided to her waiting playmates. After settling herself on the floor, she gathered her toys around her.

     Once, she glanced across the room at the little girl in the bed, a little girl with pale, wispy hair just like hers. Her stepfather leaned over the other child, but Elaine didn't want to see anymore.

     There seemed to be someone else in the room--she could hear whispering and breathing sounds--and in the darkest corner she could almost see something . . . something scary. But whatever it was, it wasn't as frightening as her stepfather.

     No matter how spooky the noises or menacing the moving shadows, nothing was as bad as what the man was doing to the child in the bed.

     Elaine hung onto Raggedy Ann and the teddy bear until her stepfather left the crib and disappeared from the room. In an instant, she returned to her body, closed her eyes, and fell asleep.


      CHAPTER 1

     For the first time in her life, Elaine Brinsfield felt happy, truly happy. The new emotion came about because she had a friend, a genuine friend. Never had she been close enough to anyone to consider them a friend--not in grammar school, high school, or college.

     But now she had Caro.

     "So where do you want me to put this?" Caro half-pushed, half-carried a large wooden bookcase through the door into their small, sparsely furnished apartment.

     Elaine looked around. "I don't know; what do you think?"

     Caro leaned against the bookcase, flipped a lock of dark hair away from her gaudily made-up eyes, and frowned. "Aw, come on, Elaine, knock it off! You've said that every time I've asked you where we ought to put something. You gotta have an opinion . . . after all, this is your home as much as mine."

     Elaine quickly explained: "It's just that I feel so terrific to finally be supporting myself, not having to answer to my mother anymore. I can't be bothered with the details."

     Caro puckered her bright coral lips. "Okay, I'll decide where to put it. But remember: It's up to you to fill it. You're the one with all the books."

     "Oh, I will, and it'll be fun." And it would. She'd brought all of her romance and mystery paperbacks with her, as well as her child-development and preschool books.

     "This place ain't gonna be half bad!" Caro announced while surveying their surroundings.

     Though it appeared drab at first sight, the one-bedroom apartment with kitchenette and bathroom and its plain white paint and utilitarian furniture had been miraculously transformed by the addition of the young women's personal belongings. Caro's posters brightened the walls. Elaine added her collection of plants to the wide windowsills and end tables, as well as some colorful pillows into the corners of the plain brown couch and two armchairs.

     Together, the roommates had bought floral-print bedspreads for the twin beds in the room they shared, and Elaine's accumulation of stuffed animals along with Caro's collection of perfume bottles and fingernail polish helped to make the bedroom more homelike.

     After selecting a tape from her large collection, Caro turned on her stereo, which she'd placed beneath the one large window. "Might as well enjoy ourselves."

     The loud, pounding rhythm of a hard rock band assaulted Elaine's ears; Caro's taste in music would take some getting used to. From the beginning, Elaine knew she and Caro had dissimilar preferences in many areas, but since Caro was exceptionally tolerant, she wouldn't complain when Elaine played her more subdued recordings.

     Elaine was well-aware that she might have to do some adjusting. Her mother's warnings returned unbidden: "It will never work . . . you and that hussy have absolutely nothing in common. You'll soon realize how good you had it here at home and beg me to let you move back."

     But her mother was wrong: Elaine would never return. This was the beginning of a new life for Elaine--all the misery and loneliness of the old one had been left behind.

     Caro glanced at her imitation diamond-studded watch. "Oh, shit! It's later than I thought. I gotta shower and dress for work."

     Inwardly, Elaine winced at Caro's vulgar speech, though she knew her facial expression displayed nothing; years of practice had made her an expert at hiding her true feelings. Besides, Caro's warm and friendly nature more than made up for any flaws.

     "Damn, I hate to leave you with such a mess. Do you think you can handle it okay?" Caro crossed the beige carpet in her long-strided, undulating manner.

     "Oh, sure; there's not much left to put away. After I finish here, I'll walk to the supermarket and pick up a few groceries." The proximity of a shopping mall and the day-care center where Elaine taught had been major reasons for their choice of the apartment. Elaine didn't have a car.

     Caro owned an old Datsun and could drive to her job as a waitress in one of the most popular dinner houses at the small boat harbor nearby.

     Halting in mid-stride, Caro spun around in front of the bathroom door. "Crap! I was s'posed to take you shopping, wasn't I? I'm sorry--I forgot all about it. If you're going, you better do it right away . . . this isn't the safest of neighborhoods. Don't suppose it'd be wise for you to be traipsing around after dark."

     "Don't worry; I just want to do a couple of more things around here; then I'll go."

     "Tell you what: I'll drop you off at the store on my way to work."

     "Okay, that'll be terrific." Elaine's words were uttered needlessly, because Caro had disappeared behind the bathroom door.

     Elaine felt good inside. Caro always made up for her forgetfulness with a considerate offering. After a struggle, Elaine wrestled the bookcase against the wall and shoved two cartons full of books closer to it. She might even have time to fill most of the shelves before Caro was ready to leave.

     Preoccupied with her task, Elaine didn't notice when the shower stopped. Caro hollered, "Where the hell are the towels?"

     Startled, Elaine jumped from the stool she'd been sitting on, and the books in her lap thudded to the floor. Caro stood naked in the open doorway, beads of water glistening on pink flesh, her hair a wet, black cap.

     Feeling slightly embarrassed, Elaine averted her eyes. "I'll get you one." She hurried toward the bedroom. "They're still packed, but I know which box they're in." Keeping her head turned, she handed Caro one of the large terry towels her mother had grudgingly given her as a housewarming gift.

     "Thanks, kiddo."

     Elaine thought she detected amusement in Caro's voice. Maybe she'd eventually get used to her roommate's habit of strolling around nude.

     In a remarkably short time for Caro, she reappeared wearing the white peasant blouse and short black skirt with a tiny, white organdy apron--her waitress uniform. The makeup amazed Elaine. False eyelashes, black eyeliner applied with a heavy hand, and purple eye shadow with glittery sparkles detracted from her snappy brown eyes. Blended streaks of blush accented Caro's prominent cheekbones, and her full lips were painted scarlet.

     "Here I am, ready or not!"

     "Just let me get my purse." Elaine headed for the bedroom. "Want me to bring you a sweater?"

     "What for? I'll be in the car going and coming. If I get cold, I'll turn on the heater."

     Though it was January, the Southern California winter had been mild, and even at the late hour Caro got off work on Saturday nights, the temperature wouldn't be uncomfortably low. But Elaine thought her friend might want to cover the expanse of bosom and cleavage revealed by the extremely low neckline of her blouse, a thought that had obviously never occurred to Caro.

     "Come on, let's get going." Caro tucked her envelope purse under her arm and dangled her key ring from a finger. Her long porcelain nails matched the scarlet of her lips.

     * * *      

     Walking home from the supermarket with two full grocery sacks was a pleasant experience for Elaine. Despite Caro's warning, though rundown, the neighborhood seemed safe. She passed a young Hispanic teen dressed in a white T-shirt and brown slacks carefully polishing the chrome on a shiny black, low-to-the-ground, older Chevrolet parked in the driveway of a single-family stucco home. She smiled at him, and he smiled back.

     All the houses in the first block after the shopping center were similar, the main differences being the color of the paint and the landscaping.

     An old man in a shapeless sweater and trousers, walking a blond cocker spaniel on a leash, nodded to her as he walked the opposite direction. She side-stepped around a black girl and a white girl, both about 8, their hair in pigtails, wearing bright jogging outfits and tennis shoes, playing a game of hopscotch they'd drawn on the sidewalk. Neither one paid any attention to her.

     The second block held two large apartment buildings on one side of the street and a small park on the other. A fairly new park, Elaine guessed, since the trees were still small and spindly. Inviting benches were scattered over the green lawn and beside a well-equipped but deserted play area . . . no doubt deserted because it was suppertime.

     The first apartment complex was freshly painted and built around a rectangular pool, a wrought-iron gate at the entrance. Elaine peeked in as she strolled by. Large potted palms, chaise lounges, and canvas sling chairs decorated the green cement deck. For a moment, she wished she and Caro could afford to live there.

     Quickly, she mentally chastised herself; she should be grateful for what she had because it was so much better than living with her mother. By the time she reached her own smaller, shabbier building, the groceries seemed heavier, and she was glad to climb the outside stairway that led to the second-floor landing and the first door, which opened to her and Caro's apartment.

     After putting away the groceries, Elaine popped the frozen dinner she'd purchased for supper into the oven and opened a diet soda. The pleasure she'd basked in earlier in the day returned. She was about to eat her first meal in her own apartment. Of course, had her mother known it was a frozen dinner, she'd have had a fit. The thought tickled Elaine.

     While waiting, she decided to shower. After shedding sweatshirt, jeans, and underwear, she studied her reflection in the oversize bathroom mirror. Huge green eyes with long lashes stared back from a pale round face. She reached behind her head and unfastened a large barrette. Her long straight hair, the color of pale gold, fell past her shoulders. A quick glance was all she gave her body. It was healthy, and that's what mattered, but she had a fleeting impression of tiny waist, flaring hips, and fair skin with a rosy underglow.

     After she ate and finally unpacked all the cardboard boxes, Elaine cast one last satisfied glance around her new home. She left a lamp on for Caro and went to bed, tired and happy.

     Noises from the living room awakened Elaine. She sat up, ready to climb out of bed and investigate, when she noticed Caro's bed hadn't been slept in. The sparkling sound of her roommate's laughter came through the thin wall, followed by the low rumble of a male voice. Caro had company. Elaine pulled her pillow over her ears and hoped she'd soon fall back to sleep.

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