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       314, p.1



  Book 1 of 3

  Copyright 2012 Aaron Wise




  It Begins Again


  March 14th, 1996

  “It’s going to happen in three minutes.”

  Mark Tapper sat on the edge of his son’s bed and tried to comfort the eight-year-old. He considered calling an ambulance, but didn’t know if what Jeremy was suffering from qualified as an emergency. He decided to wait for his wife to get home, since she’d be there in just a few minutes anyhow. She’d left work early when the school called, but Mark was able to get to Widowsfield Elementary to pick Jeremy up first.

  “What’s going to happen in three minutes?” Mark glanced at the clock on the nightstand that displayed 3:11 on the stomach of a Batman figurine.

  “I told you,” said Jeremy. The desperation in his voice terrified Mark. “The Skeleton Man’s coming.”

  “I don’t know what that means, kiddo. Help me out here.” Mark tried to wipe sweat from his boy’s brow, but Jeremy jerked away as if frightened by contact. “Who’s this Skeleton Man you keep talking about?”

  “He’s coming, and then everyone’s going to go crazy. Dad, I don’t want to kill you again.”

  The statement was more than a little disconcerting. Mark stood up and put his hands on his head in exasperation as he stared down at his quivering child. He’d tried to stay calm through all of his son’s outbursts, but he couldn’t take it anymore. “That does it. Mom can meet us at the hospital. Do you think you can walk, or do you want me to call an ambulance?” This manic episode had confounded the school nurse, and it was getting worse the longer it went on. When Mark picked his son up from school, Jeremy had simply been crying, but now his mania had gone from concerning to disturbing.

  “There’s no time. I can already hear his teeth.” Jeremy looked at his father and chattered his teeth, as if he was freezing cold. Then he looked at the clock and they both saw the time change.


  Jeremy put his hands under his pillow and bunched it up so the sides covered his ears. He clenched his eyes shut and continued to weep. “You should just kill yourself. Make it easy. Just shoot yourself in the head and get it over with. You can’t handle what’s coming. No one can.”

  Mark was frantic now. His hands were shaking and he rushed out of the room to compose himself. The last thing Jeremy needed to see was his father breaking down. Mark felt helpless and terrified. Something was happening to his son, and he had no idea how to fix it. When he’d been called in by the school he expected to hear that his son had thrown up, or got in a fight, or anything other than this. Jeremy had never shown signs of a mental disorder and Mark was utterly unprepared for what was happening. He broke down after he closed his son’s door, but there was no time for weeping. He rushed down the stairs to get the phone and call 911.

  The cord on the kitchen phone stretched long enough to accommodate his pacing as he listened to the automated voice tell him that his call would be taken in the order it was received. He glanced at the green numbers displayed on the microwave’s clock.


  “Widowsfield County 911,” said a woman’s voice on the phone. “What is your emergency?” She sounded elderly, and kind, immediately affable.

  Mark didn’t know where to start. “Hi, my name’s Mark Tapper.”

  “Howdy, Mark,” said the operator. “What’s your emergency?”

  He’d been struggling to answer that question himself, and had trouble relaying it to her. “It’s my son, Jeremy. I got a call from his school because he was having a, like, I guess a mental breakdown or something. I don’t really know. I had to pick him up early from school because he was crying and talking about how someone named The Skeleton Man is coming.” He chuckled out of nervousness and felt embarrassed for it.

  The clock held steady at 3:13, seconds away from the time that Jeremy had warned about.

  “It’s okay, sir. We can get someone out there if you’d like.”

  Mark stared at the clock, dreading the coming change.

  “Sir?” she asked after he didn’t respond. “What’s your address?”

  It changed.


  Nothing happened and Mark breathed a sigh of relief. He didn’t know why he was so scared. “Sorry, what was that?”

  The operator didn’t respond.

  “Hello?” asked Mark.

  She gurgled on the other line, a wet, throaty expulsion of sound, as if the woman had started to choke. Then he heard a shrill scream. Someone else in the operator’s office had become frightened. The gurgling continued.

  “Hello?” Mark asked again and looked at the phone as if expecting to be able to see what was wrong. He pushed in the wire that connected the phone to the base on the wall to make sure it hadn’t fallen loose.

  He was in the kitchen when he caught sight of the green fog outside. It had been a gorgeous spring day just moments earlier, but there was no sign of sunlight now. The town had been blanketed in fog that glowed as if illuminated deep within by a pulsing green light. Mark took tremulous steps toward the window above the sink. The phone went dead, and he let it drop to the floor where the cord pulled it skittering backward across the tile.

  “Holy hell,” said Mark as he leaned over the sink.

  The fog was thick enough to cloud his view of the houses across the street. Even the Oak tree in the front yard was hazed. Waves of green light flashed within the fog, as if he were watching electricity roll out from some machine within. It crackled and coursed along metallic objects, giving shape to things lost in the mist.

  Then he saw a man lean out from behind the tree. The fog was too thick to see any details, but the stranger was very tall and thin, and he retreated back behind the tree as soon as Mark saw him.

  “Dad,” said Jeremy from upstairs. He didn’t sound panicked anymore.

  “Yeah, Jeremy,” said Mark as he backed away from the window. He wanted to go out and confront the stranger, but was afraid of the mist and still concerned for his son. “Are you okay?”

  Jeremy didn’t answer.

  He heard small, light footsteps running across the floor upstairs, headed down the hall from the bathroom to Jeremy’s room.

  Mark stopped staring out the window and ran to reach Jeremy. He bounded up the stairs and was confronted by his son at the threshold of the boy’s room.

  “Jeremy,” said Mark as he paused at the top of the stairs. “Do you know what’s going on?” He asked as if afraid his son was somehow responsible for what had happened outside.

  “I tried to warn you.”

  Jeremy held a straight razor to his own throat.

  “Buddy, put that down.” Mark took a tentative step, like a cop approaching a suicidal man.

  Jeremy looked at the blade and smiled. “This isn’t for me, Dad. It’s for you.”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “The Skeleton Man’s here, and he taught me how to hate.”

  “Put the razor down, Jeremy.” Mark’s authoritative tone was beleaguered by fear.

  The razor reflected green light from a nearby window. “We’re going to try something new this time. The Skeleton Man remembered something that he wants to try on you.” Jeremy giggled, as if talking about something cute a puppy had done. “He’s so excited. He doesn’t want to hurt me, but if you take another step then we won’t have a choice. He’ll slit my throat just to watch you cry.”

  “What’s going on, Jeremy? Who’s The Skeleton Man? How did you know that something was going to happen at 3:14?”

  “I think we’ve done this before,” said Jeremy. “I think we’ve been doing it for years.” He seemed confused, but then shrugged off his uncertainty. “We’ll keep doing it until we get it right, I guess. Do you want to hear what we’re planning for you?”

  “I just want you to put the razor down.”

  Jeremy looked down at his father’s feet as the man came closer, and he pressed the razor harder against his own throat. “Don’t do it, Daddy.”

  Mark retreated a step and held his hands out. “Okay, Jeremy. Okay, I’m backing up. Now just put the razor down. Can you do that for me?”

  “Dad, I told you, this isn’t for me. It’s for you. He’s only going to hurt me if you don’t do what he says. Don’t you get it?”

  “No!” Mark’s terror overwhelmed him. “I don’t get it, Jeremy. Please tell me what’s going on.”

  Jeremy nodded, his cherub visage turned wicked by the blade he held to his own throat. “The Skeleton Man wants me to put you in the bathtub, and then we’re going to pour boiling water over you until we can peel your skin off.”

  “What?” Mark’s question escaped as a whimpering whisper.

  “And if you can stay awake, then we’ll pour the chemicals on you.” Jeremy grinned. “It’s going to be a lot of fun, Dad. And you want to know the best part?” He didn’t wait for an answer before continuing. “You’re going to let us do it. You know why?”

  Mark didn’t know what to do other than comply with his son’s insanity. “Why?”

  “Because if you don’t, I’ll slit my throat. You can either die like we want you to, or watch me kill myself. Daddy, I don’t want to die; I know how much it hurts. So you’re going to have to do what we tell you. Okay?”

  The front door opened. Mark didn’t want to turn and look, fearing that if he took his eyes off Jeremy then his son might hurt himself. He hoped that his wife had come home, or that the 911 dispatcher had been able to track the location of the call and send police. Instead, he heard several light footsteps running through the house, followed by the happy chatter of children.

  “My friends are here,” said Jeremy. “They’ll start boiling the water. Are you ready for your bath?”

  “What the hell is going on?”

  “My best guess,” said Jeremy as he glanced up. “God gave up.”

  Mark thought about rushing his son to steal the razor from him, but Jeremy seemed to anticipate this and pressed it harder to his throat. The blade sliced the boy’s skin and Jeremy winced as blood coursed down the black handle.

  Jeremy’s eyes welled with tears. “Please don’t kill me, Dad! I told you, I don’t want to die. All the Daddies hate their babies!”

  “Put the razor down!”

  “Don’t come any closer,” said Jeremy. Blood dripped off his knuckles. “This hurts! I’m scared.” It was as if it were someone else holding the knife to Jeremy’s throat.

  “Okay! Okay!” Mark backed up a step.

  Jeremy relaxed the blade, but the small cut continued to bleed as the boy cried. “You need to go get in the bathtub. Please? Don’t make this any harder than it has to be.”

  “This is insane,” said Mark. “I don’t understand what’s going on. Why are you doing this?”

  “Because it’s what The Skeleton Man wants.”

  “Who the hell is The Skeleton Man?”

  Pots and pans rattled as they were taken out of the cabinets downstairs. Mark could hear the children laugh as they filled the pots with water. He heard them trying to work the microwave as well.

  “He’s the man in the mist,” said Jeremy. “He’s the one that keeps the children safe. He’s our only friend. Without him, we’d be as lost as you, and none of us want that.”

  “Safe from what?” Mark was in the bathroom now, edging backward as his son stayed out of arm’s reach.

  “All the ones that came with him. The ones that will poison you unless we stop it from happening. You’ll turn evil, like you did all the other times. We can’t let that happen. The Skeleton Man showed us what the Daddies do.”

  “What other times?” The bathroom was small, with a porcelain tub that took up the opposite side. The toilet and sink sat between the tub and the door where Jeremy stood with the razor still pressed against his neck. Mark backed up against the tub and staggered. He grabbed the plastic shower curtain to steady himself and two of the rings that held it up snapped loose. He fell to a seated position on the edge of the tub.

  Jeremy shook his head as if he felt sorry for his father’s ignorance. “All the other times we tried to save you. You’re one of the dead ones. There’s no saving you, but you can still save me.”

  Mark felt helpless. He was a big guy, over 220 pounds, and he worked out in the basement every night. His job kept him fit as well, and he prided himself on his physique. However, none of his strength could help him now. He often said that he loved his son more than life itself, and that he’d do anything to protect him, but now he was being forced to prove it.

  “You’ve lost your mind, Jeremy. Something’s wrong with you. Trust me, I’d never hurt you.” He started to stand back up and reach out to his son.

  Jeremy reacted as if his father was threatening to strike him. His eyes grew wide and he moved back as he yelled. “You’re hurting me now! Can’t you see that? Look at my blood, Daddy! You’re killing me.”

  “Stop it, Jeremy.” Mark cried out, but didn’t dare to move forward.

  Jeremy dug the blade into his neck and cringed in pain as he shouted for mercy. “Daddy, don’t hurt me like this! Please don’t hurt me.”

  “Okay, Jeremy, tell me what I have to do. Tell me what you want.”

  “Get in the tub, Dad!”

  Mark stepped into the bathtub with his arms outstretched as if to ensure Jeremy that he was being submissive. “Okay, I’m in. Now put the razor down.”

  “Take your shirt off,” said Jeremy with the razor still pressed to his bleeding throat.

  Mark did as he was told and tossed the shirt to the floor. A chill came over him as a waft of green fog trailed across the hallway behind Jeremy.

  “You can’t expect me to just sit here and let this happen,” said Mark.

  “If you don’t, then The Skeleton Man is going to make you watch me kill myself. Is that what you want?”

  “I’m not going to let that happen,” said Mark. He got angrier the longer this went on.

  Jeremy stepped back and leaned to the side as if listening to someone in the hall. Then he came back into the bathroom. “If you step out of the tub, or try to knock away the pots of water, then I’m going to kill myself. It’s important that you know that. You have to do as you’re told, Dad. Okay? Do you understand?”

  “No, God damn it! No, I don’t understand, Jeremy. Why are you doing this? Please just put the razor down.”

  “We’ve tried to let you live before, but The Skeleton Man was right about you,” said Jeremy. Blood ran down his arm and dripped from his elbow. “This is the only way we can save the children. It has to start with the Daddies dying.”

  “Then why are you going to boil me? Why did you say that you’re going to strip my flesh and pour chemicals on me? Don’t you think this Skeleton Man is the evil one? Buddy, I’m your Dad, you’ve got to trust me.”

  “No,” said Jeremy. “I’ve made that mistake before. There’s only one person that I trust now, and we’re going to do this the way he wants.”

  A pair of cautious footsteps came from the hall. Mark heard water slosh over the side of a container and hit the floor as two children yelped in surprise.

  “Be careful,” said one of the high pitched voices.

  “I am, you be careful,” said the other.

  Jeremy stepped into the hall so his friends could come in. Mark recognized the two boys that carried the water. They lived in the neighborhood, although he didn’t know their names. They were wearing oven mitts and carrying a large Pyrex bowl filled with steaming water between them.

  “We got this one from the micowaver,” said the younger of the two boys. His childish wording belied his horrific intent as he waddled into the room. Water spilled over the side and the boy swiftly moved his barefoot to keep the water from burning him. Both of the boys had muddy feet that left tracks across the linoleum as they approached.

  “Don’t you dare,” said Mark. He backed into the corner of the tub and knocked over a bottle of shampoo as he did. “You get away from me with that.”

  The two boys stopped and looked back at Jeremy as if to ask what they should do. Jeremy looked at his father, disappointed. “Don’t fight this, Dad. You need to sit down and let them pour the water on you.”

  “Fuck that,” said Mark. He tried his best to avoid cursing in front of his son, but the current situation absolved that concern.

  “You want to watch me die?” asked Jeremy.

  “No, of course not,” said Mark. “But I’m not going to sit here and let your little friends pour boiling water on me either. This is crazy.” He stared at the bowl instead of looking at Jeremy. The water wasn’t bubbling, but he had no doubt it was searing hot. He was familiar with how water heated in a microwave doesn’t bubble, but can still get hotter than water boiled on a stove.

  “What happens if you die?” asked one of the boys of Jeremy. Then he looked at Mark and added, “What if he tries to fight back?”

  “Then The Skeleton Man will slaughter all of us and start over.” Jeremy spoke with utter certainty, as if this was a possibility he’d known for years and had come to accept. “My Daddy will have killed us all.”

  “No, Jeremy,” said Mark. “You’ve gone insane. This is crazy!”

  “Just throw it on him.” Jeremy spoke like a callous war criminal instructing his soldiers to execute a prisoner.

  “Okay,” said one of the boys. They stepped forward and tipped the bowl on its side as they threw it into the tub. The glass bowl slammed into Mark and the water seared his skin. He staggered back as the wave hit him. He fell against the cold tile wall where he slid down as the water stung his skin. He swiped away the wetness as he screamed and writhed.

  “The water’s going down the drain,” said Jeremy, disappointed. “Someone plug the drain or else we won’t be able to cook him!”

  One of the boys stepped forward to do as Jeremy instructed, but Mark slapped the child on the side of the head, sending him smashing into the wall. The child crumpled on the bathroom floor and cried out in pain.

  “Hey!” Jeremy screamed at his father. “Do you want me to die?” He swiped the razor across his cheeks and cried out in pain before pressing the blade against his throat again. “Is this what you want? Don’t hurt my friends or I’m going to keep cutting myself up.”

  Mark looked at the skin on his arms where he’d tried to block the wave of scalding water. His arms were brilliant red and the thick black hair seemed to be melting off him. He growled in pain and anger and then slammed his hand down on the tub’s plunger. He seethed as he glowered at his son. “Fine. Bring it on. I’m not going to let anyone hurt you, Jeremy, not even yourself. If this is how I have to prove it, then so be it. Do your worst. But just remember what I did for you. I’d do anything to protect you. You’re my son. I’d do anything for you.”

  Two more children appeared at the door with another bowl of water. The steam swirled in the bathroom and mixed with the fog that had started to fill the house. As the torture continued, and Mark suffered wave after wave of boiling water, he thought he saw a man lean in from the hallway, peering through the thickening steam to watch Mark’s agony.

  The Skeleton Man’s teeth chattered as he watched another daddy die.

  16 Years Later

  March 9th, 2012

  “I love these kids,” said Alma Harper. “I’ve had some great groups this year.”

  “That’s wonderful to hear,” said Principal White. She walked with Alma through Trenton Elementary. Class was in session, so the halls were empty except for the hum of teachers and children speaking behind closed doors. The walls were papered with drawings of mythical creatures that the third grade class had done for a recent project. Half of the pictures were of smiling unicorns and the other half were demonic monstrosities, probably drawn exclusively by boys. The charter school prided itself on ignoring many of the social norms associated with gender, but that didn’t change the fact that most boys liked to draw monsters while the girls preferred flowers and smiling faces.

  Alma had her guitar strapped over her shoulder and adjusted it as they walked. She towered over Principal White, who was a short, pudgy woman in her fifties. Alma’s tall, lanky figure was accentuated when standing next to her boss, and she often felt embarrassed by it.

  “Alma, I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.”

  Alma was aware of recent budget cuts, but she’d been assured that her music class was safe. Of course, employees on the brink are rarely warned before the axe falls, and education jobs suffer more from callous cuts than just about any other industry.

  Alma unconsciously slowed her pace and her dread must’ve been revealed by her pallor because Principal White was quick to console her. “It’s not that bad,” said Mrs. White. “You’re not losing your job. We still need a music program.”

  Alma put her hand over her heart and was surprised by how fast it was beating. “Thank goodness. You scared me.”

  “We love you around here, Alma. And more importantly, the kids love you.”

  “Thanks,” said Alma as she started to walk at a regular pace again. “But you said you had bad news.”

  “I do,” said Mrs. White. “I know you’ve been in your room for a couple years now, but we’re having a lot of trouble with the budget. We’re doing everything we can to deal with it, and I’m afraid we had to give your space to the new remedial math program.”

  “Okay,” said Alma, a mix of concern and sorrow in her tone. “So where am I being moved to? The old room was already too small for us. I can’t imagine trying to cram all of the kids and their instruments into a smaller space.”

  “I know, Alma. Trust me, I’ve been trying to figure this out for a long time. I had to come to a decision because Mr. Franks wants to start building his new math room over spring break.”

  Mrs. White guided Alma down one of the school’s hallways that led to the lab rooms, auditorium, and cafeteria.

  “You’re kidding,” said Alma. “Spring break starts tomorrow. I thought you were talking about this happening at the beginning of next year. Are you saying I only have a week to get a new room set up?”

  “I know this is last minute,” said Mrs. White.

  “Yeah, you’re not kidding.” Alma had always been told that she was too nice for her own good, but this situation tried her patience. She ran her hand through her long, dark hair and scratched at the top of her head as she sighed. “I’m glad I didn’t have any spring break plans. Looks like I’m going to be busy.”

  Mrs. White put her hand on Alma’s back and smiled up at her. “As soon as I heard about this, I knew we had to come up with a good solution for you. I got together with a few of the other teachers, and some of your students, and we came up with a plan.”

  “Thanks,” said Alma.

  “You’ve got people looking out for you,” said Mrs. White.

  They came to a stop in front of a lab room door and Mrs. White had an odd grin, as if she was desperately trying to hide something from Alma.

  “How long have you known this was going to happen?” Alma was suspicious of the principal’s giddy demeanor. “What are you up to?”

  Mrs. White shook her head and giggled. Her face was turning red and she refused to look directly at Alma as she swung the door open. She pushed Alma into the room and suddenly the deception was revealed.


  A chorus of voices greeted Alma as she was pushed into the room. Her knees buckled at the sight of over a hundred kids lined up on stadium style seats along the far wall. Music notes had been painted on the walls, and a piano was situated to the left of the entrance, its black lacquer reflecting the sparkling lights high above. The cherry wood floor vibrated from the applause of the teachers, children, and parents that had gathered for the surprise.

  “What’s this?” asked Alma as tears sprang to her eyes. She put her fingertips over her mouth as Mrs. White continued to push at her back to force her further in. “What did you guys do?”

  Mrs. White took Alma’s guitar case and handed it to a teacher’s assistant who then placed it against the wall. The crowd was still clapping and saying a myriad of kind things as Alma pressed her hands over her mouth as she cried.

  There was a camera crew in the corner with a news reporter who waited with a microphone. They walked into the center of the room as Mrs. White finally backed away. Alma turned to look at the principal and saw that she was overjoyed. Mrs. White’s face was beet red and she waved at her eyes in an attempt to stop crying. “Surprise,” she squeaked, hardly able to speak.

  A tall woman in a black and grey pants suit stepped forward from the bleachers. It was Blair Drexler, the head of the PTA. “The local news station contacted us and set all this in motion. They heard about how the recent budget cuts were going to threaten your music class, and got together with us to try and stop it from happening. Not a single one of us on the PTA were going to let that happen. We knew we had to protect your class.”

  Alma had trouble standing. She stumbled and Blair rushed forward to provide support. “How did you do this?” asked Alma as she gazed around the room.

  “We voted and unanimously agreed to use the proceeds from the jog-a-thon to fund the construction of a new music room. And the Channel 7 news team helped out a lot too.” She turned to look at the news crew and a thin, strawberry blonde woman stepped forward. The reporter quickly wiped away a tear and composed herself.

  “Hello, Miss Harper,” said the reporter. She was a gorgeous young woman, with a thin waist that tapered to wide thighs. She wore massive heels that shamed Alma’s penny loafers, but even the three inch boost couldn’t raise the petite reporter to the music teacher’s height.

  “Oh my gosh,” said Alma as she wiped away tears. “I can’t believe this. How did this happen?” She burst into laughter and Blair joined in. They hugged and then Alma continued to try and compose herself for the cameras. “I must look like a wreck.”

  The kids on the bleachers laughed and spontaneously started cheering again. One of the second graders, a sweet boy named Billy, ran off the stands and past the gathered teachers and parents, several of whom tried to catch him. He collided with Alma and wrapped his arms around her legs.

  “Surprise, Miss Harper,” he said as he embraced her.

  She knelt down and pulled him into a tight embrace. This initiated a rush from the stands as the other children decided to join in. Everyone was laughing as the kids pushed their way to Alma, each wanting to get their chance to hug their favorite teacher. The cameraman and reporter were forced back as the swell of children surrounded Alma.

  After a few minutes of chaos, Principal White was forced to try and get things back in order. “Okay everyone, that’s enough. Let’s get back to our places so Miss Harper can breathe!” She clapped her hands, which was a familiar move of hers that signaled she wanted attention. “Let’s go, kids. Back to your places.” The crowd dispersed and Alma was left crying in the center of the room.

  Blair held Alma’s hand as she spoke. “We’re lucky to have you, Alma, and we thought this was a good way to show it.”

  “I still can’t believe this,” said Alma.

  “Miss Harper,” said the reporter as she stepped back into the middle of the room. “I’m Rachel Knight, with Channel 7 News.” She reached out to shake Alma’s hand. “We’re honored to be a part of this, and I just have to ask, how does this feel?” She put the microphone in front of Alma.

  “Oh my gosh, I can’t even think of how to say it. Look at me,” she held her hands out in front of her and watched them tremble. “My hands are shaking. I’m stunned, shocked, overwhelmed, absolutely in love with all of you.” She raised her hands and shouted out to the students, parents, and fellow teachers. They reciprocated with another round of applause. “Thank you all so much.”

  Mrs. White stepped beside Alma and rubbed a circle on her back. “I don’t think you have to worry about spending your spring break putting together a new music room!”

  Alma pulled the principal in for a hug. “You got me, Helen! I can’t believe you did this.”

  “It was my pleasure,” said Mrs. White. “You’re a good teacher, and we want to keep you around here for a long time.”

  “Well, this was a pretty good way to do it,” said Alma.

  “Good,” said Mrs. White. “Then my plan worked.” They both laughed and embraced again.

  The reporter interviewed Alma about how she felt, and what it was like to be surprised this way. They discussed how Alma had always wanted to be a music teacher, and that this was the best day of her life. Then the reporter asked if Alma had any siblings, which seemed like an odd question, and Alma struggled to answer. “No, not exactly. Why?”

  “No reason, just curious,” said the reporter.

  “So what’s next?” asked Helen White. “Do you need to interview Alma any more?”

  “Oh please say no,” said Alma. “I’m a total wreck right now.”

  Rachel laughed and shook her head. “Don’t worry. We don’t have to do anything right away. We’d still like to get a follow-up interview with you, but we can do that later. We’ll just need you to sign a few release papers, and then we’ll spend some time getting exterior shots and maybe speak with a few of the kids. If you want, we’d be happy to buy you dinner tonight for an interview. That way you can have a chance to relax and absorb all of this.”

  “That’d be great,” said Alma.

  The man behind the reporter lowered his camera. He set it on the floor and then wiped off his sweaty hand before offering it to Alma. “Hi, I’m Stephen.”

  “Hi,” said Alma as she shook his hand.

  “Do you mind if I just ask you one quick question?” He didn’t wait for permission before asking. “Are you the same Alma Harper that was involved with the Widowsfield incident in 1996?”

  Rachel put her hand on the cameraman’s chest and pushed him backward. “Not now, Stephen.” She smiled at Alma. “We’ll talk to you tonight. Okay?”

  Alma nodded.

  All of the joy of the moment dissipated at the mere mention of Widowsfield. Alma’s hands still shook, but now it was for a new reason.

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