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The Obsession, Page 3

Nora Roberts

  woods, and he looked wrong. I was afraid.”

  “You don’t have to be afraid anymore.”

  “What about my mama, and my brother?”

  “They’re going to be fine.” He glanced over as the door opened. She knew Miss Lettie—she went to their church. But she’d forgotten she worked in the sheriff’s office.

  Lettie Harbough came in with a red tote bag, and a sad smile on her plump face.

  “Hey there, Naomi. I got some dry clothes for you here. They’re my girl’s, and she’s not as tall as you, and not so slim, but they’ll be clean and dry.”

  “Thank you, Miss Lettie.”

  “You’re more than welcome. Wayne, the sheriff wants you. Naomi and I’ll be fine. You can change right out in the washroom, all right?”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  The clothes were too big, but there was a belt so she could cinch the jeans.

  When she came out Lettie sat at the tiny table sipping coffee out of a big blue mug. “I’ve got a brush here. Would it be all right if I brushed your hair out? You got it all tangled.”

  “Thank you.”

  Naomi made herself sit, though she wasn’t sure she wanted to be touched. Still, after the first few strokes of the brush, she relaxed.

  “Such pretty hair.”

  “It’s dishwater.”

  “No, indeed. It’s like deer hide, all the tones of blonde mixed up, and all sun-streaked now from summer. Nice and thick, too. I’m going to ask you a couple of things, maybe hard things, sweetie. But they’re important things.”

  “Where’s Ashley?”

  “They’re taking her to the hospital now. She asked after you, asked if we could bring you in to see her. Would you want to?”

  “Yes, ma’am. Please, I want to.”

  “All right. But now, I have to ask you if your father ever hurt you. I know that’s a hard thing to ask.”

  “He’s never laid a hand on me or Mason. My mama gives out the hidings if we need it, and they don’t count for much. She doesn’t have the heart for a real hiding, so we pretend, all three of us. Because Daddy says, ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child.’”

  “I never liked that one myself. The harder one is asking if he ever touched you in a bad sort of way.”

  Naomi stared straight ahead while Lettie ran the brush through her hair. “You mean like he did to Ashley. He raped her. I know what rape is, ma’am. They raped the Sabine women in the Bible. He never did that to me. He never touched me wrong.”

  “All right, then. Did he ever hurt your mama?”

  “I don’t think so. Sometimes . . .”

  “It’s all right.” In practiced moves, Lettie used a little band to pull Naomi’s hair back into a tail. “All you have to do is tell me the truth.”

  “Sometimes he looked like maybe he wanted to hurt her, but he didn’t. If he got really mad, he’d just go off for a day or two. Cooling off, Mama said. A man needs to cool off on his own time. She didn’t know, Miss Lettie. Mama didn’t know he hurt people, or she’d have been afraid. More afraid.”


  When Lettie came back around to sit again, Naomi stared straight ahead. “Ashley said she thought she’d been down there for a day or two. There was more rope down there, and pictures. There were pictures on the wall of other women, tied up like she was. Worse than she was. I think some of them were dead. I think they were dead. I’m going to be sick.”

  Lettie tended to her, holding her hair back as she hugged the toilet, bathing her face with a cool cloth when she was done.

  She gave Naomi something minty to rinse out her mouth, brushed a kiss over her forehead.

  “You’ve had enough. Maybe you want to rest awhile.”

  “I can’t go home, can I?”

  “Not right now, I’m sorry, honey. But I can take you to my house, and you can use the guest bed, try to sleep.”

  “Can I just stay here until Mama and Mason come?”

  “If that’s what you want. How about I get you some toast, we see how that settles. You save that Snickers bar for later.”

  “Thank you.”

  Lettie rose. “What you did, Naomi? It was right. And more, it was brave. I’m awful proud of you. I’m only going to be a couple minutes. How about some tea with honey to go with the toast?”

  “That’d be nice, thank you.”

  Alone, Naomi laid her head on the table, but she couldn’t rest. She sipped at the Coke, but it was too sweet. She wanted water—just cold and clear. She thought of the water fountain, rose.

  She stepped outside the little room, started to call out, ask if it was all right.

  She saw the deputy hauling her father across the room toward a big metal door. His hands were in cuffs behind his back; a raw bruise bloomed on his right cheek.

  He didn’t look wild now, or upset or sorry. He had a sneer on his face—the sort he got when somebody said maybe he was wrong about something.

  He saw her—and she braced for his fury, his hate, his wrath.

  All she got was an instant of indifference before he walked to the metal door, and through. And away.

  The room was crowded with people, noise, and something that sparked darkly on the air. She felt she floated in it, as if her legs had just gone somewhere else and her body hung suspended.

  She heard words, disjointed, tinny to her ear.

  FBI, serial killer, forensics, victims.

  Nothing made sense.

  No one noticed her, a gangly girl with eyes too wide, too bright in a face pale as a ghost, swimming in too-big clothes and shock.

  No one glanced her way, and she wondered, if they did, would their eyes pass over her—through her—just as her father’s had.

  Maybe none of it was real. Maybe she wasn’t real.

  But the pressure on her chest, that felt real. As if she’d fallen from the high limb in the old oak tree out back and knocked away her breath. So far away she couldn’t get it back.

  The room took a slow, sick spin, and the light faded. A cloud over the moon.

  With Bowes secure, Wayne came out in time to see Naomi’s eyes roll back in her head. He shouted, and he leaped toward her. He was fast, but not fast enough to catch her before she hit the floor.

  “Get some water! Where’s the damn doctor? What the hell’s she doing out here?” He gathered her up, cradled her. Gently tapped cheeks he thought looked pale enough for his hand to pass through.

  “I’m sorry. Ah, merciful God. She needed food. I just came out to see about getting her something.” Lettie crouched down with a cup of water.

  “Did she see him? Did she see me bring that bastard in?”

  Lettie only shook her head. “I wasn’t gone for more than three minutes. She’s coming around. There you are, baby. Naomi, honey, just breathe easy now. You just had a faint. I want you to sip some water.”

  “Have I been sick?”

  “You’re all right now. Take a sip.”

  It came back to her, all of it. Her eyes—what her mother called medicine bottle green—closed. “Why isn’t he mad at me? Why doesn’t he care?”

  They urged water on her. Wayne carried her into the back again. They brought her sick food—the tea and toast. She ate what she could, and found it made the worst of that floating feeling go away.

  The rest passed in a blur. Dr. Hollin came in and looked her over. Somebody stayed with her all the time—and Wayne snuck her in another Coke.

  The sheriff came in. She knew him—Sheriff Joe Franks—because she went to school with Joe Junior. He had wide shoulders on a sturdy body, and a tough face on a thick neck. She always thought of a bulldog when she saw him.

  He sat across from her.

  “How you doing, Naomi?”

  His voice was like a gravel road.

  “I don’t know. Um. Okay, sir.”

  “I know you had a hard night, and you’re having a hard day on top of it. Do you know what’s going on here?”

  “Yes, sir. My daddy
hurt Ashley. He tied her up down in that old cellar in the woods by this burned-out cabin place. He hurt her really bad, and he hurt other people, too. There were pictures of them down there. I don’t know why he did those things. I don’t know why anybody would do what he did.”

  “Did you ever go out there to that cellar before last night?”

  “I didn’t know it was there. We’re not supposed to go into the woods that far. Just to the creek, and only when we have permission.”

  “What made you go out there last night?”

  “I—I woke up, and it was so hot. I was sitting by my window, and I saw Daddy go out. I thought maybe he was going to the creek to cool off—and I wanted to go, too. I got my flashlight and my flip-flops and I snuck out. I’m not supposed to.”

  “That’s all right. So you followed him.”

  “I thought maybe he’d think it was funny. I could tell if he did before I let him know I was there. But he didn’t go to the creek, and I just wanted to know where he was going. And I thought when I saw the old place, and the cellar, maybe he was putting a bike together for my birthday.”

  “Is it your birthday, honey?”

  “Monday is, and I asked for a bike. So I waited—I was just going to take a peek. I hid and I waited until he came out, but—”


  For a moment, she thought it would be easier if she floated again, just kept floating. But the sheriff had kind eyes, patient ones. He’d keep those kind eyes on her even if she floated away.

  And she had to tell somebody.

  “He didn’t look right, Sheriff. Sir. He didn’t look right when he came out and it scared me. But I waited until he was gone, and I just wanted to see what was down there.”

  “How long’d you wait?”

  “I don’t know. It felt long.” She flushed a little. She wasn’t going to tell him she’d peed in the woods. Some things were private. “There was a bolt on the door, and I had to work some to push it, and when I opened the door I heard something like whimpering. I thought maybe it was a puppy. We weren’t allowed to have a dog, but I thought maybe. But then I saw Ashley.”

  “What did you see, honey? It’s hard, but if you can tell me exactly, it’s going to help.”

  So she told him, exactly, and sipped at the Coke even though her stomach jittered with the retelling.

  He asked more questions, and she did her best. When he was done, he patted her hand.

  “You did real good. I’m going to bring your mama back.”

  “Is she here?”

  “She’s here.”

  “And Mason?”

  “He’s over at the Huffmans’ place. Mrs. Huffman’s keeping an eye on him, and he’s playing with Jerry.”

  “That’s good. He and Jerry like to play together. Sheriff Franks, is my mama all right?”

  Something shuttered down over his eyes. “She’s had a hard day, too.” He said nothing for a moment. “You’re a steady girl, Naomi.”

  “I don’t feel so steady. I got sick, and I had a faint.”

  “Trust me, honey, I’m an officer of the law.” He smiled a little. “You’re a steady girl. So I’m going to tell you there are going to be other people asking questions. The FBI—you know what that is?”

  “Yes, sir. Sort of.”

  “They’re going to have questions. And there’s going to be reporters wanting to talk to you. You’re going to have to talk to the FBI, but you don’t have to talk to any reporters.”

  He hitched up a hip, took a card out of his pocket. “This is my phone number—the number here, and the one at home I wrote on the back. You can call me anytime—doesn’t matter what the time. You need to talk to me, you call. All right?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Put that away safe. I’m going to go get your mama now.”

  “Sheriff Franks?”

  He paused at the door, turned back to her. “Yes, honey?”

  “Is my daddy going to jail?”

  “Yes, honey, he is.”

  “Does he know?”

  “I expect so.”

  She looked down at her Coke, nodded. “Okay.”

  Her daddy was going to jail. How could she go back to school, or church, or to the market with her mother? It was worse than when Carrie Potter’s daddy went to jail for two months for getting in a fight at the pool hall. Even worse than when Buster Kravitt’s uncle went to jail for selling drugs.

  She’d be going into seventh grade in just another week, and everyone would know what happened. What her daddy did. What she did. She didn’t see how she could—

  Then the door opened, and there was her mother.

  She looked sick, like she’d been sick for days, and bad sick so it had eaten away at her. She looked thinner than she had when Naomi had gone to bed the night before. And her eyes were all red, swollen, and tears still stood in them. Her hair was every which way, like she hadn’t taken a brush to it, and she wore the baggy, faded pink dress she mostly wore for garden chores.

  Naomi got shakily to her feet, wanting nothing more at that moment than to press her face to her mother’s breast, find comfort there, find promises she’d pretend to believe there.

  But the tears just rolled out of her mother’s eyes, driven by guttural sobs. She sank right down to the floor, covered her face with her hands.

  So the child went to the mother, gathered her in, stroked and soothed. “It’ll be all right, Mama. We’ll be all right.”

  “Naomi, Naomi. They’re saying terrible things about your daddy. They’re saying you’re saying them.”

  “We’ll be all right.”

  “They can’t be true. This can’t be true.” Susan pulled back, grabbed Naomi’s face in her hands, and spoke fiercely. “You imagined it. You had a bad dream.”

  “Mama. I saw.”

  “No, you didn’t. You have to tell them you made a mistake.”

  “I didn’t make a mistake. Ashley—the girl he had—she’s in the hospital.”

  “She’s lying. She has to be lying. Naomi, he’s your daddy, he’s your blood. He’s my husband. The police, they’re going all over our house. They put your daddy in handcuffs and took him away.”

  “I cut the ropes off her myself.”

  “No, you didn’t. You’re going to stop this lying right now, and tell everybody how you made it all up.”

  A dull throb filled Naomi’s head so her own voice sounded flat and hollow through it.

  “I pulled the tape off her mouth. I helped her get out of the cellar. She could hardly walk. She didn’t have any clothes.”


  “He raped her.”

  “Don’t you say such a thing.” Her voice pitching high, Susan shook Naomi. “Don’t you dare.”

  “There were pictures on the wall. A lot of pictures, of other girls, Mama. There were knives with blood dried on them, and rope, and—”

  “I don’t want to hear this.” Susan clamped her hands over her ears. “How can you say all this? How can I believe all this? He’s my husband. I lived with him for fourteen years. I bore him two children. I slept in the same bed, night after night.”