You should be puttin’ prickly pear on their chairs instead.”
Debra frowned at her husband and added the newly gathered bluebonnets to the vase on the dining room table. “Don’t be surly like that, Warren. You know this dinner is important.”
“Do I ever. Old Hendricks’ voice is still in my head from last week. Longest car ride of my life.”
“It was nice of him to go with you to the city.”
“Like I had a choice. I’ll say this: he knows right where to go. Got the wiles of a coyote, too.”
“Well, I’m grateful to him that he’s giving us a chance to fix things.”
“I sure hope it works. Carl’s still got my pressure washer he borrowed two months ago. Mitch won’t invite me over anymore to watch the game. And Larry, well, you can just tell Karen gave him orders to slink away all snake-like whenever he sees me.”
Debra sighed. “I know. I miss playing cards and catching up on gossip with the girls.” She straightened after setting the final fork in place. “There. Pretty as a picture. I’ve heard Mr. Hendricks is a stickler for a well-set table.”
Larry and Karen were the first to arrive, Larry clearly avoiding Warren’s gaze as he trudged behind his wife. Mitch and Doreen were next, followed by Carl and Sally. Warren and Debra served drinks but were careful not to mingle. Following Mr. Hendricks’ advice, they respected
their neighbors’ trepidation and kept themselves on the sidelines.
At a quarter past the hour, Mr. James Hendricks, the president of the Canyon Creek Home Owners Association, arrived with four bottles of wine and a grin as wide as his cloud-white Stetson.
“Debra, how are you, Darling? It looks just grand in here.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hendricks.” Debra looked down at her feet. “I was hoping they’d be a bit friendlier.”
“Give them time, Dear. We’re a tight-knit bunch. When our ways are threatened, we become wary. It’s a survival instinct. But we’ve also got large hearts and generous spirits. So you just hang in there. The both of you.” He gave her a wink and ambled over to the hors d’oeuvres counter.
By the time dinner was served, the guests had thawed enough to extend polite but reserved courtesies to their hosts as bowls of salads, plates of sides, and platters of entrées were passed around the meticulously arranged table. Seated at the head of the table, Hendricks assumed the role of master of ceremonies, engaging his audience with lively conversation and a bawdy tale or two.
“Eat and drink, my friends,” he encouraged while holding a glass up high. “The best thing about a block party is no one has to drive home. We can all stagger respectably to our front doors.” He chuckled and set his glass down, then leaned over and spoke to Debra in a low voice: “Are
you ready, my dear?” he asked as he patted her hand. “I warmed them up for you. You have nothing to worry about.”
Vignettes of that night flashed through Debra’s memory. The rain, the dark, the screech of the tires, the sickening thud. Listening for a heartbeat. Feeling for a pulse. Waiting for a breath, for anything to come out of the slightly parted lips. But there was nothing. No gasp for air, no murmur of pain, no gurgle of blood. Who was she and how did she get in? Theirs was a gated community. Was she someone’s guest? Questions, so many questions…
She snapped back as she felt Hendricks’ fingers tighten around her hand. The table had fallen silent and all eyes were on her. She cleared her throat. No more questions. Just answers now.
“Thank you all for coming. Warren and I, well, we’re so sorry for what happened. We never meant to upset this community.” She looked at her husband and smiled weakly. “Please don’t blame Warren. This was all my doing. I’m the one who hit her. I’m the one who took her.” She started to tremble, the next words coming out shakily. “I knew the rules and I took her anyway.”
“Hunts are supposed to be for all of us,” croaked a drunken voice from the far end of the table.
“Hittin’ someone accidentally with a car ain’t exactly a hunt, Mitch,” Warren objected. “She panicked.”
“Panicked? All she had to do was call one of us. Hell, she could have yelled over to little Mikey playing in that puddle to go get someone.”
“I panicked. I did,” Debra said. “I had such tunnel vision I didn’t even see Mikey. Something overcame me when I saw her lying there, so vulnerable . . . so fresh. It was a feeling that I never experienced before. Not on a hunt. Not anywhere. The urge to take her was so primal and overwhelming that I couldn’t think of anything else. Or, anyone else.”
Debra lowered her eyes briefly, then took a deep breath and continued. “I’m sorry. I know how lame this sounds. But I discovered last week why I felt so different, so out of control, and after I tell you, I hope you can give me a second chance.” Debra removed her hand from Hendricks’ grasp and rested it on her belly. “You see, I’m eating for two now.”
A clap broke the silence. It started with Hendricks and soon rolled like a wave around the table.
Warren came and stood beside his wife. “Hey, y’all, please stay a while and help us celebrate. We’ve got a whole lot more wine to drink, especially now that Debra can’t have any. Oh, and no one leaves here tonight without a doggy bag. We’ve got a lot of leftovers in the freezer, and as we’re reminded tonight, we all are a sharing community.”
Whoops and hollers filled the air.
“And Carl? I need my pressure washer back, man. I’ve got a god-awful mess in the shed.”
John Harker is a freelance journalist and ghostwriter who’s been writing and publishing since the 1990s. His personal encounters with unexplainable phenomena have inspired him to explore strange, dark, and disturbing topics in both non-fiction and fiction. He lives with his family in eastern Washington, where the ghosts are dry and dusty.