Just One Look

Chapter 13


This was nuts, Charlaine thought.
Her feet moved steadily toward Freddy Sykes's yard without thought or emotion. It had crossed her mind that she could be raising the danger stakes out of desperation, hungry as she was for any kind of drama in her life. But okay, again, so what? Really, when she thought about it, what was the worst that could happen? Suppose Mike did find out. Would he leave her? Would that be so bad?
Did she want to get caught?
Oh, enough with the amateur self-analysis. It wouldn't hurt to knock on Freddy's door, pretend to be neighborly. Two years ago, Mike had put up a four-foot-high stockade fence in the backyard. He had wanted one higher, but the town ordinance wouldn't allow it unless you owned a swimming pool.
Charlaine opened the gate separating her backyard from Freddy's. Odd. This was a first. She had never opened the gate before.
As she got closer to Freddy's back door, she realized how weathered his house was. The paint was peeling. The garden was overgrown. Weeds sprouted up through the cracks in the walk. There were patches of dead grass everywhere. She turned and glanced at her own house. She had never seen it from this angle. It too looked tired.
She was at Freddy's back door.
Okay, now what?
Knock on it, stupid.
She did. She started with a soft rap. No answer. She pounded louder. Nothing. She pressed her ear against the door. Like that would do any good. Like she'd hear a muffled cry or something.
There was no sound.
The shades were still down, but there were wedges that the shades couldn't quite cover. She put an eye up to an opening and peered in. The living room had a lime-green couch so worn it looked like it was melting. There was a vinyl recliner of maroon in the corner. The television looked new. The wall had old paintings of clowns. The piano was loaded with old black-and-white photographs. There was one of a wedding. Freddy's parents, Charlaine figured. There was another of the groom looking painfully handsome in an army uniform. There was one more photograph of the same man holding a baby, a smile spread across his face. Then the man-the soldier, the groom-was gone. The rest of the photographs were of either Freddy alone or with his mother.
The room was immaculate-no, preserved. Stuck in a time warp, unused, untouched. There was a collection of small figurines on a side table. More photographs too. A life, Charlaine thought. Freddy Sykes had a life. It was a strange thought, but there you have it.
Charlaine circled toward the garage. There was one window in the back. A flimsy curtain of pretend lace hung across it. She stood on her tiptoes. Her fingers gripped the window ledge. The wood was so old it almost broke away. Peeling paint flaked off like dandruff.
She looked into the garage.
There was another car.
Not a car actually. A minivan. A Ford Windstar. When you live in a town like this, you know all the models.
Freddy Sykes did not own a Ford Windstar.
Maybe his young Asian guest did. That would make sense, right?
She was not convinced.
So what next?
Charlaine stared down at the ground and wondered. She had been wondering since she first decided to approach the house. She had known before leaving the safety of her own kitchen that there would be no answer to her knocks. She also knew that peeking in the windows-peeping on the peeper?-would do no good.
The rock.
It was there, in what had once been a vegetable garden. She had seen Freddy use it once. It wasn't a real rock. It was one of those hide-a-keys. They were so common now that criminals probably looked for them before checking under the mat.
Charlaine bent down, picked up the rock, and turned it over. All she had to do was slide the little panel back and take the key out. She did so. The key rested in her palm, glistening in the sunlight.
Here was the line. The no-going-back line.
She moved toward the back door.