New Year’s Eve
December 31, 1997 7:00 p.m.
The nightmare had returned the previous night, a howling, red-hot inferno consuming everything Nora Hartmann held dear. Carrie’s face, young and vulnerable, floating in the midst of it. Dark curls transformed into tendrils of flame. Eyes wide with terror. Pitiful cry keening: Save me, Mommy. Even now the remembered dream wrapped talons of fear around Nora’s heart. Would she never heal? Would it never be finished?
She carried the tray of hors d’oeuvres into the dining room, arranged it on the table with the others, and drifted over to the front window.
It had been a snowy day, and a few lazy flakes still floated through the halo cast by the front porch light. The last colored lights of the holiday season, charmingly hooded by fresh snow, lent a festive air to the neighborhood. In sharp contrast, the house across the street was an empty hole as dark and silent as death. Night shrouded the realtor’s sign at the foot of the drive, but Nora knew it was there, a constant reminder that a way of life she once cherished was gone forever.
She shook her head impatiently. Why, on today of all days, couldn’t she let it go?
Perhaps it was the party. Perhaps her preparations were too reminiscent of the summer barbeque that had set her feet on the path that would lead to that fateful night of horror. It had been a beautiful day in June. . .
Saturday, June 11 5:30 p.m.
Rudy Schmidt adjusted the focus of the binoculars and scanned the house across the street. Although thick foliage screened most of the houses in this hilltop neighborhood, Rudy had discovered that this particular corner of his dining-room window afforded an unobstructed view of the Hartmann house. From here he could see the recessed front door and monitor anyone coming or going. To the left were the windows into the little den where Nora sat in the evenings to read. The big bay windows to the right accessed the dining room. Beyond lay the kitchen eating area where he often observed her sitting at the kitchen table or moving back and forth in the course of some task. Now he saw nothing. The late-afternoon sun glanced off the windows, making them impenetrable to the binoculars. No matter. Very shortly he would be reveling in the glow of her real presence.
"Emma!" he called as he put the binoculars back into the drawer of the china cabinet. "Get out here now! It’s time to go."
He walked into the living room just as his wife Emma entered from the bedroom wing. She was wearing an outfit he had never seen, a ridiculous one-piece pant suit in a clinging fabric that revealed every unflattering curve of her body.
"Where did you get that?" he demanded.
She pretended not to understand.
He huffed impatiently. "That thing you’re wearing. Where did it come from?"
Her cheeks reddened. "Nora and I went shopping last week. It was on sale. This sort of thing is in style right now."
"I don’t care. It’s not right for you. I’d like you to change."
He thought a flicker of rebellion crossed her face. Then she glanced at her watch and turned back toward the bedroom. Understanding dawned. She had known he wouldn’t like the clothes; she had put them on in order to provoke him and delay their departure.
"Never mind," he called after her. "Go ahead and wear the damn thing. Let’s just get going."
Another pointed look at her watch. "It’s too early. Nora said six o‘clock."
"That’s when the others are coming." He spoke as if to a thick-headed child. "We’re going early to help so she’ll be ready when they get there."
"She said she didn’t need any help. This is a big step for her, Rudy. A new beginning. She needs to prove she can do it on her own."
"That’s psychobabble bullshit. Ed was always in the middle of things when they entertained. She’s probably feeling overwhelmed about now."
"Nora never feels overwhelmed."
"Whatever. But she’s bound to need some help. Trust me. She’ll be glad to see us."
He was holding the front door open. When she continued to hesitate, he exploded, "For God’s sake, Emma! Come on, or I’ll go without you."
She sighed and obeyed. He locked the front door and followed her down the elevated porch steps. He watched her broad buttocks sway, filled with revulsion. She seemed to be getting fatter by the day in spite of the new diet he had insisted she follow. She was probably cheating like she always had.
He forced his eyes away, determined not to spoil the evening by dwelling on this woman who had become more a burden than a wife. Instead, he would think about the hours ahead when he would be able to drink in Nora’s beauty and grace firsthand. He strode down the sloping gravel drive and across the narrow street separating their houses.
Nora’s front lawn was freshly cut and trimmed. He had told her he would mow it for her, but the little rascal had risen with the birds and done the job herself. He couldn’t seem to make her understand that doing things for her was not an imposition; it was the way things were supposed to be. Ed was gone, and it was his responsibility to take care of her now.
Of course, responsibility was a two-way street. In exchange for the carefree security he could give her, he expected her to surrender herself to him without reservation. He had been patient until now because he knew she needed time to get over Ed. Tonight’s party proved she was ready to move on. The torch had finally passed.
They were nearing her front door. Rudy’s heart raced, and his whole body tingled. Within seconds, she would be opening the door and welcoming them in. His darling Nora.