By: Jayne Ann Krentz


Fifteen years earlier …

She was fourteen years old and sleeping in yet another bed. The little house on Marigold Lane looked cozy and welcoming from the street—lots of curb appeal, as the real estate agents liked to say—but she had decided that she would not be there for long.

Every few weeks when she got tired of life on the streets she checked into the foster care system long enough to take some hot showers and score some new tennis shoes or a new pair of jeans or a new backpack. She had figured out early on that a backpack was essential to survival on the streets. The one she had picked up last month had a large rip in it, thanks to the junkie with the knife who had tried to steal it. The junkie was no longer a problem but the wounded pack had to be replaced.

She rarely stayed in a foster home for more than a few days. Sooner or later, there were issues. This time the problem would be the husband. His name was Tyler. She had privately labeled him Tyler the Creep.

She had seen the way he looked at her two days ago when she arrived with her ripped backpack containing all her worldly possessions: a few clothes, a hairbrush and a toothbrush, and the battered copies of Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.

Initially she had not been concerned; merely inconvenienced. She could handle Tyler the Creep but it meant that she could not go to sleep at night. Creeps like Tyler had a lot in common with roaches—they came out after dark.

The situation, however, had gotten a lot more complicated that afternoon when the social worker had arrived on the doorstep with another foster kid. The girl’s name was Alice. All she had with her was a small rolling suitcase. She was eleven years old and she had been orphaned when her father’s private plane had crashed on takeoff. Alice’s mother had been a passenger. Both parents had been killed. Alice had been in school at the time.

Dazed and traumatized, she had said very little except her name and that her aunts would come for her.

Later, when she and Winter were alone in the bedroom, she had repeated the same thing over and over.

“My mom and dad told me that if anything ever happened to them I should call my aunts. They will come and get me.”

During her short stays in various foster homes over the course of the past year Winter had heard similar claims. Mostly the tales turned out to be sparkly little lies told by well-meaning parents who had wanted to reassure their children that some adult family member would always be there for them; that they were not alone in the world. That they had family to protect them.

But after several months of floating in and out of the system she knew the truth. There were no aunts, or, if they did exist, they weren’t going to magically appear to rescue Alice. Sure, there might be a few distant relatives somewhere but there would be a thousand excuses why they couldn’t take a kid into their household. We’re too old. We barely knew that side of the family. Our lifestyle won’t allow us to take the child. We travel too much. We can’t afford to take her. We have other children who would be upset. The child has severe emotional problems that we’re just not equipped to handle …

Winter sat on the top bunk, legs dangling over the edge. The new backpack was on the bed beside her. She wore the jeans and the hoodie that she’d had on during the day. She always slept in her clothes. It made for more efficient departures.

She had a penlight in one hand. In her other hand she gripped her copy of Winnie-the-Pooh. Earlier she had read some of the stories to Alice. Alice had said that she was too old for Winnie-the-Pooh, but the gentle stories had soothed her. She had eventually fallen into an exhausted sleep.

A few hours ago the new foster mom had been called away to deal with a family crisis involving one of her own aging parents. Tyler the Creep was now in the front room, drinking and watching television.

Winter had taken the precaution of locking the bedroom door but she had known that wouldn’t do any good. The creep had the key.

It was another half hour before she heard the doorknob rattle. When Tyler the Creep discovered that the door was locked he left. For a moment she entertained the faint hope that he would not return. But of course he did.

She heard the key in the lock. The door opened. The creep was silhouetted against the light of the hallway fixture, a balding, big-bellied man dressed in an undershirt and trousers.

He did not see her sitting there in the shadows of the upper bunk. He moved into the room, heading toward the lower bunk.

He reached down and started to pull the covers off of Alice’s thin, huddled body.

“Go away, Mr. Tyler,” Winter said. She switched on the penlight and began to move it in an intricate pattern. “You’re not supposed to be here. You don’t want to be here.”

She kept her voice calm; soothing but firm.

Startled, Tyler halted and instinctively averted his gaze from the narrow beam of light.

“What the hell?” In the next breath he softened his voice to a drunken croon. “What’s the matter, honey? Couldn’t sleep? I know it’s hard adjusting to a new house and a new family. But you’re in a good home now. There’s nothing to worry about. I’ll take care of you and Alice.”

“Go away, Mr. Tyler,” Winter said again. She kept the penlight moving, faster now.

Tyler was distracted by the light. He stared at; looked away and then gazed at it again.

“I’m going to take poor little Alice to my bedroom,” he said. “She’s afraid to be alone.”

“Alice is not alone,” Winter said. “I’m here with her. Go away. You don’t want to be in this room. It’s hard to breathe when you come in here. You can’t catch your breath. Your heart is pounding harder and harder. You wonder if you’re having a heart attack.”

Tyler did not respond. He was transfixed by the motion of the light. He started to wheeze.

“When I say Winnie-the-Pooh you will realize that you can’t breathe at all when you’re in this room,” Winter said. “You will leave. That is the only way to ease the terrible pain in your chest. If you stay in this room you will have a heart attack. Do you understand?”

“Yes.” Tyler’s voice was now that of a man in a trance; expressionless.

The rasping and wheezing got louder.

“Winnie-the-Pooh,” Winter said in a tone of soft command.

Tyler came out of the trance gasping for air.

“Can’t breathe,” he said, his voice hoarse with panic. He swung around and lurched out into the hallway. “My heart. Can’t breathe.”

He staggered down the hallway and stumbled toward the kitchen. Winter jumped down to the floor.

“Winter?” Alice whispered from the shadows of the lower bunk.

“It’s okay,” Winter said. “But you have to get up and get dressed. We’re going to leave now.”

A heavy thud sounded from the kitchen. It was followed by an unnatural silence.

“What happened?” Alice asked.

“Stay here,” Winter said. “I’ll go take a look.”

She went to the door. With the penlight in hand she moved cautiously down the hall. Alice climbed out of bed but she did not wait in the bedroom. She followed Winter.

Tyler was sprawled on the kitchen floor. He did not move. His phone was on the floor close to his hand. Panic arced through Winter. She wondered if she had killed the creep.

Alice came up beside her and took her hand, clinging very tightly. She looked at Tyler’s motionless body.

“Is he dead?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Winter said. “I’ll check.”

She squeezed Alice’s hand and then freed her fingers to cross the kitchen floor. She stopped a short distance away from Tyler and tried to think about what to do next. In the movies and on television people checked the throat of an unconscious person to find out if there was a pulse.

Gingerly she reached down and put two fingers on Tyler’s neck. She thought she detected a faint beat but she couldn’t be certain. He might not be dead yet but it was possible that he was dying. It was also possible that he was simply unconscious and would recover at any moment. Winter knew that neither outcome would be good for Alice or herself.

“Get dressed,” Winter said. “Put everything you brought with you back into your suitcase. I don’t know how much time we have.”

Alice regarded her with big, frightened eyes. “Okay.”

She turned and ran back down the hall. Winter followed. It did not take long to gather up Alice’s few possessions. The little suitcase had not been completely unpacked.

On the way out Winter paused at the kitchen door. Tyler the Creep was still on the floor; still not moving.

“Hold on a second,” she said to Alice

She crossed the kitchen again and picked up Tyler’s phone. She made herself touch the creep long enough to use his thumbprint to unlock the device. A screen full of apps came up. She used the appropriate one to summon a ride-sharing service.

Tyler stirred just as she was getting to her feet. He opened his eyes. He stared at her first in disbelief and then in gathering rage and panic.

“You did this to me,” he wheezed. “You’re killing me.”

“Winnie-the-Pooh,” Winter said.

Tyler gasped, clutched at his chest and collapsed again, unconscious.

Winter reached down into his pocket, took out his wallet and helped herself to the seventy-five dollars she found inside. She considered the credit cards for a moment and opted to leave them behind. Credit cards left a trail.