I’ve decided to start a new project, and I’m jumping in with both feet.
In October, Herstorycalls featured stories instead of articles. I enjoyed doing one and reading others so much that I’m going to start a holiday story here. It’ll involve the same two main characters that were in the Halloween one. This was a last minute decision with little planning, but here goes.
Randy Norcross paced her small living room, unsettled, discouraged and lonely. She didn’t know what to do with herself. She had no job yet and no prospects of a Christmas spent with family. She didn’t know why this bothered her so much; maybe it had to do with her new relationship with Mark Clarendon, a Chicago police detective, who didn’t much like it that she wanted to be a cop.
“Oh,” she said, stopping mid-stride, “I know exactly what to do. I’ll get gifts for the Howland family.” She smiled as she remembered her interview and article with the struggling parents of four adopted children. They were so upbeat, so loving that their lack of funds seemed unimportant.
“I’d better call and see if they still have the same four,” she said, and dialed the number now in her memory.
“Mrs. Howland,” she said, “Randy Norcross here. I want to get a little something for the kids for Christmas. Do you still have the same four?”
“Yes,” came the answer, “plus one more. A four year old Hispanic boy, Jose. Thank you.”
“I picture you like the woman in the shoe with so many children,” Randy said, and they both laughed.
“Not quite,” Mrs. Howland said, and they said their goodbyes.
Detective Mark Clarendon drove to the hall, intending to start and finish his shopping on time this year, instead of waiting until Christmas Eve day like he usually did. But his mind wasn’t5 really on Christmas or shopping, but on the odd case he’d just gotten.
He hadn’t started out to be a paranormal detective, but after three such cases, the department now considered him the unofficial expert. He laughed. Yeah, expert. He was nothing of the kind and it would take all of his normal detecting skills, plus more, to solve this one.
Originally a homicide cop, he now worked with anything and everything to do with the paranormal, whether it involved a death or not, along with normal homicide duties. Sometimes double duty.
Two days ago a call took him to a home where a mother hysterically informed him that someone had replaced her son with a doll that looked exactly like him. He’d had the strangest feeling while in the boy’s room that the room itself wasn’t real.
They still hadn’t found the boy.
Randy had just exited the Barnes & Noble store, where she’d purchased a book she knew her friend Lucy wanted. After the rescue at Scenarios, she’d made friends with Lucy Bennington, a young woman recently qualified as a private investigator. Now, Randy decided to have a cup of coffee in the food court while she made a list of possible gifts to get for each Howland child, along with the parents.
She was about to sit at an empty table when she collided with a man who faced the same direction as Randy, but had started to back up.
“Oof,” she said, and dropped the Barnes & Noble bag, along with her purse, which spilled some of its contents.
“Sorry,” the man said as he swung around.
They both stopped and stared, then he bent to help her retrieve her possessions.
It was her cop friend, Mark Clarendon. Randy swallowed the nasty comment she’d been about to make. “What’re you doing here?”
“Shopping…er, thinking about it.” He gestured to the empty table. “How about a cup of coffee?”
“Yes, thanks,” she said, zipping her purse shut and silently promising she’d never leave it open again. She sat and indicated the chair across from her.
“Sure, but I’ll get the coffee, black, right?” he asked, and when she nodded, he left to make the purchase.
Randy put the Barnes & Noble bag on his chair to reserve it and sat, thinking her day was already brighter, glad she’d made the decision to buy for the Howland family. When he returned with the steaming cups, she told him about interviewing the Howlands and writing about them, and what she intended to do.
“Tell me about them.”
She explained about their lack of money, and their loving manner that made for a very happy family, and how she’d enjoyed seeing their eyes shining with love, “They battle like all kids,” she said, “but they’ve got a rule they won’t break.”
“Never go to bed angry.”
Once they’d finished their coffee, they shopped together, Mark helping her decide on gifts for the children, especially the boys, as well as Mr. Howland. Randy essentially picked out all his gifts, chuckling to herself at his sigh of relief when she offered. When done, it was near suppertime.
“I’ve got lasagna left over, lots of it. Would you like to come for supper?” she asked. It had been a couple weeks since they’d seen one another and she wasn’t sure she should offer. Had he decided to break up with her? It could be. He wasn’t happy about her announcement of pursuing a career as a police officer. Beads of sweat collected on her forehead, but she didn’t think it was because of an overheated mall. It was her nerves acting up, telling her she shouldn’t have asked.
“Great,” she said, her spirits restored.
They laughed and talked as they headed to the parking lot, and discovered they’d parked next to one another. She eyed his red sports car with a raised eyebrow. “Fancy car for a cop.”
He laughed. “Not mine. It’s my brother’s. Mine’s in the shop.” He waited until she’d started her car, then got in his own and followed her home. He wasn’t waiting any half hour. He was no slouch in the kitchen and fully intended to help her. He could at least cut up the vegetables for salad.
It was nearing ten o’clock and much to Randy’s delight, Mark showed no signs of leaving. They were on the couch, the one that had the depression in the middle that tended to create togetherness whether planned or not.
“I hope you never get rid of this couch,” he said, putting his arm around her and bringing her closer. He brushed a light kiss on her cheek and said, “Did you plan it that way?”
She laughed. “No, but since you like it so much,” she said, and snuggled even closer. “How about wrapping the gifts now?”
His gaze took in the entire living room. “You have no tree to put them under.”
“True. Want to help me get one tomorrow?”
“That’s a plan, but let’s wait until then to do the wrapping. I’ve got something else in mind for tonight.”
He’d just begun the kiss when Randy’s phone rang. “Leave it,” he said, and eased her down on the couch as he kissed her.
The ringing stopped, then, a couple minutes later, it resumed. Randy wanted to ignore it, but couldn’t, not when she got that strange feeling of urgency. It always happened during an emergency. She hated what she called her psychic warnings, but had never been able to get rid of them no matter what she did. When the ninth ring sounded, she jumped up and crossed the room to the foyer where the phone sat on a small table.
“Hello,” she said, breathless from agitation over her psychic warning.
“Randy, it’s Mrs. Howland,” and the woman began sobbing, then gasping, and talking at the same time. “Jose, it’s Jose, gone. Please help.” Her wailing increased until Randy was afraid she’d collapse.
“I’ll be right there, Mrs. Howland. Please, hang on.”
Mark was right beside her, his face showing concern, his eyes darkened with worry. “What happened?”
“Her son, Jose, the newest one…” Randy shook her head. “It was hard to hear her, but she said Jose and the word gone.”
“Come on,” he said, grabbing his coat from the hall tree and handing hers to her. “I’ll take you.” He practically ran her out of the apartment, barely stopping to let her lock the door. Once they were in the vehicle, he asked for the address, and sped to the Howland home, breaking all speed laws.
“Mark, this isn’t a police car. Won’t you get stopped?”
“Won’t matter,” he said, and turned the next corner almost on two wheels.
Mrs. Howland was waiting for them at the front door, her face pressed to the glass, and when Mark stopped in front of the house, she threw open the door and rushed out onto the porch. Mark reached her side first, showed his badge, which Randy hadn’t realized he had with him, and led the distraught woman into her house.
Randy, following close behind, decided to let him handle everything. After all, he was an expert. She was grateful. Mr. and Mrs. Howland and their children represented happiness to her and now, with what could be a tragedy, she felt as if she’d half swallowed a golf ball. She sent up a little prayer for help, for the return of the little boy.
Mark led the woman to the living room to the right of the foyer, and then to a dark green davenport that, while old and sagging, was decorated with colorful floral pillows. She sat, but immediately jumped up again.
“No, you must see his room, please. There’s something there.”
She rushed from the room to a stairway in the dining room that led to the second floor, then, to a room at the back of the house. Once inside, she seemed to cower and shrink, as if something terrible occupied the room. She leaned against the wall to the right of the door and pointed to a homemade wooden shelf on the wall to the right. The shelf took up the length of the room, and contained various toys and stuffed animals, or at least, Mark figured, they were there at one time. Now, all were on the floor, jumbled, tumbled on one another as if tossed by an angry child.
There was one item only on the shelf.
A boy doll, obviously Hispanic with its dark skin, black hair and eyes, and even long black eyelashes, was in the center of the shelf. It was dressed in jeans, a green t-shirt, and wore scuffed tennis shoes. The doll also carried a baseball bat and wore a ball cap on his head.
“It’s him,” Mrs. Howland said, and put her hands over her face, crying again.
Placing a hand on her shoulder, Mark said, softly, “Please, Mrs. Howland, tell me what this means. What do you mean it’s him?”
Mrs. Howland blinked but didn’t wipe away her tears. “Take a look at this,” she said, and removed a photograph from her apron pocket. “This is Jose.”
Mark took the photo, signaled to Randy, and they looked it at together, then at the doll.
“Mark,” Randy whispered. “They look exactly alike.”
“That doesn’t explain anything,” he said, his gaze on Mrs. Howland. “What are you trying to say?”
“That thing,” she said, pointing to the doll, “wasn’t there before. They took Jose and put it in his place.”
Mark swallowed hard. It was just like the other case, and they hadn’t yet found that boy. Then he remembered something else about that other case, and scanned the room. There was something wrong. It wasn’t real.
Joan K. Maze