There were days when Howard wondered if he had done the right thing – but not many. The best days were those on which he received compliments on his family photo. He wasn’t in it, of course. His presence would have taken the magic away. A colleague would note how beautiful his wife and children were, what a lucky man he was, and Howard would puff up with pride and nod, glancing at the photo, congratulating himself for waiting, for refusing to settle. He kept the photo on his desk, faced out, to encourage such moments.

         Some might say that he’d rushed things; it had only been a few short months from meeting her until they’d married. But Howard had known from the moment he clapped eyes on her that he wanted her. Those enormous sea-green eyes, the bountiful mass of honey blonde hair down her back, the raindrop that dripped off the end of her nose, as she struggled to get her grocery bags and children home in a sudden rain shower.

         He’d offered her a ride. She’d accepted immediately and directed her children into the back of his expensive car. And as she climbed into the front seat, she’d laid her hand over his on the gearstick and thanked him with a wide and trusting smile, before directing him to the Happy Valley Trailer Park on the outskirts of town. She was not wearing a wedding ring.

         Howard smiled at the memory of their first meeting, at how she’d invited him in for coffee and how pleasantly surprised he was by the cleanliness and tasteful décor of her small, run-down trailer. The children had disappeared into another room, and he’d watched her lithe movements as she put the groceries away and made him coffee, his eyes surveying the tautness of her rear and the pale perfection of her skin. When she brought him his coffee he’d stared at her, wondering how such beauty could be living in an infamously crime-ridden trailer park, in obvious poverty, with no car, and with two children to raise. He decided he must rescue her.

         Howard roused himself and, remembering that he’d booked several days’ vacation, stuffed documents and folders into his briefcase. He took the stairs down to the parking garage, vowing to get in some exercise on this vacation. His wife was an excellent cook, preparing all his favorite meals faithfully and always with a delicious dessert. He rubbed his growing paunch reflectively, and then climbed into his car, mentally preparing himself for the long drive home.

         He had wanted something modern and expensive in the suburbs. But he’d ended up buying the rambling and ramshackle old farmhouse in the country. She’d sat on its porch, staring out over the hills and valleys. She’d turned to him, her eyes begging, and he’d bought it for her the same day. She had been so beautifully grateful, running her hands down his lapels, smiling shyly.

         Howard hadn’t liked the house. Still didn’t. It was located on top of a hill in the midst of a hundred overgrown acres. The roof was scarred with the jutting, jagged shaped of several lightning rods. The first time he walked around the house he’d kept thinking he noticed movement in the windows. On closer examination it had turned out to be flies, thousands upon thousands of them, buzzing and crawling on all of the windows. He had the place thoroughly fumigated, repaired, cleaned and painted before they’d moved in, which had been the same day they’d gotten married. He’d carried her over the threshold, the children trailing solemnly behind, into a beautifully bright and spacious home. It was the happiest day of his life.

         The memory of those flies, though, and the hour commute on top of it, had left Howard wishing he’d put his foot down and insisted on something closer to work and certainly something less demanding. He’d booked the vacation days to catch up on some of the many necessary repairs. Well, that and…the children. He needed to spend some time with them. He felt he should have a better bond with these children he was now responsible for.

         The children were perfect. Physically, they were as beautiful as their mother, with the same honey blonde hair, and the same mysterious green eyes. Such strange eyes, they all had – slightly elongated and heavy-lidded, the color of a briny ocean. The girl was the very image of her mother, the boy, too, except for a slightly more bulky body type. Perhaps he got it from his father – the man who had been executed on death row for two murders. The first in a bar brawl; the second in jail. Poor children, to have spent their early years with such a monster.

         Perhaps that was why they were so strange, so damn silent. They would respond if he addressed them directly, but otherwise they never spoke to him. They hardly spoke to each other or their mother, for that matter. They called him “sir,” even though he told them again and again that he was their father now and should call him daddy. “Yes sir,” they would respond, and continue to ignore him as if he didn’t exist. And they never smiled.

         His hands tightened on the steering wheel. This coming week was vital. He had their mother. She was happy, Howard was sure of it, but the children continued to elude him. They ate the food he provided, they lived in the house he bought them, they wore the clothes he paid for, and this week they would finally learn to love him. He was determined. He would win them; they would be his. They were his, dammit. Over the next week they would work alongside him on the repairs, and the yard work, and the home improvement projects. He would teach them, fondle their hair lovingly, they would ask him shy questions, and yes, they would finally call him daddy.

         It was still light when he finally got home. Howard pulled up the long, long driveway to the top of the hill and parked. The girl was outside, perched in her favorite spot on a huge boulder to the side of the house. She ignored him as he got out of the car and walked over to her. She was repeatedly looking at something she held in her hands, then up at the house, then back to the cradled object. He bent over and swiped it out of her hands. It was the photograph – again. The vile face of their criminal father grinned at him, knowing, confident and amused. He was sitting on a rock remarkably similar to the one his daughter was sitting on. He glanced down at the girl and almost dropped the photo. She was smiling – a broad, vicious smirk emerging from the fresh innocence of her lovely features. It was like she was looking in his head at the disturbing urges he had pushed into hiding at the back of his brain. He walked away, fighting the urge to smack the obscenity right off of her face.

         He pushed through the screen door into the house, batting away a cloud of flies that immediately started buzzing around his head. The boy was watching television, but, as always, completely ignored him. Howard stared at the back of the child’s thick neck and broad shoulders with dislike. Why couldn’t he have been as slim and willowy as his mother and sister? The boy was growing up with too much of his father in him; he would probably have his father’s criminal tendencies, too. He would have to be careful not to spare the rod with this one. He would take him in hand now, this week, before the criminal in him got a chance to grow.

         Dinner was waiting. His wife kissed him lightly on the cheek and gestured to the enormous plate of food. Howard sat, eating, while watching her do the dishes and cleaning up. He never tired of staring at her. Even the most everyday tasks became an efficient and graceful dance. She bent to wipe a stain from the floor and he decided he would have her that night. Yes, he was on vacation and that would be the way to get it off to the best possible start.

         The evening followed its usual routine and, as she finished brushing her teeth, Howard came up behind her, nuzzling her neck and taking her small breasts in his hands. She gave him her vague smile and, going into the bedroom, removed her night gown and lay on the bed naked, spreading her legs for him as she waited. Their lovemaking proceeded as usual. He explored her body with eager eyes and fingers; she lay beneath him, her eyes closed tight. He entered her like a conquering hero, and pounded furiously away at her. She lay, almost silently, while his sweat rolled off his body and onto hers. He gloried in his wife, feeling himself buried deep within her, staring at her perfect face.

         And then she smiled. Her teeth were bared in a knowing grimace – a smile of such cynical knowledge and amusement, a smile as obscene as the one on her daughter’s face. He felt himself shrink inside her and rolled off her to cover his shock and embarrassment. And to cover the fact that he had automatically lifted her hand to strike her. Howard lay on his hand, feeling it tingle as if he had actually hit her. For a moment he thought he might have, but she kissed his cheek gently and whispered goodnight to him.

         He slept restlessly and, unusual for him, had awoken several times during the night. His wife lay there, as the full moon shone through the window and illuminated the green depths of her eyes. Her expression was calm, quiet, waiting. Every time he awoke it was the same. He would watch her until he fell asleep again, and in the morning she was up before he was, as she always was, and he lay listening to the house, silent but for the buzzing of the flies and the faint hiss of cooking bacon.

         During breakfast Howard decided he would take care of the fly problem by putting up the screens on the windows. It was the kind of job that the children could help him with. They trailed after him to the barn and helped him bring out all the screens. They were silent as usual, but willing enough, and he felt his vacation was off to a good start. A staycation, he mused, that’s what they call it when you spend a vacation at home with your family. He smiled and reached out to tousle the hair on the girl, but the child shied away as if she was about to be hit. His hand stayed in midair, tingling as if he had actually struck her. Howard looked at the boy. The child was wearing the grotesque smile. The same one he had previously seen on his sister, his mother, and – in the photograph – on his depraved father. He shoved his hand in his pocket, terrified by his own desire to yank out a few of the pretty boy’s honeyed curls.

         He turned away, grimacing, and set to pulling out the longest ladder. He would tackle the upstairs windows first. He curtly sent the children to play and, dragging the ladder to the house, he anchored it firmly against the boulder at the side of the house. The ladder reached up to his bedroom window. Howard started to climb and, reaching the final rungs, started to wrestle the storm window out of its hinges. Pulling a little too hard, he wobbled and almost lost his balance, but the storm window finally came free. He steadied himself and looked down at the ground. The children were there at the base of the ladder, holding it tightly. They were smiling - obscenely. They started to tug at the ladder, speaking rapidly to each other as to who should push and who should pull. Howard clutched onto the windowsill with one hand and grasped the heavy storm window in his other. He’d kill those little monsters when he got his hands on them! With relief, he saw his wife enter the bedroom and move rapidly and gracefully towards him. She stretched out her hands to help him, but his hands were full and he was unable to grasp a hold of her. Her hands landed on the top rung of the ladder. Smiling, she gave it an almighty push.

         He dropped the storm window and scrabbled desperately to get a firmer grip on the ladder. He heard the window shatter on the boulder below, and then felt himself begin to fall. His arms and legs pumped furiously in mid-air, but the boulder rushed to meet him anyway. He heard, rather than felt, his head smash onto the boulder. In his final seconds he heard a strange and unusual sound – one he had never heard before. It was the sound of his family. They were laughing, shouts of joy, mixed with girlish giggles and melodic chuckling. He died to the sounds of their happiness.

Diane Dooley writes horror, science fiction and romance - sometimes all in the same story. She is previously published by Dog Oil Press, SNM Horror Magazine, Carina Press, Eschatology Journal, Golden Visions Magazine and An Electric Tragedy. She has fiction forthcoming from Decadent Publishing and Carina Press.

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