2nd Annual Popular Fiction Awards Winners – Thriller/Suspense

The Replacements

First-place winner (Genre: Thriller/Suspense) in the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards

By Marcy Kennedy


"They’ve replaced me already."

"What?" The cabbie swiveled around. "I didn’t hear what you said."

Natalie twitched her lips into a smile. "Just talking to myself."

"The meter’s still running, you know."

"I know."

She riveted her gaze back on the boy and girl squatting on the lawn. They bent over the twig tepee they were creating for their toys, their heads touching. The breeze brushed up their blond hair and tousled it together. For the most part, they built in silence, as if they shared a vision as well as a goal. No dandelion dared breech the harmony of the grass around them.

She rolled up the window. "Drive around the block."

The cabbie punched the gas, and the cab jerked forward.

She stroked her fingers over the mountain ridge of scars marring the smooth plain of her right wrist. She should have worn long sleeves. Last night, before she’d caught the bus, she’d slid the silver stud out of her nose and left it lying in the bathroom sink in the public restroom. It was the first time she’d removed it since she’d pierced her nose at fifteen. Her father the literature professor should appreciate the symbolism. The nose piercing punched the first hole in their relationship; she’d taken out the piercing to let the hole in her nose heal over on the eve of returning to mend their relationship.

She didn’t have to close her eyes to hear the words he’d spoken the Saturday she’d come home with her piercing. Spoken rather than yelled. Her father never yelled.

"Do you know what kind of girls mutilate their bodies?"

"You talking to me this time?" the cabbie asked.

She squeezed her wrist until her hand tingled as if it’d fallen asleep. Pain and numbness distilled together in perfect proportions. She focused on the familiar sensation, and the panic in her chest stilled. "No, talking to myself again."

Through the front windshield she watched her house grow from an architect’s model, to a dollhouse, to a child’s playhouse, and, finally, to a full-sized home. If her father called her piercing a mutilation, how would he react to her scarred wrists?

The cab shuddered to a stop. The children continued to play in front of her house. She’d only been gone five years. How could they have given up on her so soon? What kind of parents did that?

The wind shifted and set her porch swing rocking. She’d started begging her father at age six to add a swing to their porch.

"Please, daddy. We almost have the prettiest house, and it’d be the prettiest of all if we had a swing."

She glanced up at the cab driver, but he didn’t speak. She must have kept the words inside her head this time. Either that or he’d decided to ignore her.

She chewed the cuticle on her thumb. Paused. Sat on her hand. Her mother would notice if blood stained her cuticles. Every Saturday afternoon, from the time she was eight until she was thirteen, they’d sat cross-legged on the bathroom floor while her mother gave them both manicures. A lady needed manicured hands. And a spotless house. And a well-tended yard fit to be featured in Better Homes & Gardens. In a neighborhood where people walked their dogs after dark and let their children play unattended on their front lawns. A perfect world. One with no place for a returning prodigal, another dandelion her parents needed to dig out or spray with Round-Up?

"One more time around. Slowly."

He grunted. "It’s your money."

The cab eased away from the curb. She squinted through the dusty back window. She didn’t have money to waste. Enough for the cab bill and a hotel room maybe. She’d assumed she’d come home and they’d kill the fattened calf. She hadn’t figured on paying for anything other than the bus ticket and cab ride here. They should have spotted her in the cab, flung open the door, embraced her. Should’ve, could’ve, would’ve.

The children shrunk until their golden heads painted two splotches on the green grass like two dandelions. They were the dandelions; she was the firstborn. If they weren’t there, her parents would give her the welcome she’d imagined every day for the last six months while she sat through rehab and counselling. She wasn’t going back to the shelter. Or the streets. Or Eddie. She wanted to go home, and she could if she weeded out the dandelions in her lawn.

"I need to find a rental car place."

"I thought you wanted me to drive around the block again."

"I need to rent a car."

He sighed and made a left.

* * *

An hour later, Natalie slid from the driver’s seat of the blue Toyota. She hesitated, nibbled on her ragged thumb cuticle. Maybe she should have planned longer. How was she supposed to convince them to go with her?

The boy glanced up and flashed a commercial-worthy smile. "You lost?"

His sister poked him. "Don’t talk to strangers."

"Oops." He sucked on part of his lower lip. "Forgot."

Natalie knelt on the grass, at eye level with them. The cool ground made her jeans feel wet even though the earth was dry. No wonder the boy and girl balanced on their heels rather than sitting on the lawn. "I’m not a stranger. I’m your sister."

The girl frowned. "How come you don’t live with us then?"

"I had to go away for awhile, but now I’m back, and Mom and Daddy said we
could spend the evening together. Just us."

"Okay," the boy said. "Should I put my toys away first?"

Natalie shook her head. "You can put them away later."

"What do I do with them until later?"

"Leave them here."

The girl hugged her fist-sized, plastic horses to her chest. "I don’t want to leave them. They’ll get cold and scared alone." She peeked over her shoulder at the house. "Besides, Mommy says we always have to put our toys away first."

Natalie followed the girl’s line of sight with her own gaze. So far no one inside had noticed them, but soon . . . "They can come with us. Would they like to go on a picnic?"

A smile sneaked over the girl’s lips. "A picnic?"

"Uh huh."

"Where to?"

Natalie pushed to her feet and offered a hand to each of them. "I’ll tell you on the way, but we have to hurry so we can have our picnic before it gets dark, alright?"

They scampered to grab her hands, and she led them to the passenger side of the car.
"Who normally rides in the front seat?"

The girl tugged her hand. "Kids have to ride in the back."

"You’re right." Natalie released her hand to open the back door. "Hop in, and don’t forget seat belts."

She ground the gears of the unfamiliar standard, and they zipped away. Natalie watched the house in the rear view mirror until she turned down a side street. Neither her mother nor her father ran from the house before she lost sight of it.

She glanced over her shoulder at the two little people in the back seat. An impish grin on his face, the boy had his dinosaurs wrestling in his lap. The girl, though, strained against the seat belt and contorted her face as she tried to look back the way they’d come.

Natalie fixed her gaze on the road and her speedometer. She didn’t need a cop stopping her for erratic driving.

A sniffle reached her from behind. "I changed my mind. I wanna go home."

"Sorry . . . sweetie. We can’t go back yet."

"I don’t wanna go home," the boy said. "This is fun."

Natalie stroked the steering wheel. She needed to distract them somehow. "What’re your names?"

"I’m Adam."

She waited, but the girl didn’t respond. At least she didn’t hear any more sniffles. "And are you Eve?"

Adam giggled. "She’s Erin."

"Well, Erin, are you older or younger than Adam?"

"Younger."

Natalie turned off the radio so she could hear Erin’s subdued voice better. "Silly me, I thought you were twins."

"I’m five, and he’s six." Erin’s breathing stopped sounding as if she were hiccoughing inside. "What’s your name?"

"Natalie."

One of Adam’s feet pushed the back of her seat. "Do you spell it with a Ôg’ that doesn’t talk? Like the bug?"

Natalie chuckled. "Nope, it’s not spelled Gnatalie." She pronounced the Ôg.’

Adam giggled. "Gnat’lee."

Natalie licked her cracked lips. Maybe she should take them back. It wasn’t too late. Her father would call her irresponsible for not asking their permission, but even he wouldn’t guess what she’d planned to do. She clenched her hands around the steering wheel until her fingernails gouged her palms. No, she couldn’t turn back. Her replacements needed to go. "How about we play ÔI Spy.’"

The game passed the next half hour.

"Natalie?" Erin said after she’d guessed that Adam spied a tree, for the third time.

"Yes, sweetie."

"Are we almost there? I’m hungry."

"Almost. About fifteen minutes."

"Why’s it taking so long?"

Natalie bit her thumb cuticle and swallowed a sliver of skin. If only she could swallow the spinning feeling in her chest as easily. Dizzy and spinning, like when she couldn’t get her belt done up and knew the rollercoaster was about to shoot down the rails. "We’re going to a spot I love, up in the mountains where there’s snow all year round. Mom and Daddy used to take me skiing there. Have they taken you skiing yet?"

"No."

Natalie reached for the radio knob to fill the silence.

"Nat’lie?"

"Yes, Adam."

"I’m hungry too."

She fished the bag of cookies she’d bought at the variety store out of the yellow plastic bag. She thought she’d have more time. They weren’t supposed to eat the cookies until they reached the spot. Once they ate the cookies, they’d want the milk. "I hope you like double chocolate chunk."

"How many can we have?" Erin asked.

"As many as you want."

Natalie flicked on the radio and fiddled with it until she found a station playing 50s and 60s music, her parents’ favorite. The Temptations, Elvis, and the Dave Clark 5 crooned. The cookie bag continued to rustle in the back seat, and she sang along with The Mamas & the Papas’ "Dream a Little Dream of Me" under her breath. Not much farther now.

"Nat’lie?" Adam’s query interrupted Chuck Berry.

"Um hum."

"I’m thirsty. Can we have something to drink?"

Two Aquafina bottles full of 2% milk sat on the seat beside her, within reach if she wanted them. She tilted the rear view mirror so she could see Adam still munching cookies. "I have milk, but it’s not very cold."

"That’s s’okay."

Erin snatched the bag from him. "Don’t talk with your mouth full, Adam. You spit crumbs on me."

Natalie rested her hand on the caps. One bottle for each of them. She’d split a bottle of over-the-counter sleeping pills between them. Would that be enough to keep them unconscious until they froze? She didn’t want them to wake up and suffer. Maybe she should have bought two bottles of pills and given them each a full bottle.

"Nat’lie?"

She blinked and focused on Adam’s face in the mirror. Chuck Berry had finished and a song she didn’t know with heavy guitar rattled the old speakers instead. She wrenched the knob so hard that she thought she’d broken it.

"Nat’lie? Can we have the milk?"

Her hand shook as she twisted the caps off the bottles and passed a bottle back first to Adam, then to Erin. She stuck a hand under her thigh to warm it up, to stop the shivering, but it didn’t work. She turned up the heat instead and put both hands back on the wheel.

"I wish we had glasses instead of bottles," Erin said.

Adam drew a squiggle on the foggy window. "She likes drinking milk, Ôspecially chocolate, Ôcause she gets a moustache like Daddy."

Natalie jerked the wheel too fast around the turn, and the car skidded and spun. Erin shrieked. The car stopped, facing back the way they’d come.

Adam bounced on his seat, and the car rocked. "Do it again!"

Erin sniffled. "I don’t want to do it again."

Natalie cast a longing look at her thumb cuticle, turned the heat down, and clenched both slick palms around the wheel. She eased the car back around to the right direction. "You know why I like drinking milk?"

"Why?" Adam asked.

"It reminds me of pearls."

Erin yawned, then coughed as her last gulp of milk went down the wrong
way. "Pearls aren’t liquid."

"But they’re creamy colored and smooth like milk." Natalie twisted the mirror so that it reflected the road again rather than their faces. "Daddy gave me a string of pearls once."

* * *

Natalie parked her car back from the news vans and police cars, climbed out, and rubbed her cricked neck. She’d tried to convince herself that she felt as though she hadn’t slept because the car was cold and not because she’d heard Adam’s voice calling "Nat’lie" every hour.

After binding the unconscious children with duct tape and leaving them in the snow, she’d driven back down and parked in the lot behind her old high school. Before dawn, the football coach’s diesel truck rumbled up, and he unlocked the school doors so his players could get in for their morning practice. She’d snuck in behind him and used the girls’ locker room to shower and dye her hair.

She fingered a brown strand—still damp. Yesterday in the variety store, her arms full of cookies, milk, water bottles, sleeping pills, and duct tape, slinking to the checkout counter and totaling her selections in her head, she’d bumped into a shelf and sent boxes of hair dye sliding down the aisle and into neighboring shelves. A box of brilliant brunette collided with her foot and stayed there.

The model on the box grinned up at her with hair the color hers had been before she’d left home. Since leaving home, she’d experimented with most natural, and unnatural, colors available. Most recently a bleached blonde to remove the auburn she’d tried before that.

Natalie nudged the box with her toe.

"But Daddy, all my friends are highlighting their hair."

The hair dye model’s smile seemed to shape-shift into a smirk.

"If their parents want their daughters streaking their hair like skunks that’s their choice, but you’re my daughter, not theirs."

"Ma’am?"

Natalie jerked her gaze up to the teenage clerk. He hung back. He’d gathered up all the spilled hair dye boxes except for the one by her foot.

"Are you all right, Ma’am?"

Natalie shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Why did he look as if he thought she might throw the items in her arms at him or as if she might start screaming nonsense and go into a seizer. "Of course."

"Did you drop that box?"

Her gaze slid back to the hair dye model’s siren smile. Yes. Yes. She needed that box too, even if she had to sell herself to make the extra money. She couldn’t go home with obviously dyed hair. She needed to dye it back to her natural color.

She’d finished dyeing her hair that morning before students started to arrive for classes but had to leave with it damp. The hand dryers worked too slowly.

She rolled her neck again, but the stiffness still refused to yield. She threaded her way through the clutter of vehicles until a line of gawkers and police cars blocked her path. A young couple stood on her front yard with a reporter and camera crew, an interview in progress. She didn’t see her parents anywhere. She couldn’t breach the police line until she saw them.

She sidestepped over to a bald man wearing an I’m With Stupid sweatshirt.
"What’s going on?"

"Some pedophile snatched the Millers’ kids. Right off their front lawn while Amanda was on the phone with her sister."

The shiver started behind Natalie’s eyes and sidled down her body to the base of her spine. "How long have you lived here?"

He wrenched his gaze away from the Millers. "’Bout four years."

"Have the Millers lived here long?"

"Two years, if you consider that long."

She raked her nails across her right wrist, once, twice, until the sting calmed the spiraling tension in her forehead. "What happened to the couple who lived here before them?"

"They went bankrupt looking for their daughter." He darted glances toward the Millers without turning his head. "I guess she ran away at sixteen. They hired private investigators, even went to every big city in the state looking for her."

"But they didn’t find her."

"Nope. Not as far as I know. Maybe they’re still looking."

She bit her thumb cuticle; warm blood pooled at the tear and slid seductively down her knuckle.

"I almost bought their house when the bank put it on the market. Good investment, you know. But I’m glad I didn’t now. It’s cursed or haunted or something."

A spatter of frigid rain blew against her face, and she wrapped her arms around her middle. Freezing rain down here meant more snow in the mountains.

The bald man pulled on a toque. "Colder than normal for this time of year."

"They’ll get cold and scared alone."

He frowned at her. "Who’ll get cold and scared alone?"

Natalie spun around and ran to her car. Maybe she could get back to them in time. Maybe they’d survived the night.

She didn’t look at her speedometer as she swerved along the curving roads, returning to where she’d left them; she just pressed the gas pedal down as far as it would go. Snowplows and salting trucks had cleared the road from last night’s snowfall, but the car shuddered and bounced anyway.

The potholed back road forced her to slow down. At last, she hit the brakes, forgetting the clutch. The car stalled out. She abandoned it and sprinted through the trees.

Two snow covered mounds marked the spot where she’d left Adam and Erin.

She sank down beside the larger mound and wiped the snow from Adam’s face with her bare hand. Blue lips. Mottled skin. She shoved her fingers into his neck and searched for a pulse for five minutes. Only cold flesh met her prodding.

She covered Adam’s face back up with fresh snow. Snow insulated. It’d keep him warm. They’d be warm under their blankets of snow. She could join them later if she wanted to. Then she’d be warm too.

She let the car set its own pace back down the mountain. By the time she saw the baseball diamond outside town, the rain had stopped and a scorching late fall sun replaced the clouds.

Queasiness rocked her stomach, and she pulled off into the grass by the break in the fence around the diamond. She rolled down her window and rested her cheek on her forearm on the window still. The nausea eased. Must have been motion sickness from driving the winding roads.

Behind the fence, a blond six-year-old boy swung a bat at a softball thrown underhand by a tall blond man. Natalie squinted against the sun. Adam. He looked like Adam.

"Keep practicing your swing," the man said. "I’ll grab our gloves from the car so we can practice catching next."

The boy swung at an imaginary pitch. "ÔKay."

The man headed off out of sight behind the dugout.

Natalie crept from her car. The boy could be Adam’s doppelganger with his blond hair and endearing smile. The boy had to be Adam. He’d survived the cold night after all. She could bring him back to the Millers.

She stopped in front of him, and he lowered his bat.

"Hi there," she said.

He didn’t answer.

Natalie took one step closer. "Would you like to come with me?"

He shook his head.

She grabbed his arm. "I need to take you home, Adam."

He fought against her. "I’m not Adam."

"This isn’t a game." She dragged him toward her car. "Hold still."

"Daddy!"

"Be quiet."

"Daddy, help!"

The man’s voice replied from a distance.

Natalie wrenched the bat from the boy’s hand, and smashed it into his skull. He screamed for his father, and she hit him again. His body slumped to the ground. She dropped the bat, scooped him up, and scrambled to her car. His legs banged against her.

She tossed him into the back seat and jumped behind the wheel. In her peripheral vision, she glimpsed the man dashing across the diamond and yelling. Gravel spit from under her wheels. The car careened onto the highway. The man chased her down the road until she couldn’t see him anymore.

She drew her first deep breath since she’d talked to the bald man in front of the Millers’ house. Everything would be all right now. She lightened her pressure on the gas pedal and looked back at Adam. He seemed fine, except for the redness wetting his hair and dripping down onto her seat, but she could wash that away before she gave him back to the Millers.

She faced forward. The open highway changed into house-lined streets. She’d take him to the Millers, but first she needed to find Erin too.

Winners

Grand Prize Winner: The Bunker
Horror Winner: When The Bough Breaks
Sci-Fi/Fantasy Winner: Beth
Thriller/Suspense Winner: The Replacements
Mystery/Crime Winner: Three of a Kind
Romance Winner: Casualty

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