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I have a not so small obsession with Kindle Scout, which is run by Amazon and offers publication to a select few novels, but these novels need nominations to be brought to their attention. A few weeks ago, I came across this book and the author’s blog. I, for one, hope to read this one day. Do at least consider taking a look, especially if you enjoy science fiction and fantasy, and nominate this book!

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Gates to Asphodel, Chapter Eleven

In which we hear more from Dimitra and Skyler. And if anyone knows anything about detective work, I’m all ears! Or, more accurately, eyes.

It was midnight when Dimitra found her husband ensconced in the small room across from Corey’s that he liked to call his study. He had painted it a hunter green and hung burgundy curtains that were usually tied back to reveal the backyard full of the small gardens she lovingly tended. Half of the room was taken over by a mahogany desk and swivel chair. Across from the desk was a tall bookcase packed with an assortment of books, from fiction to non-fiction and a few dictionaries. Peeking in, she could see the desk lamp was on as Skyler scanned page after page from a thick file.

Sighing quietly, Dimitra gently pushed the door open enough for her to slip in. Her feet whispered over the dark green carpet and she padded quietly over to stand at his shoulder. A glance out the window told her there were a few tree branches waving around in the chilly winter gusts and she would have to check in the morning to see if stray tree debris had ruined her plants.

“Honey, it’s midnight,” she said softly, pulling the sash of her bathrobe tighter around her waist.

Skyler looked up at her, his eyes tired and a little glassy. He gave her a small smile before leaning back and stretching. He ran his hands through his freshly trimmed hair before resting his hands on top of his head, fingers laced together. His eyes strayed back to the file overflowing with paper and pictures. Dimitra’s eyes fell with his.

“Do you really have to look at these now?” she asked, reaching forward to pick up a picture of Annie Fallon’s body lying exposed in her own bed. “They’re so gruesome.”

Gently, Skyler pried the picture from his wife’s hands and put it back on the table.

“I can’t help but think I’m missing something.”

A giggle drifted over to them from Corey’s bedroom. Both of them turned to look over at the office door, but no one appeared.

“Do you have to do this while Terese is sleeping over?” Dimitra asked.

“I can’t get it out of my head, Dimitra. You know I can’t sleep when something gets stuck there.”

Dimitra sighed and plopped herself down on her husband’s lap. There was a perfectly good mahogany chair across the desk, but it didn’t have a cushion and she wanted to be comfortable. Her husband’s arms wrapped around her waist.

“Talk to me,” Dimitra gently demanded.

“I don’t know too much,” he admitted, “and that’s what’s driving me crazy. I don’t know what’s going on and I don’t know why we can’t find a trace of anything. We don’t even have a shred of DNA. Nothing, Dimitra. It’s driving us all crazy. We have six identical murders. There’s Corey’s biological parents and her first adopted father, one of her school teachers, and two classmates. I don’t know what they could have in common, but they were all killed the same way. It looks like they all had claw marks on them, claw marks that look identical down to the last jag.”

Dimitra shivered in his arms and leaned her head on his shoulder. “This is far too gruesome to look at tonight, Sky. Please come to bed. We’re supposed to take the girls to their skiing lesson early in the morning.”

Skyler looked down at the papers and pictures. “Yeah. I know. Just give me a little longer and then I’ll come to bed, okay?”

“Okay. But if you’re not in bed in the next hour, I will come back and drag you to bed, do you hear me?”

He gave her a tired smile. “I promise. Now go get your rest.”

“Speak for yourself,” Dimitra muttered as he gave her a kiss on her cheek.

Dimitra slid from his lap and walked towards the door. She placed her hand on the door knob before turning back. Skyler was already back to his file, skimming through two pages at the same time. He didn’t even notice when she slipped out of the room and closed the door behind her.

Closing her eyes for a second, she leaned against the closed door and took a deep breath. She wanted to know who had killed all those people as much as Sky did, but she couldn’t help but think that if they hadn’t been killed, she and Sky wouldn’t be parents right now.

She opened her eyes and looked across the hall at Corey’s closed door. She loved the girl to pieces and just wanted to enjoy her, not try to piece together the murders of six people who had known her. Trust Skyler to be obsessed with something like that.

Sighing, Dimitra pushed herself from the door and went across the hall. Knocking, she opened the door and found herself peering into a brightly lit room where the two girls were pretending to have a tea party. They had a couple of teddy bears sitting at the little round table and were occupying the other two chairs. They all wore big floppy hats and had a tea set laid out. Terese and Corey were holding up their tea cups, pinkies extended. Both girls turned to look at Dimitra as she stepped into the room.

Terese giggled and her floppy hat fell forward to cover her eyes. Corey put down her cup and giggled, putting a hand to her mouth.

“You look silly, Terese,” Corey said. All they could see was the blond girl’s broad grin. “It’s just my mom.”

“Shouldn’t you two be in bed?” Dimitra asked. “You have an early morning tomorrow.”

Terese pulled the hat off of her head, blond strands flying around her face. “We know. We’re taking skiing lessons. I’m so excited.”

“Me, too,” Corey said. “Don’t worry, Mom. We’ll go to bed soon.”

“Make sure you do, okay? I’m waking you two up at eight sharp. Got it?”

“Yes, Mrs. Adams,” Terese said seriously. Corey nodded.

Dimitra gave them a pointed look before withdrawing from the room. She could hear the two girld giggling as she closed the door and shook her head. Corey was getting to be as bad as Skyler. Giving the office door one last look, she headed down the hall to go back to bed.

* * *
Skyler gathered the pictures together and arranged them in chronological order. Annie and Don Fallon, separately and together. Sandra Connors. Patricia Reddy. Alice Allen. Andrew Marks. Three of them had been Corey’s parents and three had been associated with her at school. Sandra and Patricia had been Corey’s classmates for just a couple of days and Alice Allen had been her teacher for one. The two girls hadn’t even known Corey, at least according to their parents and all of Mrs. Allen’s students had claimed she had been far from kind. Skyler knew Corey knew something, but she still wouldn’t speak up. Every time the subject came up, she always clammed up.

“What do you know, Corey?” he whispered to himself. “What am I missing that you know?”

He couldn’t even get her to confirm that she had known Sandra and Patricia. He had a hunch that if he knew more about Corey’s relationships with all the victims, he would be able to solve this case and put the murderer behind bars. Then Corey would be safe forever.

Skyler put the pictures aside. They weren’t going to tell him anything more tonight. Dimitra was right; they were gruesome to look at. The flesh looked like it had been shredded and blood had pooled under the bodies. The necks of the two girls looked like they had been snapped. Their faces were covered in claw marks. None of the victims seemed to have known they were being killed; they all looked like they had been sleeping peacefully while someone or something was murdering them.

He picked up the reports. Here was all the information he had gathered. Annie Fallon had adored her daughter, but seemed a little distant. Don Fallon had been refusing to accept Corey was his daughter, according to Mrs. Appleton. The girls had been popular in school. Alice Allen was a hard teacher, but her students were usually well disciplined and were very intelligent third graders. Though, come to think of it, he recalled sensing some fear from some of the second and third grade students when her name was brought up. Andrew Marks had seemed like a loving father, but he had become violent and an alcoholic after losing his job.

So much information, but no leads. It was starting to drive him crazy.

He looked at his watch. Almost an hour had passed. He sighed and packed up the file before putting it away. He stood and turned off the desk lamp, letting the moonlight stream in through the open window. Snow was falling outside, perfect for tomorrow’s skiing lesson. Troubled, but exhausted, he walked out of his office. Stopping to press his ear to Corey’s door, he didn’t hear anything. There were no lights shining from under the door.

Quietly, Skyler turned the knob and pushed the door open. He peeked in. Corey was curled up on her bed, hugging her teddy bear close. Terese was snuggled up in a sleeping bag next to Corey’s bed. Both girls were breathing evenly and looked to be in deep sleep. Smiling, he closed the door and headed for his own bed. The hour was almost over and he didn’t want Dimitra to have to rouse herself again.

Gates to Asphodel, Chapter Nine

“Welcome to your new home!” Dimitra Adams said cheerfully from the doorway of a quaint, pale blue house surrounded by rose bushes.

Corey smiled and bounded up the front stairs, towards her new mother. Dimitra was a petite woman with long black hair tumbling down to her waist in curls. Her eyes were a deep green and she wore green framed glasses. She was dressed in a lavender shirt and jeans and had a light blue apron tied around her waist. Her arms were wide open and she bent down to receive her new daughter.

Corey hugged the woman tightly. All the way, Skylar had talked about his wife, about how giving, gentle, and understanding she was. She was also excited about adopting Corey, considering she’d always wanted a little girl.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Dimitra said into Corey’s ear as she hugged the girl close.

Behind Corey, Skylar had a couple of duffle bags slung over his shoulders. Corey’s teddy bear was tucked under one arm. He smiled as he approached his wife and new daughter.

“Okay, you two, let’s go inside. I’m sure Dimitra is looking forward to showing Corey her new room.”

Dimitra finally released Corey and straightened up. “It’s a lovely room, Corey. There’s tons of morning light in there since Skylar said you like the sunshine.”

Corey nodded, her long hair falling in her eyes. Dimitra reached out and pushed back the long lock, giving the young girl a gentle, tender smile. Then she took Corey’s hand and led her inside, Skylar following behind.

“Something smells yummy,” Corey commented as they walked through the house.

Dimitra smiled down at her. “Skylar said you like banana nut muffins, so I made some for you as a welcome present.”

Corey smiled back at her new mother and skipped alongside her. “I haven’t had banana nut muffins in four years. Helen wasn’t much of a baker.”

“I hope you like these.”

Corey grinned up at her. “I think I will.”

Behind them, Skylar chuckled. “Okay, you two, let’s keep moving.”

Dimitra smiled and gently put a hand on Corey’s back. She steered the girl down a hallway towards a closed door. There was an open door about halfway down the hall towards the closed one. Behind them, Skyler grunted as he shifted the strap of one of the duffle bags.

“Here we are,” Dimitra said brightly as they came to the open door. “Go ahead and take a look.”

Gently, Dimitra pushed Corey forward as Skyler edged around them to put down the duffle bags. The little girl took a few tentative steps onto the pale pink carpet. She took a few minutes to look around, taking in the lavender and white bed filled with stuffed animals, a little white table piled high with books, a white dresser with a mirror, and a nightstand with a delicate crystal lamp. Finished with her initial perusal, she turned around to face Dimitra and Skyler, who both gave her encouraging nods and smiles.

Awed by the sunny room with its pale pink paint, Corey wandered a little further in, eyes wide. She brushed her fingers against the comforter covered with entwining pink flowers and spied the window seat covered with lavender cushions embroidered with white flowers. She squealed excitedly and climbed up onto it. Peering out the window, she found that it faced the front of the house. Peering past the front lawn, a tingle of excitement ran down her spine as she recognized the house across the street. Excited, she whipped her head around to face her new parents and pointed out the window.

“My friend Terese lives right across the street!”

Skyler smiled. “I guess we picked the right house to live in, then.”

“We already told your friend we were adopting you,” Dimitra said. “Her mother said it was okay for her to come over tonight after dinner.”

Corey clapped her hands excitedly and ran to her new parents. She gave Skyler a big hug before turning to Dimitra.

“Thank you,” she said shyly. “And thank you for my bedroom. It’s beautiful.”

Dimitra hugged her back tightly. “We’re glad you like it. Would you like to take a nap or have a muffin?”

“Muffin first, please!” Corey said brightly.

Corey quickly shrugged off her backpack and let it fall to the floor. She took Dimitra’s offered hand and the three of them headed for the kitchen. As they walked along, a soft smile spread across Corey’s face. For the first time, she finally felt at home, at peace, and happy. She silently hoped nothing would destroy this newfound happiness, at least not for a while.

It was a brightly lit kitchen opening up to an informal dining area and the living room. The counters were a shining pale blue and everything looked like new. Corey was tickled to see the cabinet handles looked like little cats. Smiling, Dimitra sat her new daughter on one of the stools at the breakfast bar. Skyler settled himself beside her while his wife went to retrieve the muffins from where they were keeping warm in the oven.

“Here you go,” Dimitra said, setting down a plate with a muffin on it in front of Corey. “Would you like something to drink?”

“Could I have some water, please?”

“Of course.” She turned to her husband. “Muffin?”

Skyler shrugged. “Sure. I’m hungry.”

Dimitra smiled at him and turned to get a glass of water and a second muffin. In the meantime, Skyler turned to Corey. The little girl was eagerly chewing away at the muffin. He blinked and was reminded of when he had first met Cora Iris Fallon. She had been gnawing on a banana nut muffin, legs swinging from a porch swing. He blinked again as his wife put a plate in front of him and a glass in front of Corey before leaning across from them, peeling the wrapper from her own muffin. He turned back to Corey, who was eagerly taking a huge bite from the muffin. The girl had grown up a lot in the past four years. Four years….

“I’m sorry we haven’t been able to find who murdered your parents,” Skyler said abruptly.

At his words, Corey turned to look up at him, her mouth full and eyes wide. Across from them, Dimitra had stopped with her muffin halfway to her mouth, eyes likewise wide.

“Sky,” Dimitra said softly, “do you have to bring that up now?”

“I’m sorry, honey, but watching Corey eat her muffin reminds me of when I first met her.” He swung his gaze to his new daughter. “You were only four, Corey. So young to be orphaned. We never found who did it.”

Slowly, her eyes trained on him, Corey chewed and swallowed her bite and put her muffin down. She put her hands in her lap and folded them before turning her now serious eyes up to her new father.

“That’s okay, Skyler,” she said seriously. “I loved my parents, but they weren’t the best. Helen and Andy were wonderful for the first three and a half years before Andy got scary. I loved them, too, but I don’t miss them. I hope I’ll love you two, too.”

Skyler reached out and gently tucked a strand of her brown hair behind her ear. He smiled gently. “I hope so, too. Do you happen to know anything about their deaths?”

“Sky,” Dimitra said quietly, entreatingly.

He glanced at his wife and flashed her a smile. She sighed and wandered over to the trash to throw away the muffin wrapper. Skyler turned back to Corey, who was still regarding him with serious brown eyes.

“Corey?” he asked encouragingly.

She pursed her lips and shook her head, sending her hair flying around her face. “No. I don’t know anything.”

And with that, Corey turned back to her muffin and picked it up. Skyler watched as she took a big bite before turning to finish his own. He had the feeling Corey knew something, but wasn’t sure how far he could push, or how far Dimitra would let him push.

* * *
After dinner, Corey immediately went to kneel on the window seat and stared out into the darkness, waiting patiently for Terese to arrive. Dimitra was washing the dinner dishes while Skyler was reclining in front of the TV. She could hear her new mother humming above the sound of the rushing water and the low voices speaking from the TV. It was soothing and she idly wondered if Dimitra would hum to her when she put her to bed.

“There she is!” Corey suddenly cried out. She climbed down and ran over to Skyler to tug on his sleeve. “Skyler, Terese and her mom are almost here. Can we open the door?”

Skyler turned and smiled at her before putting down the remote control and rising. “Okay. Let’s go.”

Corey skipped ahead of him and waited patiently by the door for him to catch up to her. Skyler chuckled as he took his time catching up to her. As he slowly made his way over to her, Corey began to bounce on her toes impatiently. She knew she could unlock the door herself, but wasn’t sure if it was allowed. They had, after all, decided to put off laying down the ground rules until tomorrow, after Corey had settled in.

“What are you doing?” Dimitra asked, emerging from the kitchen, drying her hands with a towel. She was eyeing her husband curiously and tossed the towel over her shoulder.

“Terese and her mom are almost here,” Skyler explained. “Corey’s a little impatient.”

Dimitra smiled and folded her arms across her chest. “And do you think our guests would like some cookies?”

Corey nodded. “Terese loves peanut butter cookies. She likes sugar cookies, too, and chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin. I don’t know what her mother likes.”

Dimitra laughed and held up her hands. “It’s a good thing I knew there were going to be a couple of kids tonight. I have sugar cookies in the oven and a cookie jar full of homemade chocolate chip cookies. Do you think Terese will like iced tea?”

Corey nodded enthusiastically. “She sure does! Her mother makes it every summer. It’s really good tea and she puts a mint leaf in the glasses every time. Did you know they grow mint in their backyard?” Her smile slipped a little. “It smells nice, but I don’t really like it as much as they do.”

Dimitra shared a quiet smile with Corey. “It’s a good thing I have some mint in my garden, too. I’ll go get some cookies and iced tea for everyone, but I’ll be careful to leave a glass without any mint for you.”

Corey grinned and ran to give her a tight hug. Then she dashed back to the front door as Skyler pulled it open. Terese and her mother were walking up the steps as the door opened up before them. As soon as the two girls spotted each other, Terese squealed and dashed into the house to give her friend a hug. Corey held on to her just as tightly. Terese’s mother smiled and continued walking up the steps. Reaching the door, she held out her hand to Skyler.

“It’s funny that we live across the street, but never introduced ourselves,” she said in a quiet voice. “I’m Lisa Flynn, Terese’s mother.”

Skyler shook her hand and gestured for her to step inside. He closed the door and turned to face her as she looked around the living room, appearing to look for someone.

“Skyler Adams,” he said. “My wife, Dimitra, is getting some cookies and iced tea.”

Lisa turned to him and smiled. “Sounds delicious. My daughter loves cookies.” She gestured into the air. “I can smell the sugar cookies.”

Skyler gestured for her to have a seat. “Come, have a seat.”

Lisa looked around and spotted her daughter and Corey at the dining table where Dimitra had set out some plain paper, coloring supplies, glue, glitter, and uncooked rice. Corey was making glue circles and sprinkling glitter over it while Terese had taken a green marker and was furiously coloring the bottom of a paper. She smiled and followed Skyler over to the couch, where they could watch the two girls. Dimitra waved to them from where she stood in the kitchen, pouring some iced tea into a glass. She emerged from the kitchen a moment later, carrying a plate of cookies and two glasses. With a smile, she set them before the girls.

“Here you go,” she said softly. “Sugar and chocolate chip cookies and iced tea with mint, Terese. Corey said you mother makes iced tea like that.”

The girl lifted her head of long blond hair and nodded enthusiastically. “Uh huh! Thank you, Mrs. Adams.”

Dimitra gave them one last smile before returning to the kitchen. A moment later, she re-emerged with a tray bearing more cookies and three glasses of tea. Smiling at the girls as she walked past, she walked into the living room and set the tray on the coffee table before taking a seat beside Lisa on the couch.

“Help yourself,” Dimitra said, gesturing to the tray.

“Thanks. This looks delicious. My son will regret not coming over with us,” Lisa said with a laugh as she reached for a warm sugar cookie. “He said he didn’t want to have to deal with girls all night, so my husband had to stay home with him.”

“That’s a shame,” Dimitra said. “I’m sure we’ll be meeting the rest of the family eventually, though. How old is your son?”

“Eleven.” Lisa glanced over to where the two girls were giggling and gluing rice to their papers. “I’m glad Corey is living with you. She’s such a darling child who has gone through too much.” Lisa shook her head and took a sip of tea. “I hope she’s happy here.”

“We do, too,” Dimitra said. “We always did want kids. Corey is kind of a god send to us. I love her like my own already. Especially since Skyler’s been in contact with her periodically over the past four years. He talked about her all the time and still regrets not being able to find the monster that killed her biological parents.”

Dimitra cast a sad look in Skyler’s direction. He made a grimace just as Corey had whipped her head around to look at the three adults. She was staring at them with serious eyes, her face just as serious and mirthless.

“It was a monster who killed my parents,” Corey said clearly, drawing their attention.

“Of course it was, sweetie,” Dimitra said. “We firmly believe all murderers are monsters.”

“No,” Corey said, stressing the word. “It was a monster who killed them. I know it was.”

“Corey,” Skyler said, “would you like to talk about this?”

The question silenced her. Abruptly, she shut her mouth and pursed her lips. Giving a quick shake of her head, she turned back to her art and picked the glue up again.

Dimitra shared a look with her husband. He shook his head and reached for a glass. He took a long drink before putting it back down. Lisa was staring into her glass, appearing to be lost in her thoughts.

“It’s okay,” Dimitra said quietly to no one in particular.

Gates to Asphodel, Chapter 8

One and a half years later

Corey huddled on her bed, arms wrapped tightly around her teddy bear, face buried in the bear’s fur. Outside, the summer heat was stifling, even at night. The moon was bright as it neared the midnight hour and a gentle breeze wafted through Corey’s bedroom.

It was late, but Helen was still awake, still waiting for Andy to get home, even though she knew he was likely going to yell at and hit her again. Andy had lost his job six months before and, now with their finances in chaos, he had been getting drunk almost every night since. Drinking made him violent and Corey knew Helen only put herself in his way so he wouldn’t hurt their daughter. Corey only wished Helen would take her and run. Andy was starting to really scare her.

A door slammed and Corey shuddered. She hurriedly got under the covers and pulled them over her head, still hugging her teddy bear tightly.

“Get out of my way,” a drunk Andy said, his words slurring and hardly coherent.

“Andy, she’s sleeping,” Helen said, her voice full of panic.

“Get out of my way,” Andy said again, his voice closer this time.

“Andy, please,” Helen pleaded.

Corey heard flesh hit flesh before something heavy fell against a wall accompanied by a deep groan. She drew in a deep breath and held it as she heard Andy start his nightly abuse, this time physical. Tears welled in her eyes. Helen was trying to protect her, but at a high price. Corey only prayed Andy wouldn’t be sending his wife to the hospital again.

“Andy, don’t do this,” Helen pleaded weakly.

“You can’t tell me what to do,” Andy said, his voice harsh.

Corey shivered under the covers, not even noticing the heat. They didn’t have any money for the electric bill, so there was no air conditioning. She squeezed her teddy bear tighter and dried her tears against the soft fur.

“Please,” Helen pled, her voice sounding weaker, pained.

Corey heard another heavy thunk as flesh hit flesh. It was followed by a heavy thud and then silence filled the house. Corey held her breath, expecting to hear something else. But the house remained silent. Slowly she breathed in deeply and released each breath, letting her tension seep from her body with every exhale. She hoped her mother was okay and that she would just find her parents sleeping in the hallway in the morning, as she had before. Tightly closing her eyes, she willed herself to sleep.

*
Morning came too quickly for Corey, but she knew she had only slept for six hours, having fallen asleep after midnight. Sunlight streamed into her room as she popped her head out from under the covers. She stretched as she welcomed the morning and gave her teddy bear a kiss before hopping out of bed. She put her slippers on and shuffled over to the door.

Please let everything be okay, she thought as she put her hand on the door knob. Helen will be in bed and Andy will be sleeping on the floor.

Corey turned the knob and pulled the door open. Casting one last look at her teddy bear half under the bed covers, she walked out of her room and turned to head down the hall.

The sight of two bloodied bodies stopped her. She blinked at the man and woman lying there, eyes wide open. Helen had a pool of blood under her head, her face frozen in a mask of horror, but otherwise looked unmarked. Andy, on the other hand, looked the same as her biological parents had when they had been murdered.

Corey pursed her lips, realizing Andy had probably accidentally killed his wife and he had been killed by whatever had killed her parents, classmates, and teacher. She cast a sad look at the bodies, feeling a pang in her heart. Helen and Andy had been great parents for the past four years. She was sad they were gone, and wondered what was going to happen to her this time. Would she be adopted again? Would anyone want to adopt her now that she’d lost two sets of parents?

She didn’t know what was going to happen to her, but she knew what she had to do. Walking back into her bedroom, she headed for her nightstand and pulled open the drawer. Leaning over, she rifled through her collection of papers, seashells, and rocks. Finally, she found Detective Skylar Adams’ card.

Clasping the card tightly in her small fingers, she left her room and headed downstairs. She reached for the phone sitting on the kitchen counter, the thing Helen had called a disposable cell phone, and fumbled with it for a few minutes, trying to figure out how to use it. Finally flipping it open to the number pad, she quickly punched in the detective’s number.

“Detective Adams,” a male voice said.

“Hello, Detective Adams,” Corey said primly. “This is Corey Fallon Marks.”

“Corey,” he repeated, and she could sense she had gotten his full attention. “What can I do for you? Are you doing okay?”

“Detective,” Corey said, “you need to come to my house right away.”

“Is something wrong?”

“Please come to my house right away. The address is 118 Dashwood Road.”

“Corey, wait,” Skylar said, but he was cut off as Corey hung up the phone.

Putting the phone away, Corey turned and headed back upstairs. She stepped around the bodies and went into her bedroom to retrieve her teddy bear. Hugging the bear close, she headed back down the stairs to wait for the detective. She settled herself on the couch, wondering where her parents kept the remote control for the TV. After a few minutes of scanning the room, she finally gave up and waited patiently for the police to arrive.

Fifteen minutes passed before banging woke her from her reverie. She looked up sharply and realized someone was knocking on the door. Quickly, she hopped off of the couch and shuffled over to the front door. Still holding her teddy bear close, she turned the knob and pulled the door open.

Almost immediately, Detective Adams and several officers swept into the house. The detective knelt down before Corey. He looked about the same to Corey, with the same brown hair and light brown eyes, but there were more lines on his face.

“Corey, what happened? Where are your parents?”

Wordlessly, Corey turned towards the stairs and pointed upwards. With a motion, Skylar indicated two officers should go upstairs. After leaving Corey in the care of a male officer, he followed the other two up the stairs. Corey looked up at the tall officer and he smiled down at her.

“Want to go sit down?” he asked pleasantly.

Corey nodded and took his hand. She led him into the living room and then settled herself on the couch. She perched her teddy bear on her knees, then patted the cushion beside her own. A little awkwardly, the officer sat beside her, turning to look over his shoulder to where the other officers were milling.

Several minutes later, Skylar headed back down the stairs and over to Corey and the officer. His face was grim and he was peeling off some gloves. He knelt in front of Corey as the officer rose and was instructed to gather evidence. Gently, Skylar took Corey’s hands and warmed them with his own.

“Corey, I need you to tell me what happened,” he said seriously.

“I don’t know what happened,” Corey said, her eyes wide and unblinking.

“What do you know?”

Corey shrugged. “I was in bed when Andy got home.” She hesitated. “Andy lost his job six months ago. He started drinking a lot and has been coming home to verbally or physically abuse Helen.”

Skylar drew in a deep breath and rose up in order to sit next to the little girl. “Corey, this is very serious. You’re only eight. How do you know words like that?”

Corey shrugged, lifting one shoulder. She gazed down at her teddy bear and played around with one arm. “I don’t know,” she finally whispered. “But I know Helen was only trying to protect me. Last night, Andy came home at around midnight. I was still awake. He started heading for my bedroom, but Helen stopped him. I think he hit her and killed her. Then I heard another thud and then the house was silent. I thought everything was okay, so I went to sleep. When I woke up and left my room, I found both of them lying in the hall.”

Skylar took a deep breath and ran a hand through his hair and over his face. Corey stared up at him, her head tilted to the side.

“What happens to me now?” Corey asked.

“I don’t know, Corey,” he said honestly. “With your history and your age, I don’t know how likely it will be that you’ll be adopted again.”

Corey scooted closer to him, her eyes still trained on him. “Do you have any kids, Skylar?”

He gave her a startled look. “No. But I know my wife wants kids,” he said, realization dawning on him. “I’m not sure how easy it will be for me to adopt you, but I know my wife would love you. It’ll also give me the opportunity to watch out for you. Corey, I need to do something about all these deaths. I think maybe you can help me, and I can take care of you.”

She gave him a shy smile. “What’s your wife’s name?”

“Dimitra.”

Corey’s smile widened. “I want you to be my new father. Will you adopt me?”

With a lopsided smile, he put an arm around her. “It won’t be easy and I’ll have to talk to Dimitra, but I hope so.”

“Will it be soon?”

“As soon as we can make it, okay?”

With a satisfied smile, Corey nodded. For the first time, she felt like she had finally found a home, a family.

“Would you like to see Helen and Andy one more time before we take them away?” he asked gently.

Silently, Corey shook her head. “I loved Helen and Andy. They were wonderful parents. But I don’t want to see them like that again. I don’t need to see another set of dead parents.”

Skylar drew in a deep breath and rose to his feet. Just as he was turning away, Corey grabbed part of his coat, making him stop and turn.

“Are you going to regret adopting me because two sets of parents have died on me?” she asked, eyes large and scared.

Smiling gently, Skylar knelt down on one knee. “No, sweetheart. I don’t think so. Besides, having you as my daughter will help me take care of you and make sure you’re okay.”

“But who will take care of you?”

“I can take care of myself. Now. I’m going to go take care of the scene and then we’ll take care of you, okay?”

Reluctantly, Corey let go of his coat and nodded. Smiling, Skylar ruffled her still messy hair and walked off. Corey bit her lip and hugged her teddy bear, resting her cheek on top of the bear’s head. She hoped everything would be okay and that no one else was going to die. She wasn’t sure how many more deaths she could handle. It was getting tiring to have so many bodies popping up all around her. She just hoped it would all stop as soon as she was adopted by Skylar and Dimitra Adams.

Gates to Asphodel, Chapter 7

Corey groaned and turned over in bed. The sun was just beginning to rise, so she knew it was early, too early to be awake. But she’d spent most of the night awake. The image of Mrs. Allen staring her straight in the eye wouldn’t leave her head. She wasn’t looking forward to her second day of school.

She shut her eyes tightly, willing herself back to sleep, for those last few blissful hours. Oh, how she wished it were summer still! Or that she was in the third grade already. The current third graders were already raving about Mr. Thomas. He was supposed to be one of the best teachers in the school.

Corey shuddered and turned back over. The third graders had also said Mrs. Allen only gets worse as the year goes on. Helen had tried to console her when she got home from school yesterday, saying Mrs. Allen was sure to become nicer as they year went along. Sadly, Corey already knew that wasn’t to be.

She sighed and snuggled down, holding her teddy bear close to her heart. She closed her eyes and let her mind wander, trying to focus on anything other than Mrs. Allen and her ruler.

“Corey, sweetie, time to wake up,” came Helen’s melodic voice.

Slowly, Corey opened her eyes. Sunlight was now streaming in through her windows. She sighed and stretched, thankful she had finally fallen asleep. Unfortunately, she was now exhausted.

“Corey,” her mother repeated, accompanying her voice with a light tap on the door. When Corey didn’t respond, Helen opened the door and stepped inside. “Corey, honey, come on and get up. You don’t want to be late for your second day of school.”

She warily eyed her mother for a moment and then turned over onto her side. “I don’t feel good,” she moaned.

Helen tsked. “Corey, I know you’re faking. You’re a terrible actress. I know you don’t like Mrs. Allen, but, you never know, she might be nice today. You have fifteen minutes before your breakfast will be ready.”

“I don’t want to go,” Corey complained, pouting all the while.

Helen crossed her arms. “Cora Iris Marks, you have fifteen minutes to get up and get dressed before I come back up and dress you myself.”

Corey groaned, but obediently rolled out of bed. Helen smiled and kissed her daughter’s cheek before leaving the girl to dress herself. Corey dragged herself over to her closet and slowly pulled her clothes on. Helen called up to her every five minutes and she forced herself to reply. She didn’t want her father dressing her.

Dressed, hair brushed, and backpack slung over one shoulder, Corey trotted down the stairs and sighed her way into the kitchen. Her parents were seated at the table, both already almost finished with their breakfasts. Her father had his face hidden from behind the newspaper as he sipped from his coffee mug. Just as Corey sat, he snapped the paper closed and folded it. Taking a last sip of coffee, he put the paper down and got up.

“Have to get going,” Andy said, kissing his wife and daughter in turn.

“Do I feel warm to you?” Corey asked as her father’s lips left her forehead.

Andy ruffled the ends of her hair. “Sorry, honey, you still have to go to school.”

Corey sighed and slouched down in her seat. She picked at her toast and eggs as her father walked out the door. She listened as his car started up and then pulled out of the driveway. She spent another five minutes picking at her food while her mother cleaned up the dishes and the sink.

“Okay, let’s go,” Helen said pleasantly as she dried her hands.

Corey hopped off of her chair and picked up her backpack, grumbling quietly to herself as she slung it over her shoulders. She lagged behind Helen as they headed out the door and over to the car. The drive to the school was too short for Corey’s liking and, before she knew it, she was walking through the school gates, dragging her feet as she trudged along.

“Corey!” Terese called out, jumping and waving from their classroom door.

Corey smiled and waved back. Terese was the only thing that brightened her days, especially now that they were both in Mrs. Allen’s classroom. She quickly joined her friend, who immediately grabbed her arm and dragged her into the classroom.

Corey blinked at the open door as she followed Terese inside. “Why is the door open? I thought Mrs. Allen said she wouldn’t open the door early.”

“I know,” Terese said, her voice hushed. “The principal’s in there waiting for everyone to arrive. Mrs. Allen isn’t here yet.”

“What?” Corey whispered as she and Terese took their seats. Corey dropped her bag to the floor and turned in her seat. She glanced over to where the principal sat at Mrs. Allen’s desk. “I hope nothing’s wrong. I don’t like Mrs. Allen, but I hope nothing bad happened to her.”

Terese nodded enthusiastically, blond hair falling across her face. With one hand, she swept her hair back. “I know! We just have to wait a little longer.”

Five minutes later, the last student wandered in and took his seat. The principal rose from the desk and slowly went to close the door, her heels clicking on the floor the only sound in the room while everyone looked at each other, wondering where their teacher was. There was a brief flurry of rising voices before they abruptly quieted as the principal headed for the front of the classroom.

“Is Mrs. Allen sick?” one boy ventured, raising his hand as he spoke. “Ms. Walton, is Mrs. Allen sick? Will she be here today?”

As she walked, Ms. Walton turned slightly to him and brought a finger to her lips. The boy quieted and put his hand down. Ms. Walton continued to walk, drawing everyone’s eyes with her. Finally, she stood before them all, hands folded in front of her, looking severe and serious in a black pant suit.

“I’m afraid I have bad news,” she began. “As you can tell, Mrs. Allen is not here today. Unfortunately, she won’t be returning ever again.”

Corey and her classmates turned to each other and their voices rose in excitement. A year without Mrs. Allen? They never thought they would ever be so fortunate!

Ms. Walton held up a hand to quiet them. “The school has been struck with a tragedy. Early this morning, Mr. Allen awoke to find his wife missing from their bed. He found her in the kitchen, dead.”

Corey gasped, along with the rest of her class, and clasped a hand over her mouth. Her eyes were wide with terror. It had happened again. Trembling, she raised her hand.

“Ms. Walton,” she asked, her voice quivering, “was it a terrible death?”

At those words, Ms. Walton immediately walked over to Corey’s desk and knelt down. She and Corey shared an intense gaze for a moment before Ms. Walton had to blink.

“Corey, right? Do you know something?”

Slowly, Corey shook her head. “I don’t know. Please, Ms. Walton, was it a terrible death?”

Mutely, the principal nodded. She spoke in hushed tones to keep everyone else from hearing. “It looked like an animal had killed her. Do you know something?”

Corey nodded. “My biological parents and two of my classmates last year were killed the same way.”

Ms. Walton grasped Corey’s arm. “I remember the girls had been your classmates. Is there anything you can tell the police to help them solve these murders? ”

Corey bit her bottom lip and shook her head. “I just happen to know the people who die. I don’t know who has been doing the killing.”

The principal forced a smile and gently squeezed Corey’s arm. She rose. “That’s okay. But if you know anything, make sure you tell Detective Skyler Adams, okay?”

Corey nodded and Ms. Walton returned to the front of the class. She spent a few more minutes letting them know they were being sent home, but to return to school the next day. Until a replacement could be found, they would be instructed by substitute teachers. If their parents had any questions, they were instructed to contact the school and Ms. Walton would be more than happy to talk to them.

“Well, it’s another interesting start to a school year,” Terese said as she, Corey, and Stacy walked towards the school gates to wait for their parents to arrive. “I just wonder why they all died.”

Corey nodded and bowed her head slightly, wondering if it could, in some way, be her fault. After all, it had been her parents, two girls who had been mean to her, and a teacher who had scared the living daylights out of her.

“It is a little scary,” Stacy said. She frowned. “I’m glad we won’t be taught by Mrs. Allen, but to have her die?” Stacy shook her head. “I’m not sure if my parents will let me stay in this school after this.”

“Well, you’ll find out soon enough,” Terese said, pointing to where a woman who looked like Stacy was waving from a car window.

“That’s my mom,” Stacy said. “See you tomorrow.”

With a wave, Stacy bounded off to the car and climbed in. The door slammed shut and the car drove off.

Terese rested a hand on Corey’s shoulder. “Are you okay, Corey? You look kind of funny.”

“I’m okay.”

Terese nodded and they stood side by side for a few minutes, just watching the rest of their classmates being picked up. Terese already knew her mother would be a little late and Corey knew a neighbor was going to pick her up and watch her until her mother got home.

Helen had called to say a neighbor would be picking Corey up and she had been a little hysterical on the phone. Obviously, this latest death had really rattled her. For Corey, Mrs. Allen’s murder wasn’t too different from the murders of Corey’s classmates the year before. She couldn’t believe the school had been struck by another death. Helen had also started blathering about transferring Corey to another school. After a quick good-bye, Corey had hung up the phone.

“That’s my mom,” Terese said. “See you tomorrow?”

Corey nodded distractedly. After sharing a smile with her friend, Terese hurried to her mother’s car and climbed in. Corey was left with a couple of other students. They all stood alone, just waiting and wondering. She knew she was in shock, but she wondered if her classmates were in shock, too.

“Corey!” a voice called out.

Corey’s head shot up. The neighbor’s daughter, a young woman somewhere in her twenties who was taking care of her sick father, was waving to her. Corey smiled. She liked Anna and she liked helping her take care of Mr. Peters. She knew she was going to enjoy this afternoon.

Brightening, Corey ran over to Anna’s car and climbed in.

“Ready for an afternoon with my parents?” Anna asked brightly.

Enthusiastically, Corey nodded as she buckled up in the back seat. “I can’t wait! I like your parents.”

Anna chuckled and shifted the car into drive.

Gates to Asphodel, Chapter 6

Corey had some misgivings about the new school year. Her parents had discussed moving again, but they hadn’t wanted to put their daughter through more changes. It was bad enough that two of her classmates had died tragically the year before. The only real reason they had for not moving, though, was Terese. Through everything, the little blond girl hadn’t left Corey’s side and Helen and Andy knew how much Corey needed a friend. But, sometimes, Corey wished they could move far away and get away from all the weird deaths. The other kids kept looking at her like she was sick or crazy or something.

That, and it was bad enough they’d heard some bad stories about their second grade teacher.

Mrs. Allen was a middle-aged woman with glasses who never smiled. Ever. She always wore her graying brown hair back in a severe, and painful looking, bun on the back of her head. She always dressed in dark slacks and had button down shirts neatly tucked in. Over it all was a hip length gray sweater. She always looked a little scary on the playground and the students usually tried to avoid her.

Back in May, when Corey’s class was getting excited about starting a new grade in the fall, the current second graders had whispered stories about the woman. She was supposed to be mean and demanding and didn’t mind piling on the homework. Apparently, she also carried around a wooden ruler in her back pocket and never hesitated at whipping it out even though it wasn’t allowed anymore. The second graders also claimed Mrs. Allen screamed and yelled at them a lot, but most students were too afraid to go to the principal, or even their parents, about her. She always said she would make their lives a living hell if they ever said a word about her. So, the second graders were reduced to whispering stories and warnings to the first graders and thus it had been for the past six years.

Morning on the first day of school was bright and sunny, but Corey only threw her covers over her head and hugged her teddy bear tight, rolling onto her side and ignoring how hot and stifling it was becoming under the sheets and comforter. She didn’t want to go to school. She was already terrified of her teacher.

A knock came at her door before Helen opened it and peeked in, a smile on her face. Corey groaned and heard her mother chuckle before quiet footsteps told her Helen was approaching the bed. The covers were pulled back so Corey was left to blink at her mother’s smiling face.

“Come on, Corey,” Helen said coaxingly. “Time to get up. Breakfast is waiting.”

Corey groaned and turned over. She buried her face in her pillow and said something, but it was muffled by her pillow.

“What was that, dear?” Helen asked, leaning over her daughter and cupping her ear. “I didn’t hear what you said.”

Corey lifted her head slightly, but didn’t turn to look at Helen. “I don’t want to go to school. I don’t feel good.”

Helen reached out a hand and put it on Corey’s forehead. “Sweetie, you’re not running a fever and you’re not coughing or sneezing. Both Andy and I have to work today, so you can’t stay home.”

“I don’t want to go to school,” Corey practically wailed as fear gripped her heart. “Everyone said Mrs. Allen is mean. I don’t want to go to her class.”

“Oh, honey,” Helen sighed. “I’m sure what they said isn’t true. You’ll see. Mrs. Allen is a perfectly lovely woman. Andy and I met her a couple of months ago and she was very nice and welcoming. She was very excited about the upcoming school year.”

Corey turned to look over her shoulder, her eyes wide. “Really?” Had the new third graders just been messing with them?

Helen smiled and nodded. “Really. I’m sure she’s very nice, Corey. So, why don’t you get up, get ready for school, and go meet her. I’m sure you’ll like her.”

Corey pushed herself up and silently regarded her mother for a moment. “But what if I don’t? Can I go to a new school?”

“I’m sorry, honey, but it’ll be too late to get you into a new school. But if you really don’t like her, we’ll petition the school to put you in a new classroom, okay?”

Corey perked up. “Can I do that right away?”

“Sorry, but you’ll have to wait a week. You should meet and get to know her first before you decide you want another teacher. Do you think you can do that?”

Corey looked down at her hands. “I suppose,” she muttered. “I’ll try.”

Helen reached out and gently ran a hand over her daughter’s hair before leaning forward and kissing her forehead. “Don’t worry, Corey. Everything will be fine. Besides, you’re one of the smartest kids in your class. She’ll love you. Now hurry up and get dressed. I have some toast and eggs all ready for you. Sound yummy?”

Corey nodded enthusiastically and pushed back her covers. She loved eggs, could eat them all day. She slid off the bed as Helen left her room and gently closed the door. With a sigh, she walked over to her closet and got dressed for the day. After running a brush through her mid-back length hair, she hurried over to her bed to give her teddy bear a kiss. Then she grabbed her backpack and slowly walked out of her bedroom. She still had misgivings, but hoped everything would work out like Helen had said.

“Hurry up, Corey,” Helen sang out. “Breakfast is getting cold.”

The girl sighed and picked up her pace. She walked into the bright kitchen and dropped her bag next to her chair before climbing up onto it. Andy smiled and reached out to ruffle the ends of her hair.

“Ready for school, honey?” he asked pleasantly.

Silently, she shook her head, but obediently ate her toast and eggs. Around a mouthful, she said, “I don’t want to go to school.”

“She’s afraid of Mrs. Allen,” Helen clarified for her husband.

He gave her sympathetic look. “I’m sorry, honey. But at least Terese is in your class with you. And Mrs. Allen is really a very nice lady.”

“Maybe to you,” Corey said. “But all of last years’ second graders said she’s mean. And they should know. They were her students last year.”

“I’m sure it’s not that bad,” Andy said. “Now hurry up and finish. You don’t want to be late for the first day of second grade.”

Corey sighed and finished off her breakfast. Then she gave her father a kiss on the cheek and morosely followed her mother out the door. She was only grateful that Terese had been assigned to the same teacher she had. She hoped it would make the year much more bearable.

She also hoped there would be no more weird deaths this year. She was only glad nothing else had happened for the rest of first grade. She prayed she would only have to deal with Mrs. Allen during second grade and not more deaths that would make everyone avoid her like the plague.

The ride to the school was all-together too short for Corey. After giving her mother a peck on the cheek, she climbed out of the car, backpack trailing after.

“See you at two-thirty!” Helen sang out.

Corey turned and sadly waved as her mother drove away, fervently wishing she were still in the car. Once Helen’s car was gone from view, she headed through the school gates and made her way to the classroom.

“Corey!” an excited voice called out.

Her head shot up as she recognized the voice. She looked around and caught sight of Terese jumping up and down, waving her hand like she’d had six cups of caffeine for breakfast. Corey grinned and waved back before picking up her step and meeting her friend halfway. The two girls hugged each other tightly before Terese linked her arm through Corey’s and they made their way to the closed classroom door. Several other students milled around, all of them silent as they contemplated what the year with Mrs. Allen would be like.

“I’m so glad we’re in the same room!” Terese said. “I don’t think I would survive the year without you.”

Corey nodded. “I tried to tell my parents I was sick, but they didn’t believe me.”

“I tried that, too,” Terese said seriously. “My mom saw right through me. Whatever that means. My older sister always says that whenever she tries to get out of doing something by pretending to be sick. Mom always knows when we’re not really sick. I guess she can always see into our souls or something and can tell if we’re lying or not.”

“I think Helen is like that, too. I wish she wasn’t though. Do you think some of our classmates will be out sick today?”

Terese shrugged. “I don’t know. So far there are fifteen of us here. We’re missing ten and school starts in ten minutes.”

“I wish I could stay at home, too,” one of the other girls whispered as Terese and Corey walked by.

Terese and Corey stopped and regarded the black haired girl for a moment. She was about Corey’s height, a few inches shorter than Terese. Her hair hung to her shoulders and shimmered in the sunlight. Her blue eyes were wide and slightly frightened. She was chewing on her fingernails, which were starting to look ragged.

“I tried to make my mom let me stay at home,” the girl was saying. “What last years’ second graders said about Mrs. Allen really scared me.” She leaned closer to the other two girls. “Do you really think she’s that bad?” she whispered.

Terese and Corey shrugged.

“My parents said she’s really nice,” Corey said. “They met her over the summer.”

“My parents said the same thing,” the girl whispered. “But I don’t believe them. My first grade classroom was right next door,” she said, pointing. “I could hear Mrs. Allen yelling at everyone. I’m scared.”

“We are, too,” Terese said. “Stick with us. I hope we’ll be okay. I’m Terese.”

“Stacy.”

“Corey.”

“Corey? Isn’t that a boy’s name?” Stacy asked.

Corey shrugged. “It’s really Cora, but my biological parents started calling me Corey when I was really little.”

“Are you adopted?”

Corey nodded. “My parents died when I was four. Helen and Andy adopted me a few months later and I’ve been living with them since. They’re really nice.”

As they were talking, a few other students joined their class. Now, the classroom door was creaking open and a tall woman with graying brown hair pulled back in a tight bun and glasses covering her hard eyes poked her head out. She wasn’t smiling. Every student froze where they stood and turned to look at her with varying degrees of fright.

“Step in line,” she said curtly. “Boys and girls. Hurry up, now.”

Quickly, the students grabbed their bags and arranged themselves in two straight lines. Terese, Corey, and Stacy kept close together towards the middle of the line. The boy and the girl at the front of each line were holding their heads slightly back and their eyes were wide with fright. Everyone could tell they weren’t sure of how they got to be at the front of the lines.

The door opened all the way and Mrs. Allen retreated into the brightly lit, Spartan looking classroom. Corey clutched at the sleeves of her sweater. She didn’t want to go in there. Mrs. Allen was not making a good first impression.

“Hurry up and get inside. We start class right on time, so you’d better get here early.”

All of the students swallowed hard. The girls marched in first, followed by the boys. All of them took care not to look up at Mrs. Allen as they walked past her.

“You’ll find your desk by your last name,” Mrs. Allen said in a clipped voice as they girls were filing by.

They dispersed across the classroom, walking up and down the rows to find their last name. Unlike first grade, they did this in dead silence, not even looking at each other. Corey was just glad she found herself sitting next to Terese and two desks in front of Stacy. Terese and Corey traded nervous looks. Corey was sure her parents were wrong; Mrs. Allen wasn’t going to be a nice teacher. She had seen the wooden ruler sticking out of her back pocket.

Once all of the students were seated and settled, Mrs. Allen drew out her ruler and smacked it against her palm as she made her way up one row, walking towards Corey. All the students stiffened and sat up straight at the sound. Corey, sensing the woman was walking towards her, went completely still, hardly breathing.

“All right, class,” Mrs. Allen began, her voice still clipped and stern. “Welcome to second grade. I’m hoping you’re much brighter than last year’s class. Isn’t that right, child?”

Corey swallowed hard as Mrs. Allen stopped by her desk. But she had turned to look at Terese. With frightened eyes, the blond girl nodded, hardly daring to meet her teacher’s gaze.

“And I expect not to have any problems from any of you,” Mrs. Allen continued, spinning to look at Corey. She put her face on level with Corey’s and the girl drew back slightly. “Isn’t that right? You’ll be no trouble for me. If you are….” Mrs. Allen stopped talking to smile and to smack her ruler against Corey’s desk, making the girl jump. “I said, isn’t that right?” Mrs. Allen practically yelled.

Mutely, Corey nodded, holding herself stiffly.

But Mrs. Allen wasn’t happy with that. She put her face closer to Corey’s. “I said, isn’t that right?”

“Yes, Mrs. Allen,” Corey said in a trembling voice.

Mrs. Allen smiled, but her eyes remained hard. “Good, child. Because if you’re not good, you’ll be disciplined until you are.”

Mrs. Allen smacked her ruler hard against her palm twice, making every student wince. Corey swallowed hard and nearly sighed in relief when Mrs. Allen started walking towards the front of the classroom again. But she didn’t think sighing would be a good idea.

Terese and Corey traded looks. There was some definite fear, but some relief, too. If they could stay out of Mrs. Allen’s way, they might be okay. Might. This was going to be a hard year.

“Math books out!” Mrs. Allen called out, startling every student and making a few jump in their seats. “Now!”

They all scrambled for their math books.

Gates to Asphodel, Chapter 5

The phone rang just as Helen was ushering Corey out the door the following morning. Corey’s steps were lagging as she followed her mother out the door for the third day of school. She didn’t want to go. Something bad had happened. Inside, Andy answered the phone and she could hear his “hello” ring out through the house.

“Hurry up, dear,” Helen said, smiling encouragingly. “Let’s not make you late today.”

Hades forbid I be late, Corey thought. She immediately blinked just after she thought that, wondering just where the Hades part had come from. She was familiar with Hades; her biological mother had read a few mythological stories to her when she was young, before her father had thrown out the book. But Helen and Andy took her to church every Sunday.

“Helen!” came Andy’s voice. “Come back in and bring Corey!”

“What for?” Helen called back.

“The school just called. School was cancelled for the day.”

“Why?”

“Come back in so I can tell you guys.”

Helen looked at the car keys in her hand before shifting her gaze to a waiting Corey. She smiled. “I guess you don’t have to go to school today. Though I wonder why. That’s strange. It’s not even snowing.”

Both Helen and Corey looked up at the bright, cloudless sunny morning. It was slightly cool, but they could already tell it was going to be a warm day. It was, after all, only late August.

“Coming, Andy!” Helen called.

Corey turned and walked back towards the house, Helen following behind. They found Andy still in the kitchen. He was dressed for work in dark pants and a button down white dress shirt, red tie running down his chest. He was standing by the counter, hand still on the phone that sat there. He looked up as soon as Helen and Corey walked in and moved to the kitchen table.

“I think you had better sit down,” he said solemnly.

Corey didn’t have to be told twice. She had an odd feeling she knew what her adoptive father was about to say and she knew it would definitely be a good idea if her mother sat. She looked up at an immobile Helen, who was staring at her husband with a curious look. She looked like she hardly believed Andy was telling the truth. After all, Andy was fond of playing tricks on his wife.

“Helen,” Andy said, voice quiet, yet demanding. “Sit.”

Slowly, Helen moved to the table and took her seat. She folded her hands on top of the table and looked at her husband expectantly. Corey just patiently waited, swinging her legs under the table. She was considering humming to herself if someone didn’t start talking soon. She was starting to get bored and was just waiting for Andy to finally spill the unfortunate news.

“Corey did you know Sandra and Patricia?”

The girl nodded. “I knew Sandra. I don’t think I knew Patricia. Why?”

“Corey, honey, you won’t be seeing them again.”

“Why not?” she asked innocently.

Andy took a deep breath and met his wife’s equally questioning eyes. “The girls’ parents found them this morning. They were both in bed, but appeared to be, um, dead.”

Helen gasped and clasped a hand to her mouth. “Andy, are you sure?”

Solemnly, he nodded. “That was Ms. Sanders. She’s calling all of her students’ parents to let them know school has been cancelled due to her students’ unfortunate and, frankly, very bizarre deaths. The police are currently swarming around both homes and will be contacting everyone in the school. They also fear a homicidal maniac might be on the loose. That’s why all students have been instructed to stay home all day.”

“But why?” Helen asked. “Do they really think some crazy person is running around town? Or do they think one of the kids did it?”

Andy shrugged. “I don’t know. I hope not.”

Corey had, until this point, been staring intently at both of them as they spoke. Now Andy turned to her, drawing Helen’s attention. Her father gave her a gentle smile and patted her clasped hands.

“Why don’t you go to your room and put your things away? I’m going to take the day off because of this and we can all play games today.”

Corey nodded and hopped off her chair. She grabbed her backpack and retreated from the kitchen, but stopped as soon as she turned the corner, wondering what her parents were going to talk about now. She didn’t want to miss anything.

“Is it bad, Andy?” Helen asked softly, her voice just barely reaching Corey’s ears.

“I’m afraid so,” Andy said on a heavy sigh. “Ms. Sanders said the police told them both bodies were brutally attacked. It looked like an animal had gotten to them. But none of the windows had been smashed and the doors were intact. No one knows how someone got in.”

“Sounds like the way Corey’s parents had been killed,” Helen said in a hushed voice.

“Yeah,” Andy said quietly. A moment passed and then Corey could hear him moving around. “I wonder if it means anything. It is kind of spooky.”

“And don’t forget,” Helen said, “she grew up just a few miles from here. That’s why we moved here, to maybe get her to open up a little more.”

“I don’t think it’s helped much.” Andy sighed heavily. “The police will be by later. We should probably tell them about Corey’s biological parents if they don’t already know.”

Corey heard a chair scrape against the tile floor and quickly dashed for her room. She quietly closed the door and put her backpack down. She looked around and spotted the teddy bear sitting at the low, round table filled with art supplies. Quietly, she hurried over to her bear and grabbed it tight. Clasping the bear to her chest, she walked over to the bed and climbed up to settle herself into the pillows and stuffed animals. She buried her face in the bear’s fur and held tight. She had wanted something bad to happen to Sandra and the redhead, but she hadn’t wanted them dead. And because of the way they had died, all the other kids were probably going to avoid her and whisper behind her back even more now.

*
The police didn’t come by until the afternoon. Helen, Andy, and Corey had been engaged in a game of memory and Corey was winning. The doorbell startled everyone, especially after the news they had received that morning.

“I’ll get it,” Helen said, jumping up lightly.

Helen hurried over to the door while Corey continued to take her turn. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see her father fidget and move around slightly.

“Mrs. Marks?” a deep voice Corey recognized asked.

Corey’s head popped up as her mother answered in the affirmative. A minute later, Detective Skyler Adams and a couple of officers were striding into the living room. His eyes lit on Corey and he stopped short. Corey scrambled to her feet and walked over to him. The detective smiled and knelt down onto one knee.

“Hello, again,” he said, smiling. “How have you been doing?”

“Very well, thank you,” Corey said politely. “Do you know anything about my parents?”

“I’m sorry, little one. We haven’t gotten any further in their case. But maybe you can help us.”

Corey nodded. “About my classmates? Andy said Ms. Sanders said Sandra and Patricia were killed the same way as my parents.”

“That’s right. It’s because of that that we think you might be able to help us.”

Corey shook her head. “I don’t know anything.”

“Were you and your parents here all night?”

“We were here,” Andy said as he walked over to join everyone else. He held out his hand. “Andrew Marks.”

The detective rose and shook his hand. “Detective Skyler Adams. This is Officer Wales and Officer Johnson. Do you have anything you can share about the girls’ families or anything you know? We’re especially interested in your family considering Corey’s biological parents were killed the same way and the girls were her classmates.”

“I’m very sorry,” Andy said. “We don’t know anything, but if we come across anything, we’ll let you know right away.”

Skyler nodded and held out his card. “If you think of anything, give me a call.”

Andy nodded and took the card. Then Helen escorted the men back to the door while Andy turned the card over in his hands. Corey only clasped her arms around her chest and hugged herself tightly.

Gates to Asphodel, Chapter 4

Two years later

Corey wasn’t sure if she was going to like first grade. She had liked preschool and kindergarten well enough, having made a few friends, but then she and her parents had moved into a new school district and now she was about an hour away from all her friends. She supposed it was better to start over at six rather than being sixteen and having to start over without the friendships she’d spent years cultivating. But she still missed her old friends.

She also thought everyone, including herself, looked a little funny in the same navy blue uniforms. She’d gotten used to the tan at her old school. And now it was different and darker. The material was also a little stiffer.

And her classmates were looking at her a little funny. She knew it was because she was new to the school. They didn’t know her and she didn’t know them. She was too timid to start to approach people. At her old school, Beth had immediately approached her and befriended her. Now she missed Beth more than anything. They had cried relentlessly when Corey and her parents had to move.

Corey had never missed anyone so much before. Not her biological parents and not Mrs. Appleton.

Now she stood off to the side on the playground, unsure of what to do. She had her back pressed against the chain link fence, her fingers latched onto the cool metal behind her back, wishing more than anything else that Helen had let her bring her teddy bear with her. She hated first days of school.

Her eyes scanned the playground. There were groups of kids her age and a few years older playing around on the slide, swings, and jungle gym. Some of the older kids were running around with a ball on the field. They all seemed to be ignoring her, but she knew some of them were whispering about her. About the strange girl who wouldn’t talk to any of them, who sat alone and stared at nothing.

They all knew about her. She’d been in the papers two years before when the police had been trying to get more information about the murders of her parents. They all knew her real parents had died under mysterious circumstances in what they were now calling a cold case, especially the older kids. The younger ones, her age-mates, just thought she was weird.

Corey’s fingers tightened around the fence. She didn’t like it here.

A girl, about six, with long blond hair and bright blue eyes, ran up to Corey and smiled.

“Hi!” the girl said brightly. “I’m Terese. You’re Cora, right? We’re in the same class.”

Corey gave her a tentative smile, wondering why this girl was talking to her. She knew Terese was in her class; she remembered the bubbly girl’s responses to their teacher’s questions. Terese was much more outgoing than Corey ever wanted to be.

“Corey,” she said quietly. “Everyone calls me Corey.”

“Corey, then. Want to play with us? We’re going to go down the slide. Come join us!”

Slowly, Corey began to shake her head, but Terese was having none of that. The blond girl tugged on Corey’s arm, trying to dislodge her fingers from the fence.

“Come on,” Terese said encouragingly. “It’ll be fun. Everyone loves slides!”

Reluctantly, Corey released her hold on the fence and allowed Terese to drag her over to the slide. A group of girls, all from their class, were gathered around the slide, laughing amongst themselves. They quieted down and turned to look at Corey as the two girls approached.

“Why’d you bring her?” one of the girls, a tall one with short black hair, said almost rudely.

“She looked like she needed a friend,” Terese said defensively.

Some of the girls looked over at the tall girl, seemingly waiting for a cure from her. The tall girl folded her arms without glancing at any one of them.

“Well,” she said, “we don’t want to play with her. She’s an orphan who found her parents dead.”

“So?” Terese asked. “My parents told me about that, but they said you should play with everyone anyways. You should be nice to people, especially lonely people.”

“Fine. Then you can play with her. Because we don’t want to. Go find your own slide.”

Terese stuck her tongue out. “Fine. We will. Come on, Corey, we can find something else to do.”

And with that Terese grabbed Corey’s hand and half dragged the quiet girl off to the grassy area surrounding the sandbox. Still holding her hand, Terese led them around the edge of the sandbox.

“They’re always like that,” Terese said. “Everyone listens to Sandra. They think she’s cool. Whatever that means! But my mommy and daddy are right. Everyone needs a friend. You looked like you needed a friend.”

Corey gave her a small smile when Terese turned her brilliant blue eyes on her. “Thank you,” she said quietly.

“Why are you so quiet anyways?” Terese asked. “I’ve never met anyone so quiet before. Do you have other friends?”

Corey nodded, a little bewildered by all of Terese’s chatter. “I have a friend named Beth and another named Janine. We were best friends. But then we moved. But I get to see them this weekend.”

“Oh, that sounds like fun!” Terese said brightly. “Are you excited? I would be!”

Mutely, Corey nodded. “Are those other girls your friends?”

Terese shrugged. “I guess. I don’t know. There aren’t that many nice girls in our class, so I make do. But Sandra can be kind of mean sometimes. Her mom’s really rich, so she always has nice things and everyone always wants to be her friend because she brings in candy for her friends. But I don’t care about candy. My mommy and daddy say it’ll rot my teeth and then they’ll all fall out. So, I’m fine with not being their friend. You seem like you’re a lot nicer.”

Corey gave her new friend a timid smile. Terese talked a lot, but at least she had a friend and, apparently, a champion who didn’t like the class bully any more than she was beginning to.

“Do I need to stay away from certain people?” Corey asked when Terese was taking a breath.

The blond girl nodded. “Oh, yes! Sandra, of course. And her friends. They’re kind of mean. Some of the boys, too. Especially the loud ones. They like to push people down and think it’s funny.” She shrugged. “There are a few nice kids, but they can be hard to pick out. But at least I have you and you have me!”

Corey nodded. “That sounds nice.”

“Sure does!”

“Are the teachers here nice?” Corey asked, turning wide eyes to her new friend. “My old teachers were very nice and so were my classmates.”

Terese nodded enthusiastically. “They sure are! Most of them, anyways. Some of them can be kind of mean and give everyone lots of work, but ours is really nice. My sister had her two years ago. She said Ms. Sanders is really nice. I’m sure we’ll like her a lot. Have you been living around here for a while?”

Corey blinked a couple of times, just to let the fact that Terese had asked a question sink in. Then she had to hesitate before speaking just to make sure the question itself had sunk in. Being friends with Terese was going to be interesting, but she was glad she had at least one friend.

“Just for a month. Helen and Andy are still unpacking everything, but my room is mostly done.”

Terese gave her an odd look. Then her eyes and face brightened. “Oh, that’s right! You’re adopted.”

Corey nodded as they finished their circle around the sandbox.

“How long have you lived with them?” Terese asked curiously.

“About two years. They adopted me a few months after my parents died.”

“That must have been terrible,” Terese said, shaking her head. “I would have been very sad if I lost my parents. Weren’t you sad? That would have been very hard for me. You’re so brave, Corey!”

Corey gave her a weak smile as their teacher blew her whistle to call her students back into the classroom. Terese grabbed Corey’s hand and tugged her along. Amused, Corey let her new friend pull her along. They fell in with some of their other chattering classmates and all but ran into the brightly lit classroom. With a smile, Terese let go of Corey’s hand and went over to her desk at the front of the class. Corey went straight to her own on the other side of the room towards the middle of the row.

Surreptitiously, Corey stuck her hand into her desk, feeling around for the small teddy bear her parents had gotten her when they moved. It was so it could comfort her, and she was glad it did. Though she had a new friend, she still didn’t feel quite right. Many of her new classmates weren’t very welcoming and, unfortunately, she sat two seats away from Sandra.

“What do you have there?” Sandra’s imperious voice rang out from next to her.

Corey yanked her hand out from her desk and quickly folded her hands together. She looked up at the tall girl, who stood with a shorter girl with red hair. Both girls had their arms folded across their chests.

“I don’t have anything,” Corey said, eyes wide and innocent.

“What were you doing in your desk?” the redhead asked.

“Just making sure my pencils are all there.”

Sandra whispered something to her friend and both girls giggled. Corey didn’t know what Sandra had said, but she thought she’d caught the words “teddy bear.” She stiffened in her seat and clasped her hands tighter together.

Just then, their teacher swept down the row and made a shooing motion with her hands. All three girls looked up at their tall, slender teacher, blond hair cut just below her shoulders and dark brown eyes warm. Her floral dress swayed around her legs gently, the material shining in the florescent light.

“Off to your seats, girls,” Ms. Sanders said, her voice melodic and pleasant. “Recess is over.”

With looks that just bordered on being nasty, Sandra and her friend retreated to their desks a row over. Corey watched them with a cool gaze and carefully blank eyes until they sat. Then she looked up at her smiling teacher, who leaned down slightly.

“Don’t worry, Cora. You’ll get used to them after a while. But if they give you trouble, let me know right away, okay?”

Mutely, Corey nodded. Ms. Sanders smiled and patted the girl’s shoulder before moving on to take her place at the front of the classroom. Ms. Sanders clapped her hands and instructed her students to take out their math books. Corey stuck her hand back into her desk for her math book, but made sure her fingers brushed against her teddy bear one more time.

Gates to Asphodel, Chapter 3

“Welcome to your new home,” Andrew Marks said as he swept open the front door to Corey’s new home.

Corey gave him a timid smile and followed Andrew and his wife Helen through the front door. Her small feet met soft carpeting as soon as she entered and she looked around at soft blue walls. There were vases of pussy willow in the front hall, flanking a long dark brown table filled with pictures and a basket of keys.

Three months after her parents’ untimely deaths, Andrew and Helen Marks had come to adopt her. She had been curious about the blond woman and dark haired man. They had apparently liked her and now she had gone home with them. She hadn’t wanted another family, but her new parents thought she should have a family. Helen had taken to her, smiling and wanting to join in with Corey’s games. It was something her parents had never done, something she hadn’t welcomed. But she had played with the woman and, two days later, found herself getting into their car. She was going to miss the chaos of the foster home she had been able to get lost in. Being an only child again was not what she wanted.

Corey stood in the hall now, staring around at the walls and pictures, clutching her teddy bear close to her chest. Andrew and Helen had been married for five years, but couldn’t have children. That was why they had adopted Corey. She wasn’t sure if she was going to like her new parents, but at least the house was pretty. The blue was kind of calming.

“Well?” Helen said, drawing Corey’s attention. But the woman was looking at her husband. “Aren’t you going to get her bags out of the car?”

Andrew shrugged. “Okay. You going to show her to her room, then?”

Helen nodded and Andrew shrugged and walked back out the door. Helen turned to Corey and smiled brightly. She leaned down, putting her hands just above her knees so she was almost on eye level with her new daughter.

“I think we’re all going to have a great time together, don’t you?”

Corey gave her a blank look and Helen’s face immediately fell. She walked over to the girl and put a hand on her shoulder. She gently squeezed Corey’s shoulder, but the girl flinched and took a step back, casting a distrustful gaze at her new mother. The look only made Helen purse her lips.

“I’m sorry, dear. Maybe peppy isn’t what you want right now. You know, we’re very sorry you had to find your parents the way you did. But we’ll make sure you’re okay. Come on. I’ll show you your room.”

Corey didn’t have any choice in the matter; Helen firmly grasped her shoulder and guided her down a carpeted hallway. They stopped at an open door painted white.

“That’s where Andy and I sleep,” Helen said, pointing a little ways down the hall at a closed door painted the same shade of white. “You’re welcome in there anytime you want. Okay?”

Corey nodded, wondering what she would ever want with them.

“You’re not much of a talker, are you?” Helen asked, keeping her voice light and a smile on her face. “That’s okay. Once you warm up to us, I’m sure we’ll have a great time.”

“Okay,” was Corey’s light reply. “Is this my room?”

“Absolutely. Go on in.”

Corey didn’t wait for any further encouragement. She stepped into the room, the floor covered with a pale pink carpet just to get away from the chipper woman. It was a spacious room with a large bay window overlooking a large backyard with trees and rose bushes. There were white cushions on the window seat with a pile of picture books on top. A canopy bed sat in the middle with pink and white covers and pillows. Stuffed animals were lined up in three rows just in front of the pillows. A small white desk with a matching child’s chair sat in a corner, along with a variety of art supplies. Shelves lined the opposite side of the room, filled with toys and more books. There was an open closet with a few dresses and shirts, but it was mostly empty. There was also a white dresser with two drawers and an oval mirror that reflected Corey’s image back to her.

“Go on in,” Helen said encouragingly.

Corey stepped further inside, followed by Helen. She walked over to the bed and put her teddy bear down on top of the white and pink comforter. She turned in a slow circle, taking in all the pink and white and bright spring sunlight. It was all a little too much.

“We didn’t know what kinds of toys and books you liked, so we got a little of everything. There are some art supplies, too, if you like to draw. We hope you like the stuffed animals. They’re all yours.”

“It’s pretty,” was all Corey said. She just didn’t know how to tell her new mother how much she didn’t like the pink. For some reasons, darker colors made her feel more at ease.

“Here we go, darling,” Andy said as he brought in a duffle bag and small backpack. He stepped into the bedroom and put the bags down near the bed. “You like your new home?”

Corey nodded solemnly. “I’m tired. Can I take a nap?”

Helen stepped up next to her husband and linked arms with him.

“Of course, my dear,” she said soothingly. “Sleep all you want. We usually have dinner at six-thirty. It’s two now. If you want, we can wake you up or you can have dinner anytime you want.”

“Helen,” Andy said softly. “Do you really want to start spoiling her right off the bat?”

“Honey, this is all new to her. We need to be accommodating to get her used to us. We’ll settle into a routine soon enough.”

Andy scratched his chin and sighed. “I suppose. Okay. We’ll start with that. But I really don’t want to spoil her. We’re going to do this parenting thing right.”

Helen nodded. “Of course we are.” She turned to Corey, who had been closely watching their exchange, and smiled. “Go ahead and sleep all you want, dear. Come out whenever you’re ready. Do you want us to show you where the kitchen is before you climb into bed?”

Corey shook her head. “I can find it.”

“All right, then. Do you want us to tuck you in?”

“No, thank you.”

Helen exchanged a nervous smile with her husband. “Okay, than. Have a good nap, dear.”

Andy guided his unwilling wife from Corey’s room. She walked out first, leaving Andy to close the door. He smiled at Corey as he gently closed the door. She replied with a polite, if a little cold, smile.

Corey walked around the room as soon as the door was closed. Sighing with pleasure at finally being out of her new parents’ overbearing presence, she climbed up onto the window seat and looked out at the backyard. She’d never been allowed outside with her parents. Maybe Helen and Andy would let her out. Maybe now she could go to school and make friends. She wanted friends more than anything else, people to play with. Maybe Helen and Andy would play with her. She would like that.

Smiling to herself, she made her way over to her bed and climbed up on top. Delight lit up her eyes as she saw just how many stuffed animals were piled on the bed. Giggling softly to herself, she situated her teddy bear with them and then climbed under the covers. She snuggled against her teddy bear, a white mouse falling against her shoulder on her other side. She felt comforted and hoped she would like this new home.

*
Helen paced around the living room while her husband twisted and turned his neck, craning it this way and that, to see the TV beyond her pacing figure. Helen was chewing on a nail, oblivious to her husband’s frustration.

“Do you mind sitting down, Helen?” Andy asked, irritation creeping into his voice.

Startled, she looked up at him and gave him an apologetic smile. “Sorry, honey. I’m just distracted, I guess.”

But she sat anyways. At least, she perched on the edge on the couch next to Andy, smoothing her skirt over her knees over and over again.

“Calm down, Helen. She’s napping.”

“Do you think she likes it here? She seems so aloof. I just want to be a good mother.”

“You will be,” Andy said soothingly. “This is just new to her. She lost her parents a few months ago and now she has new parents and a new home. This can’t be easy for her. Her parents’ murders are still an open case, too, and she’ll be checked on periodically.”

“I know, I know. I’m okay with all of that. I just want her to love me so much, Andy.”

“She will. In time. Give it time, Helen.”

“Okay.”

Andy leaned towards her and gently kissed her cheek. Then he wrapped his hands around her shoulders and gently pulled her back with him so her back met the back of the couch. “Now relax. Corey’s napping. She’ll be okay. Sit back and relax a bit, okay?”

Helen nodded and scooted back so she could more comfortably lean back. But she didn’t stop chewing on her thumb nail.

“Do you really think Corey will like it here?” Helen asked a few minutes later.

Andy sighed. “I don’t know. But we’ll hope for the best, okay? Now, relax. You can’t do anything right now.”

“I could make her cookies for when she wakes up. She likes cookies and banana nut muffins. If I had bananas, I would make the muffins. Make her feel at home, you know. Oh! I could go to the market now.”

Helen was just about to jump up, but her husband grabbed her wrist. “Calm down, Helen. Why don’t you just make some chocolate chip cookies if you really need to do something? Every kid likes chocolate chip cookies.”

Helen nodded eagerly. “I’ll do that. Then I’ll get started on dinner.”

Before Andy could grab her, Helen had managed to bounce up and hurried off into the kitchen. Andy sighed and shook his head, but he was glad he could finally sit back and watch some TV in peace.

Gates to Asphodel, Chapter 2

The POV is a tricky little thing…haven’t yet decided exactly what I want yet…

The police officers had Corey sitting on the porch swing, with a young female office next to her to keep an eye on her, while they poked and prodded around in her home. Corey had her teddy bear tucked under one arm and was happily gnawing away at a banana nut muffin. The officer was casting weird looks her way, but the little girl ignored her. Mrs. Appleton was wailing and wringing her hands as she paced the width of the porch near Corey. Both women seemed to be waiting for Corey to start crying, but Corey didn’t know she was supposed to. All she knew was that she was hungry and wanted a second muffin.

“It’s okay to cry,” the officer said gently.

Corey only stared up at her with bewildered eyes. “Why?”

The officer drew back and blinked. Then she turned forward and clasped her hands between her knees, likewise looking bewildered. They sat like that with Mrs. Appleton pacing wildly beside them for a few moments. The officer had apparently decided to stop telling Corey it was okay to cry, which Corey appreciated.

The detective, a tall man with trimmed dark brown hair and serious brown eyes, strode out of the house. He paused a moment to look around while the officer with Corey stood. The detective turned to her and nodded. The officer moved aside as the man made his way over to Corey and Mrs. Appleton. The man knelt down on one knee to regard Corey. She stared back at him, still gnawing at her muffin. She saw the gentle, concerned look on his face, but didn’t really understand it. Why was this strange man so concerned about her? Sure, her parents were dead, but they hadn’t been very nice to her lately.

“Hello,” the man said in a quiet, serious voice, a voice Corey kind of liked. It sounded nice. “Are you Corey?”

Corey nodded and Mrs. Appleton stepped forward. She rested a hand on Corey’s shoulder, but the little girl only looked at the detective.

“It’s Cora Fallon,” Mrs. Appleton corrected, “but everyone calls her Corey. Cora was her late grandmother’s name.”

The detective nodded. “Corey’s fine.” He smiled at the girl. “Is that okay if I call you Corey?”

The girl nodded and took another bite from her muffin. She chewed it slowly and didn’t move her eyes from his face. He looked very serious, but his eyes looked kind and they softened as he looked her over, noting the crusted dried blood on the skirt of her nightgown.

“I’m Skylar Adams,” he said holding out a large hand. “You can call me Sky if it’s easier.”

Corey gently put her teddy bear across her lap and put her tiny hand in his. “Nice to meet you, Skylar.”

He gently shook her hand before letting it go. He smiled and leaned forward slightly. “I’m going to talk to your neighbor for a little bit, okay? But I’ll come back over and see how you are.”

Corey nodded and took another bite, seemingly dismissing him. With a shake of his head, Skylar rose and turned to Mrs. Appleton. He took her arm and gently guided her a few feet away, closer to the railing.

“You’re Eva Appleton from across the street?” Skylar started.

Mrs. Appleton nodded, casting a worried look at Corey. “That’s right. Right across the street there.” She pointed. “702 Wildflower Lane. I’ve known Corey’s parents since they moved in six years ago. Annie and I got to be such good friends. We usually have breakfast together every Thursday. Well, we used to. I remember when Corey was born four years ago. They used to ask me to babysit when she was really little because Annie was still working. She stopped working about a year ago to take care of Corey full-time after the poor girl was in the hospital for two weeks. That’s when Don got his raise and they could live comfortably on one paycheck a month.”

“Does Corey have any other family, Mrs. Appleton? Since she’s an orphan now, we would really prefer to put her in a family member’s care rather than make her a ward of the state.”

Mrs. Appleton wrung her hands a little harder and cast a glance at the girl. Corey was watching them, finishing off the muffin. Her eyes were trained on the detective, a part of her mind wondering why the man seemed so familiar. Mrs. Appleton licked her lips and turned back to the detective, giving her back to the little girl she adored, but simultaneously didn’t understand at all.

“No, detective,” she said quietly. “Don was abandoned as a baby. He never managed to track down his family. Annie was an only child of only children. Her father passed away about ten years ago and her mother two years ago. Annie and Don never thought anything would happen to them, so they never named godparents or any other legal guardian. I know Annie used to tell me their lawyer was always after them to name a legal guardian just in case, but Annie wouldn’t hear of it. She and Don were always very adamant that Corey wouldn’t need anyone else. But I’ve known them for six years and I’ve known Corey since she was born. I would be more than happy to take care of her.”

“That’s very generous, Mrs. Appleton, but I’m afraid that won’t be possible. You would have to legally adopt her in order to take care of her. In the meantime, we’ll put her in foster care.”

Mrs. Appleton’s forehead creased. “I don’t know….Corey’s awfully young. She’s never been away from her parents. Being in foster care wouldn’t be the best thing for her.”

“I’m very sorry, but we have to take her to foster care since there is no legally appointed guardian and no living family.”

Mrs. Appleton lowered her eyes to where Corey was now starting on her second muffin. She had an apologetic look on her face, which bewildered Corey because Corey didn’t even want to stay a single hour with the old woman.

“Just make sure she’ll be okay,” Mrs. Appleton said softly.

“We’ll do our best,” Skylar promised. “Thank you, Mrs. Appleton. One of the officers will take a formal statement from you in a little bit, so just hang out here until then. I need to talk to Corey now.”

Mrs. Appleton nodded and shuffled off to the other side of the porch. She stood against the railing and folded her arms tightly across her chest, staring across the street at her house.

Skylar watched her for a moment, just to make sure she wasn’t going to wander off or try to approach the little girl. Then he turned to where Corey was, apparently, happily eating a muffin and swinging her legs. Her teddy bear was once again tucked under her arm. He took a long step over to her and knelt down on one knee, smiling gently at her. The little girl stared back at him with wide brown eyes.

“Can you tell me a few things, Corey?” he asked, keeping his smile in place.

Corey swung her legs a few times before nodding. She took another bite of her muffin and nodded.

“Okay, then,” the detective replied, flipping open a small notepad. “Mrs. Appleton said she found you with your parents. Can you tell me how you found them?”

“Like she said. They were lying on the bed and there was lots of blood.”

“Did you touch them?”

Corey shook her head. “Just my mom’s face. It was cold.”

“Anywhere else?”

Again, she shook her head. “Uh uh. She felt funny.”

“Corey, this is very serious. Do you know your mommy and daddy are dead? They won’t be coming back. You don’t have parents anymore.”

The little girl nodded. “I know. Mrs. Appleton told me, too, before you got here. But Mom and Dad were mean. They were fighting last night before they went to bed.”

“What were they fighting about?”

“Me,” she replied quickly. “Mom took care of me, but Dad didn’t want to have anything to do with me. He didn’t think I was his daughter at all. He never played with me.”

“Are you sad your mom is gone?”

Corey shook her head. “Mom never let me do anything. I was bored.”

Skylar pierced her with his eyes. “Corey, did you hurt your parents?”

The little girl tilted her head to the side before shaking it. “I was sleeping.”

“All night?”

“Uh huh. Mom usually woke up before me and then she would wake me up. Sometimes I was awake before her, though. This morning she didn’t come wake me up. It was past nine in the morning when I woke up. Mom never came to wake me up. I got up and went to the bedroom.”

“And that’s when you found them.”

Corey nodded and took another bite of her muffin.

Skylar watched her for a moment, wondering if this little girl even realized what she had seen, what had happened to her parents, and what she was telling him. She’s only four, he reminded himself. Only four.

“Did you hear any funny sounds in the middle of the night?” he finally asked.

“Uh uh. I was sleeping.”

Skylar smiled at her. “Thank you, Corey.” He paused. “We’re going to take you to a nice family to stay with for a little bit, okay?”

“When?”

“Later today. Some officers will help you pack up some of your things, the things you want to keep. Then we’ll take you to a family. You’ll probably stay a few days and then you may be adopted by another family.”

“Okay,” was her only reply before her eyes started to wander.

Skylar gave her a smile before rising, but Corey was still looking off in the distance. She didn’t care to talk to the man anymore about her parents’ deaths. There was something funny about him, but she couldn’t figure out what. And didn’t he know she was starving? She watched as the detective looked across the porch at where Mrs. Appleton still stood.

Giving Corey a quick smile, he finally left her alone and walked over to Mrs. Appleton. She turned to the detective, rubbing her hands up and down her arms, under Corey’s watchful gaze. Her gaze flickered to Corey for a second before she focused on his face.

“Is she okay?” Mrs. Appleton asked.

He arched a brow. “I thought maybe you could tell me.”

The woman frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“Corey seems…well, it’s hard to tell if the deaths of her parents have affected her. Usually kids are inconsolable. But Corey was talking about finding her dead parents very candidly. She indicated she understands they’re gone forever, but she had no affect. I was wondering if you would be able to tell me anything about her. Do you think she would be capable of murdering her parents?”

Corey had to stop herself from snorting at the question. Her? Kill her parents? If she could have, she probably would have done so earlier. They really had been appalling parents for awhile now.

“For God’s sakes, she’s a child!” Mrs. Appleton yelled. “She’s four years old and you’re accusing her of murder?”

Skylar held out his hands in an attempt to placate her. “I didn’t say that, Mrs. Appleton. I’m merely asking you if you think she’s capable of something like that considering her strange reaction to her parents’ deaths.”

Mrs. Appleton pursed her lips and turned away. “I don’t believe Corey would be capable of something like that. Look, Detective, Corey’s always been a little odd, and is bright beyond her years, but I seriously doubt she would be capable of hurting her parents. There was little love in the house, but Corey seemed content. Maybe not happy, but it was the only life she knew.”

“Does she have any friends?”

Mrs. Appleton shook her head. “No. Annie hardly ever let her out of her sight. Corey almost never left the house. Is she going to be okay?”

“That’s the hope, Mrs. Appleton. Thank you.”

She gave a distracted nod and he moved off to consult with a group of officers.

“Anything?” Skylar asked in a low voice.

“That’s the most bizarre scene I’ve ever seen,” one of the young men said, jabbing his thumb back behind him, towards the house. “Those bodies were ravaged beneath the covers. The clothes were tattered. The skin was all but shredded. The bed was soaked in blood. It looked like they were mauled by clawed animals.”

“But there were no signs of anything breaking in,” a female officer said quietly. “All the doors and windows are intact. There were no footprints or fingerprints. Nothing.”

Skylar scratched his head. “This is going to be one interesting case. Could one of you take Corey into her room and get a few things packed up? Social services will be taking her soon.”

The female officer nodded and walked off towards Corey. Corey watched the detective as the woman spoke to her, telling her it was time to go back into the house. Under Skylar’s watchful and concerned gaze, Corey just nodded and jumped off of the bench. She didn’t take the officers hand; just walked past her and straight through the front door. The officer followed and shrugged her shoulders as she walked past Skylar, while Corey hummed happily to herself with a third muffin in hand.