“Ania, my baby sister has died.” The professor’s voice pulled me back into the present. “I have to go home for a few weeks.”
“Of course,” I said. “Where’s home?”
“Krakow. I have booked a flight out for tonight. Tessa, I hate to ask this of you, but I have no one else I trust.”
“Anything, Professor.” I took a sip of coffee, looked up into Cass’s curious eyes. “Anything at all.”
“Can you drive me to the airport, then pick me up when I return?”
“And there is another thing…it’s about the spraying you have been doing for me.”
“Don’t give it a second thought. I’ll do it every evening like always.”
“There is more I need to tell you, Tessa…to keep you safe. There are things you do not know.”
I looked up. Cass had moved away, but was still within earshot. Whatever the professor had meant about keeping me safe, I didn’t want her to pick up on. My love was such a worrywart. “You can tell me on the way to the airport.”
I walked alongside the professor’s scooter across the tarmac. The late-March sunshine played peek-a-boo with the clouds, casting shadowed pools of remembered-winter’s frigid cold upon the gray concrete. Each dim patch I passed through brought on an involuntary shiver.
Back home, Daddy would be tilling up the garden, mixing manure in with the soil. Mama would be buying seeds and seedlings at the Farmers Co-op. The old peach tree behind the barn would most likely be bursting with little pink buds—damned thing nearly always bloomed too early—while all around the hills and pastures would be taking on the greenish hue of spring’s arrival.
Here in Illinois, spring had yet to arrive. Yesterday afternoon while wandering in The Shakespeare Garden, large cups of Starbucks coffee cuddled in our cold hands, Cass and I had seen a few tenuous buds emerging—more like considering if it were a wise move to do so, I’d told her. She’d laughed and—
The scooter stopped. “Tessa, you are not listening.”
“Sorry, woolgathering.” I smiled down at his face, a little surprised to see something close to anger in his usually placid features. “You were saying?”
“Please pay attention.” His eyes met mine, an edge of hardness sharpening the blue. “What I’m telling you is very important.”
Feeling somewhat like a scolded child, I said, “Yes…yes, sir…I will.”
“You need to do everything exactly as I have told you. I cannot stress enough the seriousness of the situation.” He sighed, his gaze slipping down to his knobby hands clasped together on his lap. “Perhaps I should not go.”
I squatted down in front of him and placed my cold hands over his icy ones. “No, you need to go. I give you my word I’ll do just what you said. Everything will be okay.”
His rheumy eyes traveled back up to my face. “If I’d had a daughter I would want her to be just like you, Tessa. You are a good girl. You never ask questions I cannot answer.”
Could not or would not? I supposed it really didn’t matter. I had learned at an early age to curb my curiosity because Daddy hadn’t liked questions, and I hadn’t liked his backhanded slaps. Questions were things to be avoided. And though I had never entertained the thought that Professor Dembowski might actually strike me, old habits die hard.
I smiled and patted his hands. “Thank you.” I thought, but didn’t say, that I in kind wished he were my father. But he was a man—granted, an old, crippled one—and there was no place in my heart for men. “Now let’s get you on that plane.”
That evening, I drove the professor’s white Escalade to his home and parked it beside Mama’s sad-looking Thunderbird. I patted the washed-out red hood as I passed by. Funny, but I felt a little sad knowing that soon Mama’s car would be rusting away in some junkyard while I would be behind the wheel of a brand-spanking-new vehicle—thanks to the quadrupled salary I would be earning the next several weeks.
And thanks to Mama.
No telling what kind of hell she’d had to endure after sending me away in her car last August. I hadn’t wanted to leave her and my younger sisters behind to face Daddy’s wrath, but after I received a full scholarship to Northwestern University, she had insisted I go. “You have a chance, baby,” she had said. “And you’re gonna take it. Come hell or high water, you’re going.”
So I had gone, pointed Mama’s Thunderbird north and never once looked back. But I hadn’t forgotten what I had left behind. Someday—and maybe that day would come sooner than planned—I would go back, pack up Mama and my sisters and leave Daddy with nothing but himself to yell at and punch. See how the old bastard liked them apples.
Whistling softly to the tune of Bruce Springsteen’s “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day”, I pulled the professor’s ring of keys out of my pocket and tromped around the house. I slipped the color-coded, green key into the padlock on the shed’s door. After filling the sprayer from a fifty-five-gallon barrel, I walked the fence-line and applied the foam, making an extra wide swath next to the small creek (just as the Professor had instructed) that meandered alongside the fence for a hundred yards or so before it turned back into the thick woods and disappeared.
Always before, after I had returned the empty sprayer to the shed and the professor had locked it up, we would part ways at the base of the wooden incline that led up to the back porch; but until he returned, my job didn’t end with that.
Now, in addition to the spraying, I was supposed to open the door for It, immediately leave, then return the following morning shortly after daybreak, close and lock the door.
“It is nocturnal,” the professor had informed me on the drive to the airport. “It will return to Its nest before dawn. Sometimes hunters wander onto my property. It must be protected from them, and them from It.” He had paused for a moment, then added, “And Tessa, you must not remain within the chemical boundary when it is full dark. I do not look for this to happen because you are a sensible girl, but if for some reason you are delayed in leaving, stay the night in my home. The brown key opens all the house doors—except, of course, Its door.”
Now, as I stood in front of the lean-to snugged underneath the ramp leading up to the back porch, red key poised to slide into the padlock securing a stout, metal door, I allowed myself to wonder—just a little—about “It”.
What lay beyond the door I was about to unlock?
I had heard rumors around campus that the professor was a genius in the field of molecular biology, and had been involved in the initial research where a piece of genetic code from the golden orb spider had been placed inside the DNA of goat embryos, thus producing kids with a “little something extra”. But government interference—something to do with unethical experiments—had caused him to abandon research and go into teaching.
What were the unethical experiments? What had the professor done that—
“Shit!” I shook my head, slinging out the questions. If they had nothing to do with my studies, I had no room for them in my brain. Questions led to trouble. Questions led to pain. “None of my damned business…”
I jabbed the key in the lock, turned it, and pulled free the hasp. I yanked open the door. “Time to come out!” I yelled into the dank darkness. Then softer, “Whatever the hell you are.”
I sensed movement deep within the inky blackness. A primordial fear, something I didn’t understand and had no control over, seized my body. I spun on my heels and barreled around the house. Heart racing, I jumped inside the Escalade and locked the door. I backed up, jerked the shift into drive, and peeled out of the driveway. I didn’t look back.
“It’ll only be for one night,” I told Cass three days later as I gathered up books and notepads and stuffed them in my backpack, along with a change of clothes. “Tomorrow’s test in Professor Howard’s class is going to be a real bitch, and I’m not at all prepared.”
Cass moved up behind me and pressed her warm body against my back. “What if I promise to be good?” she purred.
Though it was hard—next to impossible, in fact—I turned around, took her arms, and set her away from me. “Look—if I’m going to ace this test, I’ll have to study most of the night. And you and I both know if we’re within a mile of each other, that’s not going to happen.”
Cass’s lips formed a sexy pout. “I know…”
I didn’t trust myself to kiss her. “See you tomorrow evening.” I grabbed my backpack and hurried out the door.
To be continued…
Photo from iStock