DISCLAIMER: I don't own The Facts of Life or any of the characters represented in the show. They're owned by some other lucky person. This was not written for profit and no copyright infringement of any sort is meant.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Once Upon a Stormy Night
By Del Robertson
It was a dark and stormy night.
"You can't use that."
Natalie resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She hated when Tootie read over her shoulder. Taking a deep breath, calming herself, she slowly looked up from the page she had just written. "And, why not?"
"Because every spooky story ever written has started out exactly that way."
"Because it works."
"It's cliché," Blair responded, never looking up from the glamour magazine she was reading.
"Great, another country heard from," groused Natalie. "You gonna tell me how to write now, too, Blair?"
"Don't be so sensitive, Natalie." Blair tossed her hair over her shoulder, settled an even gaze on the younger woman. "It's only constructive criticism."
"Yeah," agreed Tootie. "And, you gotta admit that opening line doesn't sound plausible."
Exhaling loudly, Natalie tossed her pencil onto the legal pad, pushed her chair back from the desk. In a huff, she crossed the room, flung open the curtain, exposing the rain-slicked window pane. As a rumble of thunder was followed by the sharp crescendo of lightning streaking the night sky, she gestured emphatically.
"Point taken. But, it still sounds cliché."
"Yeah? Well, if it's good enough for Snoopy, it's good enough for me!" Natalie stated vehemently, referring to the clipping of the Peanuts cartoon she kept taped to her desk for inspiration. Snoopy was drawn on top of his doghouse, painstakingly typing out one word per frame on a manual typewriter, struggling through writer's block until he'd written the classic line to his great novel.
"Easy, Nat," Tootie gingerly patted her friend on the shoulder. "We're only trying to help."
"I know." Natalie folded both arms over her chest, glared at the legal pad still on her desk. "I'm just in a bad mood cause my story's due tomorrow and Beverly Ann won't let me use the word processor."
"Well, with the way the storm's going, that's probably good advice." Blair glanced out the window as another flash of lightning crackled across the sky. There was a loud crash, followed by a boom. The bedroom lights flickered several times before finally staying on. "That could have been your word processor, you know." She smiled at the exasperated sigh from Natalie, couldn't help but adding, "Maybe you shouldn't have waited until the night before to finish your assignment."
"I didn't!" Natalie protested. "I didn't." She felt Tootie's hand squeeze her shoulder, lowered her voice to a more acceptable level. "I've started this story at least a dozen times. But, it's just not coming together right." She picked up her pen, crossed out her opening line in a fit of frustration. "Oh! This is the hardest course I've ever taken!"
"I warned you Ms. Wolff was the strictest English Lit teacher on campus before you signed up for the course," reminded Blair.
"I know. But, I've always done well in composition classes. And, I do enjoy the subject," admitted Natalie. "But, I find that I'm struggling with the assignments."
"But, you're passing the class, Nat," reminded Tootie, "So, what's the big deal?"
"The big deal is that Ms. Wolff is a real, published author. And, I want to show her that I'm serious about my writing. But, so far, I don't think I've impressed her. The best I've gotten is a "B", with an "interesting concept" scrawled in the margin."
"A personal comment from the Big Bad Wolff?" Blair's nose crinkled as she flashed a smile at her younger friend. "That's good, Natalie. She's not known for acknowledging her students one-on-one."
"But, I don't want to just be good, Blair. I want to be great." She felt another bout of self-criticism washing over her. It was easy for Blair. She'd always been great at everything. Heiress to a fortune, everyone knew her family worth, what she was capable of. "I want Ms. Wolff to know my name."
"Yeah? Well, I'll bet she remembers your name if you're the only one that doesn't turn in an assignment tomorrow," Tootie pointed out, tapping her index finger on Natalie's clean sheet of legal paper.
"Maybe it's better to turn in no work rather than bad work?" Natalie asked. "I mean, if I'm really stuck for an idea, surely Ms. Wolff would be understanding?"
"Oh, believe me, you don't want to do that, Natalie." Blair moved until she was seated on the edge of her bed, leaning forward, really into the conversation now. "I heard that Ms. Wolff taught at Bates Academy before transferring to our campus. And, while she was there, she had three smart-asses in her class who didn't study for their final exam. They went for a weekend road-trip and ended up partying with some girls, never once even opening a book. Well, come Monday, they all overslept. And, even though they rushed back to campus, they didn't get there until after their classmates were turning in their exams."
"Let me guess," Natalie suddenly had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, "Wolff flunked them all on the spot."
"No, she didn't," Blair leaned in farther, whispering conspiratorially, the way she did when she had a juicy secret. "The guys were smart. They figured if they told Ms. Wolff they'd been out at a charity event, something like an all-night dance marathon and had a flat tire on the way back, she'd let them take a make-up exam."
"So, they studied and everything worked out fine, right?" Suddenly feeling better, Natalie breathed a sigh of relief.
"When they showed up for the exam the next morning, Ms. Wolff put the three guys in three different areas of the classroom. One in the back left corner, one in the front right corner and one in the middle, surrounded by empty chairs. That way, she could watch them from her desk and be certain none of them were cheating. The first question was worth five points, and it was a breeze. But, when they turned to the second page, they saw the next question was worth 95 points. And, it was simply: Which tire?"
"Aww, man!" Tootie whistled. "That's rough!"
"Yep," Natalie agreed, sharpening her pencil, hunching over her legal pad. She began furiously scrawling. "I'm gonna keep writing till I get done."
"Girls?" the bedroom door slowly creaked open.
Beverly Ann pushed her way inside, softly closing the door behind her. Her hair was ruffled, her glasses were perched on the end of her nose, and she peered at them with beady eyes over the rims of her glasses. A shawl was draped over her shoulders, situated to cover the front of her floor-length nightgown and robe.
"It's past midnight. Don't you think you should be getting some sleep?"
"On my way, Beverly Ann." Tootie made her way under the covers of her bed. "Just wanted to finish watching the late-night, double creature feature."
"I do wish you hadn't been watching television, Tootie." Beverly Ann stated, reaching across the young woman for the remote control laying on Tootie's nightstand. On the television, a news trailer scrolled across the bottom of the screen. Beverly Ann paused, adjusting her glasses, catching the words Peekskill Institute crawling across the trailer. More reports on the flooding in the area, she thought, turning off the television with a click of the remote.
"Relax, Beverly Ann," Tootie flashed a smile. "It's a battery-operated television. No fear of attracting lightning from the storm outside."
"It's not the lightning I'm worried about," she crossed over to Tootie's bed, carefully tucked the edges of the sheet beneath the corners of the mattress, "It's the nightmares that come with you watching monster movies."
"That's when I was ten," Tootie fluffed her pillow, rolled over, "The only monster I see now is when Blair puts on that green cucumber mask before bed."
"Insulting me? I do believe Jo's been a bad influence on you, Tootie."
"Yeah, isn't it great?" Tootie snickered, burrowing further beneath the covers, reaching to turn out her bedside lamp.
Blair arched one delicate blonde eyebrow at the comment, but couldn't hide the slow smile spreading over her lips. She heard Beverly Ann cross the room on creaking floorboards, sensed her presence behind her. A sharp crack of thunder caught her off-guard, causing her to jump. A slender arm draped about her, cupping her shoulder.
"Any sign of her, yet?" Beverly Ann whispered in her ear.
Blair shook her head. "I've been watching for over an hour now, and I haven't seen a single headlight."
"Oh, I do wish she hadn't ridden her motorcycle tonight," lamented Beverly Ann, "I told her there was a chance for rain."
"I take it she hasn't called?"
Beverly Ann shook her head. "I called the station, hoping to convince her to stay until the storm blew over. But, there was no answer."
"Relax," Natalie piped in. "She'll be okay. She's - well, she's Jo."
"Yes, she certainly is," Blair agreed, a soft smile tugging at her lips. Knowing Jo, she doubted if the Bronx native would have given in to Beverly Ann's request, even if she had been reached. Wild and free, unpredictable and uncontrollable, no one ever knew just what Jo would do. Not that she'd ever be purposefully reckless or irresponsible. She just wasn't - tamed.
"Well, standing here worrying about her isn't going to make her come home any faster," Beverly Ann declared, moving away from the window just as another loud clap of thunder sounded. She placed a reassuring hand on Blair's shoulder as the young woman reflexively jumped, "Why don't you turn in and get some sleep?"
Blair flashed her patented Warner smile. "You're right, Beverly Ann. Jo'll be just fine." She closed the drapes, turned away from the window. Drawing back the covers, she slipped off her robe, revealing a brand new silk nightgown. With a flourish, she slid into bed, adjusting her pillow and covers with practiced ease. "Besides," she said, nose crinkling, "I can hardly afford to miss any beauty sleep over that delinquent. I have an image to maintain, after all."
"Believe me, Blair, we all know how desperately you need your beauty sleep," Tootie agreed from her bed.
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"She's just saying that you're getting to that age when it's more noticeable when you haven't been getting enough rest." Natalie tried to hide her snicker behind her hand.
"Humph." Despite her air of indifference, Blair quickly grabbed the hand-held mirror from her nightstand, frantically checked her reflection. Carefully looking for crows' feet and worry lines, she rolled her eyes, slammed the mirror face down when she heard the giggles from the other girls. "That's not funny, you two!"
"That's enough, girls. Time for bed," Beverly Ann admonished, "You, too, Natalie." She pointed a finger at the young woman, still seated at her desk, scribbling furiously on her legal pad.
"Five more minutes," Natalie pleaded.
"Just five more," agreed Beverly Ann. She reached in her robe pocket, extracted two flashlights. "Just in case the power goes out in the middle of the night," she explained, leaving the items on Natalie's desk.
"If we're asleep, how will we ever know?" Natalie fired back.
"Doesn't matter if you need them or not," Beverly Ann declared, "Momma always used to say it's best to be prepared." She cast a meaningful look around the room at the three girls. "She also used to say don't plant tulips in the root cellar."
"What does that mean?" asked Blair.
Beverly Ann adjusted her glasses, pushing them back up the bridge of her nose. She looked at each of the girls in turn. "I don't know," she said at last, "Momma was a little crazy."
The three young women patiently watched as Beverly Ann shrugged her shoulders, shuffled off to the doorway, her slippers making a scraping sound on the hardwood floor. "Night girls," she called out just before turning off the light and closing the bedroom door behind her. They all three listened as the shuffling sounds retreated down the hallway. In moments, they heard the tell-tale creaking of the third stair from the top as Beverly Ann made her way down the staircase.
"You ask me, the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree in that family," Natalie declared, turning her attention back to her writing assignment.
Somewhere downstairs, a clock chimed once. Natalie, Tootie and Blair all lay still in their beds. The rolling sound of thunder could be heard in the distance as rain continued to beat out a steady rhythm. A scraping sound could be heard at the window nearest Tootie's bed.
A set of eyes hurriedly blinked open, staring into the darkness. Tootie huddled deeper into her mattress, pulling her sheet farther over her head until only her eyeballs were visible. The latch on the window frame slowly turned, the metal scraping deeply into the old wood, chipping off flakes of worn paint.
Tootie's eyes grew impossibly larger. "Natalie!" she screamed out, reaching for the bedside lamp.
"What? What is it?" Natalie jumped up from her bed instinctively, grabbing the first item within reach for protection. "What is it?" she asked again.
"There's something at the window!" Tootie shouted, shuffling backwards on the mattress, attempting to put as much space between her and the window as possible. She continued to tug frantically at the cord of the bedside lamp, panicked that the light wasn't coming on.
Natalie stared bug-eyed at the window. Long tendrils reached out, scraping at the window pane in an attempt to break the glass.
"It's trying to get in!" Natalie shouted, rushing forward, pushing her friend behind her. She held her baseball cap with the lightning bolts above her head, ready to smack whatever beastie came through the window. She glanced up doubtfully, as if just realizing for the first time what weapon she had chosen to defend herself with. Tossing the cap back on her bed, she grabbed for the baseball bat Jo always kept near the head of her bed.
"Oh, for Pete's sake!" Blair moaned from her bed, rolling over. Reluctantly, she dragged herself up to a sitting position, flipping her hair back over her shoulder with a toss of her head. She, too, reached for her bedside lamp, attempting to turn it on. Guess Beverly Ann was right about the power going out. Climbing out of bed, she grabbed a flashlight off Natalie's desk, shone it at the window.
The beam caught the unmistakable shape of branches repeatedly brushing against the side of the house. The long, crooked branches of the oak closely resembled gnarled fingers.
Blair smiled smugly at her two terrified companions. "See, it's just the wind knocking the branches against the house." Confidently, she clicked the flashlight off, carried it back to her nightstand. "Come on, let's get some sleep, you scaredy cats."
Hesitantly, Tootie moved back to her bed, sliding beneath the covers, pulling the blankets all the way up to her chin. Natalie looked at her friend disdainfully. "Yeah," she griped, "The only monster you're afraid of is Blair's cucumber mask. Riiiigghht." She gingerly placed Jo's baseball bat back in the exact position she'd found it in before climbing back into her own bed. With one more disgruntled look cast at Tootie, she rolled over, purposely turning her back to the younger woman.
Feeling foolish, Tootie huddled back down into her covers, attempting to block out all the sounds of the storm; the rumbling of thunder, rain pelting at the roof, the branches scraping at the window. At last, she felt herself relaxing enough to drift off. Reflexively, she rolled over, attempting to get into a comfortable position. As she shifted, her eyes blinked open, gazing at the window.
Stupid horror movies! She chided herself, smiling lazily as she watched the branches scrape against the upper part of the window. Now that she knew what it was, the sight wasn't nearly as frightening. She smiled at her own foolishness, blinked back sleep as the cool breeze from the slightly raised window crept into the room, billowing out the sheer white curtains.
Slightly raised window.
That window wasn't open before. Swallowing down the knot of fear that was creeping up in Tootie's throat, she forced herself to breathe. Relax. It's nothing. It's just your imagination. Ears perked as she heard a floorboard creak - and then silence.
Blair rolled over, turning her back to the other girls. Above the sounds of the storm, she could still hear Tootie rustling beneath her covers, tossing this way and that, obviously still worked up about her nightmare.
Poor thing! Sounds like she's positively thrashing about! A grin caused Blair's nose to twitch. Good. Maybe she'll think twice before watching another slasher movie just before bedtime.
Sighing dramatically, she hoped Tootie would take the hint. Almost immediately, the sounds coming from the other side of the room abated. Satisfied, Blair wrapped her arms possessively about her body pillow, closed her eyes.
She felt pressure bearing down on the edge of the bed, the mattress jostling beneath unexpected weight. Even though her eyes were still closed, she could sense someone hovering above her, scant inches from her face. Fingers delicately tucked strands of blonde hair behind the shell of her ear. A hand clamped over her shoulder, fingers clutching at her designer silk pajama top. She fought to control her heart rate as she felt the cold breath upon her neck, a voice whispering in her ear -
Blair's eyes slowly blinked open. She rolled over, stretching luxuriously, a radiant smile on her face. Arching, she interlocked her fingers behind Jo's neck, pulling her head down.
Shocked by Blair's advances, Jo fell into the embrace, barely catching herself on an outstretched arm before she embarrassed herself further by landing on the heiress. Although momentarily stunned, she quickly recovered, responding passionately to the kisses Blair fervently peppered her lips with. Something niggled in the back of her mind, and against her body's fevered protests, she cut short Blair's exploration of her mouth by gently pulling back. She's always been too afraid of getting caught to instigate, well - anything - with Tootie and Natalie in the room.
"Blair, what gives?" she whispered into the darkness.
Instantly, the flashlight clicked on, the light blinding Jo as Blair waved the beam in her eyes. "You've been gone half the night and I attempt to show you how worried I've been about you and the only thing you have to say is 'what gives'?" Blair accused.
"I'm sorry." Jo struggled to keep her voice to a minimum. "I couldn't get here any sooner. Power's out all over town and half the streets are flooded. I lost control and had to lay my bike down on Eastland Bridge. I like to have never got it righted."
"Are you okay?" Her anger momentarily diffused by Jo's plight, Blair's hands ran freely over the brunette's form, ostensibly checking for injuries. She didn't know much about bikes, but she knew Jo was always telling her that the last thing a rider should ever do is lay down their bike. "You aren't hurt anywhere, are you?"
"Nah." Jo shrugged off the attention. "May have skinned up my hands and knees a bit, but nuthin' to worry about."
"I'll be the judge of that." She pushed Jo back, sat up on the bed. "To the bathroom."
Jo rolled her eyes. "Blair, it's nothing," protested Jo, "There's no reason for you to get all worked up over a set of knees."
"I'll have you know, I happen to have a vested interest in what happens to those knees," Blair declared, grabbing Jo's hand as she climbed out of bed, firmly pulling her along. "And, if I say you're marching into the bathroom and dropping your pants, you better believe that's exactly what you're going to do. Besides, you're soaking wet and I'm not about to let you ruin my new Italian sheets!"
"Blair, shush!" Jo urged between clenched teeth. "If you don't lower your voice, you'll wake up Nat and Toot."
"You think they don't suspect?" Blair asked, incredulously.
"If they did," Jo whispered, "It would have been all over town by now."
"Oh, Jo. Natalie and Tootie aren't like that. They would never do anything to intentionally harm their friends."
"I know they wouldn't tell on purpose. But, you know those two can't keep a secret to save their lives." She argued, following Blair into the bathroom.
"Blair and Jo are getting it on," Natalie grumbled, sitting up in bed, throwing back her covers. "Like that's a secret." Slipping her feet into her oversized pink, fuzzy slippers, she stumbled towards her desk.
"Yeah, that'd be a real newsflash," she continued her mumblings. Fumbling around the desk, her fingers found one of the flashlights Beverly Ann had left. "Like the only people who haven't figured that one out are legally blind."
"Hey, Tootie," Natalie called out, stumbling towards her friend's bed. "I'm going downstairs for some ice cream. You coming?"
Hunh. Asleep or not, she usually didn't have to ask Tootie twice if she wanted a late night snack. It had been their ritual for as long as she could remember. Every night after the other girls had turned in, they would slip out of bed and eat ice cream straight out of the tub.
"Hey, Toot. You hear me?" she asked, turning on her flashlight, aiming it at Tootie's bed.
"AAAAHHHH!" she shouted, stumbling backwards, dropping the flashlight, covering her mouth with her hand.
"What's goin' on? What is it?" Jo asked, rushing from the bathroom, pulling up her jeans as she went.
Blair followed quickly behind her, calmly refastening the top three buttons on her silk pajama top. "What is it, Natalie?" she asked, running a hand over the distraught woman's back.
Visibly shaken, all Natalie could do was point at the bed. A loud crack of thunder sounded, and suddenly the lights came back on. Horrified, all three girls stared at the bed. There, in the center of the mattress, blood staining the sheets, was a metal hook.
The three women stared in shock at the bed. A clap of thunder prodded Jo into action first. Carefully, she edged towards the bed. Kneeling down, she peered closely at the hook. Gingerly, she reached out, touching the red splotch on the mattress. Rubbing her fingers together, she grimly looked at the other girls.
"It's real," she stated. "You know what this means?"
"Tootie was kidnapped by Captain Hook?" Natalie guessed.
"Nat! This is real!" Jo shouted, angrily. "This isn't ketchup on a bedspread. That's really Tootie's blood!"
"Oh, come on, Jo." Even Blair had to laugh. "Admit it; you and Tootie rigged up a prank to scare us. Hah - Hah."
"This ain't no gag, Blair," Jo protested, grabbing Blair by the shoulders, shaking her. "Didn't you guys hear the news reports?"
"News reports?" Natalie shook her head. "What news reports? You know Beverly Ann won't let us use anything requiring electricity during a storm."
"It's been all over the television and radio," Jo explained. "The power went out at the Peekskill Institute for the Criminally Insane during the prisoners' dinnertime. The prisoners were corralled and hustled back to their cells as quickly as possibly. But, during all the chaos, one of the inmates was able to escape. He's considered extremely dangerous," she paused, her mouth suddenly going dry as she revealed the final detail of the news report, "and he's easily identifiable by the metal hook he has instead of a right hand."
Natalie, Blair and Jo stood in stunned silence, collectively watching each other, scarcely drawing a breath between the three of them. Another shrill scream broke the silence. Blair instinctively latched onto Jo, clutching at her for dear life. Natalie reached for Blair, effectively trapping her between Natalie and Jo.
"What was that?" whispered Blair.
"More like, who was that?" corrected Natalie.
"Umm, guys," Jo tentatively asked, "Did that sound like Beverly Ann to anyone else?"
Hesitantly, Natalie and Blair nodded in agreement.
"She went downstairs earlier," Natalie volunteered. "She was going to work on her knitting until you got home, Jo."
"I didn't see her when I came in." Jo frowned. "We should probably go make sure she's okay."
They continued to stand there for several long moments, hugging each other, eyeing the closed bedroom door. Biting her bottom lip, Jo hesitantly moved towards her bed. Still latched onto her, Blair and Natalie followed suit. Letting go of Blair for only a split-second, Jo reached out, grabbing her baseball bat.
The lights flickered ominously. "Power might not last," Jo determined, "Grab the flashlights." She waited patiently as Natalie and Blair broke away just long enough to scamper across the room and retrieve their flashlights before scurrying straight back to Jo. "Let's go," she ordered, moving towards the door, feeling Blair and Natalie trailing behind her, hanging onto her with every step.
Jo edged her way down the stairs, leaning against the wall with her shoulder, using it to guide herself down the steps one by one in the darkness. Blair's first instinct had been to turn the flashlight on as soon as the lights went out, but Jo had convinced her to wait until they were at least down the stairs. She crept down the last step, finally halting at the base of the stairs. Blair jostled her from behind, her nails digging into the sleeves of Jo's leather jacket. She felt another bump as Natalie rear-ended Blair.
Cautiously, Jo stole across the room. She could just make out a silhouette sitting in Beverly Ann's rocking chair. A metal tap-tap-tapping could be heard in the darkness. That creep's sitting in Beverly Ann's chair! On hesitant feet, they edged closer.
"Now!" Jo urged, baseball bat at the ready, signaling for Natalie and Blair.
Instantly, they both turned on their flashlights, aiming them at the rocking chair. Jo stepped forward, ready to swing. She jerked to a halt, baseball bat held awkwardly mid-level, inches from connecting with the madman's jaw.
Instead of the crazed killer Jo expected, the flashlights illuminated Beverly Ann sitting in her chair, softly rocking. Her glasses were askew, her eyes glazed over. She firmly held both knitting needles in her hands, the yarn from her project wrapped securely about her throat.
"Is - Is she dead?" Blair stammered.
"The yarn's wrapped three times around her throat; she damn well better be."
"Jo!" Blair admonished, brutally slapping the brunette's arm. "You don't have to be so - - uncouth."
"For cryin' out loud, Blair!" Jo protested, gesturing at Beverly Ann. "I mean, look at her! Someone's strangled her!"
"Are you sure it wasn't some sort of freakish accident?" Blair asked.
"What? You think it was some fancy new technique that got away from her? I know; it was knit one - pearl two - wrap the yarn around your neck and pull!"
"Well, regardless, we can't just leave her there like that," Blair reasoned. Disentangling herself from Jo, she reached for the afghan Beverly Ann had draped across her lap. Carefully, she lifted it, bringing it up to cover Beverly Ann's body from the top of her head to the tops of her black waders.
There was a moment of awkward silence as they took in the grisly scene before them. "You should have covered her with a sheet," Jo grumbled.
"I'm certainly not going back upstairs to fetch a sheet!" Blair sounded insulted.
"Yeah, but to cover her with the afghan she was making for Andy's Christmas present - " Jo's words trailed off as she gestured helplessly at the work-in-progress covering Beverly Ann.
"I'm sorry if I can't do anything right!" Blair burst out in tears, throwing herself on the sofa.
Great. "I'm sorry, Blair. I didn't mean it." Instantly realizing her error, she sat on the sofa beside Blair, taking her into her arms. She whispered words of reassurance as fingers stroked repeatedly through soft, blonde locks. "I'm sorry. I know I'm being a bitch. It's just that I'm scared, too."
That effectively stopped Blair's tears. "You're scared, too?" she managed to snivel out.
"Yeah," Jo admitted, continuing to hold Blair in her embrace. To her relief, Blair seemingly relaxed enough to lay her head on Jo's shoulder. "Mind you, it's not something I'd normally admit to. And, if you and Nat ever tell another living soul - "
Blair abruptly sat upright. "Jo," she whispered, big brown eyes darting about the room, "Where's Natalie?"
"Natalie! Natalie!" Blair called out, following Jo into the kitchen.
She played her flashlight around the room. Empty.
"Natalie! Natalie!" Blair shouted again.
"She's not here, Blair." Jo jumped as the power came back on, bathing the kitchen in light.
"She has to be," protested Blair. "She's Natalie. And, this is the kitchen. Natalie's always in the kitchen."
Jo glanced worriedly at the blonde debutante. She was standing in the middle of the kitchen, twirling about in circles, shining her flashlight as she turned. Resolutely, Jo stormed to the refrigerator, yanking it open. Reaching in, she pulled out a can of beer, popped the top on it. Taking a swig, she passed the can to Blair. "Here, drink this."
Obediently, Blair turned the can up, taking a healthy swallow. Sputtering, she spewed the beer all over Jo and the kitchen floor. "Why, Jo?" she asked, between violent coughs.
"Blair? Blair, are you okay?" Jo instantly rushed to her side, pounding her on the back.
"Why would you?' she managed to gasp out before her body was assaulted by another round of coughs. At length, Blair's coughing fit subsided. Tears rolled freely down her cheeks. She was finally able to catch her breath. "Why would you make me drink that swill you call beer?"
"You were going into shock, Blair. I had to find some way to snap you out of it," Jo reasoned. "It was either that or slap you."
Blair looked positively mortified. "Well, thank goodness you chose the beer, then." She paused, pensively, biting her bottom lip. "Jo, where could Natalie be?"
Jo shrugged helplessly. "I don't know, Blair. We've checked every room on the ground floor."
"Maybe she went back upstairs?" Blair suggested, arching one eyebrow.
"Nah, we would have heard her." Jo looked up, glancing out the kitchen window. She could have sworn she saw a shadow move past the drapes. "Let's check the living room again," she suggested, grabbing Blair's hand, dragging her from the kitchen.
Jo didn't breathe a sigh of relief until they were safely out of the kitchen and back in the living room. Surreptitiously, so as not to alarm Blair, she carefully extracted her hand from Blair's, moved to check the locks on the front door. Both the key lock and the deadbolt were secure, and the chain was fastened across the door frame.
Turning around, she spied the large picture window, the drapes covering the panes of glass. Without missing a beat, she stormed across the room, threw her back against the piano. The throw rug situated beneath the piano made it easier to slide it over the polished, hardwood floor. Pushing, shoving, she didn't stop until the large piano moved into position, effectively blocking the window.
A loud boom of thunder signaled another power outage. Reaching into her jacket pocket, Jo extracted a flashlight, focusing the beam. Spying her baseball laying on the floor near the piano, she picked it up, hefting its weight as she comfortably bounced it in her hand.
"There," she declared, grinning at Blair. "No way that lunatic can get in now."
"Unless you're already here."
"What?" Jo asked. Is Blair going into shock again? Cause if she is, I'm gonna hafta slap her!
She took a step in Blair's direction. Blair instinctively took a step backwards.
"You said we would have heard Natalie if she'd gone upstairs. You're right, we would have. The third step from the top creaks. No way around it." Blair took another step back. "But, I didn't hear you come up tonight."
"It was late." Jo shrugged. "You didn't hear me because you were sleeping."
"Except, I wasn't."
Jo looked puzzled. "Huh?"
"I wasn't asleep. Tootie woke me up screaming about a monster at the window. I thought she was just dreaming - until you pushed the piano in front of the window. It reminded me that the upstairs window was closed when we went to bed. But, I remember seeing it open later."
"One of the girls got hot and opened it," Jo shrugged.
"It's been storming all night. They were both too afraid to go near the window." Blair lowered her flashlight, focusing the beam on the ripped out knees of Jo's jeans. "There's a rose trellis outside that window. And, you scraped your hands and knees."
"Because I almost wiped out on my bike, Blair." Jo didn't like where this conversation was headed. She took a step forward.
Blair retreated another step, feeling the edge of the sofa pressing into her back. Reaching out a hand, she used her fingers to guide herself along the edge of the sofa as she attempted to retreat even farther.
"You came in with that story about the deranged killer. A story none of us had ever heard before you came home."
"Because you don't watch the news."
"We followed you around the house all night, taking our cue from you," Blair continued. "Not once did you ever suggest we call the police. Is that because you didn't want them here?" she asked.
"No, it's because I knew the power was out. The phones aren't working - the lines are dead."
"Just like Tootie, Natalie and Beverly Ann." Blair's heart rate quickened as Jo's jaw locked, a menacing scowl etched across her features. "You killed Beverly Ann when you came in."
A predatory smile flashed across Jo's face. "I thought you said I climbed in through the bedroom window."
"Maybe - " Blair hesitated, trying to piece the puzzle together. Jo was coming closer, closing the gap between them.
"Maybe I didn't do anything, Blair." Jo spoke soothingly, leaning her baseball bat against the arm of the sofa. She reached for Blair, attempting to pull her into an embrace.
Biting her lip, Blair glanced down at Jo's hands. Strong and muscular, she had always felt safe when Jo would hold her. Now, one hand was reaching for her reassuringly while the other maintained its hold on the flashlight.
"If you didn't do anything, how'd you get the flashlight?" Jo followed Blair's gaze, looking quizzically at the flashlight she held in her hand. "Beverly Ann gave us two. I have one. How'd you get Natalie's?"
Jo eyed Blair suspiciously, weighing her options. Suddenly, Blair's hand shot out, grabbing Jo's baseball bat. "Blair, wait!" Jo pleaded, one hand outstretched towards the blonde. Before she could react, Blair swung the bat, connecting with Jo's jaw.
When she came to, the lights were back on. The front door was open, rain pelting the carpeting inside the living room. On shaky limbs, Jo stumbled to the door, peering outside. The rain was coming down in slick sheets, making visibility impossible. She flinched as cold pellets pounded her face, soaking her hair.
"Blair!" she yelled, cupping her hands, screaming into the darkness. "Blair!"
The wind picked up, tossing a branch towards the house. The limb bounced off the door frame, narrowly missing Jo. She struggled to close the door, then locked and bolted it.
Breathing heavily, she turned around, leaning against the door. Maybe Blair went for help at one of the neighbors, she thought. She jumped as a thudding sound echoed from somewhere below her feet. Man, I hope she's getting the cops! Another thud resounded from the basement. Man, I hope they get here soon!
Heart beating rapidly, she tried to block out the sounds coming from the basement. Closing her eyes, she worked to control her breathing. Slowly, she opened them, turning her head in the direction of the living room - And Beverly Ann's now empty chair.
Man, this is stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Jo berated herself constantly. One step. One mental abrasion. Another step. Another mental tirade. You hear noises coming from the basement - the last place you should be investigating IS the basement!
Another thud echoed up the stairs. Cautiously, Jo crept down, carefully taking one step at a time, slowly lowering her foot onto each board. She paused halfway down, seeing the light shining from the overhead lamp in the center of the room.
There was another thud. Taking a deep breath, she hefted the baseball bat in her grasp, went down another step. Thud! Another step. Thud! She stopped at the third step from the bottom, pressing her face against the railing, she peered through the wooden spokes of the banister.
A sharp gasp escaped Jo's lips. Seated in the center of the basement, tied to a wood chair, was Blair. A rope was securely fastened about her waist and arms, effectively securing her to the chair frame. Another length of rope was fastened about her delicate ankles, just above her silk slippers. Her mouth was held shut with duct tape.
Jo instantly bolted down the last three steps, ran the distance to Blair. She began working on the ropes fastened about her wrists.
"Mmmmf!" Blair grunted through her gag, adamantly struggling against her bonds.
"Don't worry, Blair, I'll have you out of here in a jiffy." Jo gave up on the knot in the rope about her wrists. Kneeling down, she began working at the rope about Blair's ankles.
"Mmmmf! Bhmm Mfff." Blair insisted. Pausing, Jo reached one hand up, ripped the duct tape off Blair's mouth. Blair experimentally worked her jaw before yelling out, "Jo! Behind you!"
The first sensation Jo became aware of was the incessant pounding in her head. The next was the thousand tiny pinpricks she felt in her arms and wrists. She attempted to move, discovered her hands were firmly tied behind her back. Wiggling her feet experimentally, she soon discovered her ankles were tied, as well. She struggled, testing her bonds. The ropes wouldn't give. Fighting down the urge to panic, she concentrated on breathing deeply in and out through her nose.
Her eyes blinked open. She was laying on the floor; her cheek resting on cold dirt. Stretched out in front of her were at least a half dozen large mounds covered over with a tarp. She turned her head, attempting to see the rest of the basement.
Her range of motion was limited. She could see the mounds piled in front of her, dirt peeking out from the edges. And, by turning her neck at an odd angle, she was able to make out the chair Blair had been tied to. The chair had been knocked over and was lying on its side now, the only sign Blair had ever been there was a lone silk slipper laying on the ground. Suddenly, a pair of black waders stepped into her field of vision. She cricked her neck, trying to get a better view. A sudden wave of nausea overtook her, and she closed her eyes.
When she opened them again, there was a second set of boots standing next to Beverly Ann's. These were black, high-heeled, decidedly unlike the waders that Beverly Ann was wearing.
That's what had made Jo suspect the basement - Beverly Ann's waders. She was dressed from head to foot in night clothes, with the exception of her footwear. And, looking at the red-caked mud on the soles, Jo tried to reason where Beverly Ann might have gone. Then, it finally dawned on her; with the exception of her boots, Beverly Ann wasn't dressed to go out. So, the only place she could have been was the basement. She just couldn't figure out why.
"I just couldn't figure out why."
Didn't I just say that, thought Jo. Then, she realized the words were coming from the owner of the black, high-heeled boots.
"Why would you do this, Beverly Ann?" the voice asked again.
"Momma always said don't plant tulips in the root cellar," was Beverly Ann's reply.
"So, you decided to plant bodies instead?"
Jo's blood ran cold. Those were bodies under the tarp. Natalie and Tootie. Fear gnawed at her. She hadn't seen Blair when she woke up!
"This is just like when were kids all over again. Constantly expecting me to clean up your messes!"
"I've never asked you to clean up any of my mess," Beverly Ann sniffled.
"No? Then, what about that time you babysat for that couple with the baby?" The voice suddenly sounded very high-pitched, sort of sing-songy as Beverly Ann's transgressions were listed. "You were so stoned that you cooked a turkey in the oven for them. Only, it wasn't Thanksgiving! That was their newborn you stuffed and cooked!"
"So, that was one time," Beverly Ann admitted.
"And, the time you bathed the dog and put it in the microwave to dry its fur?"
"I only left it on for a couple of minutes. I thought he would just get warm."
"He exploded!" The voice seemed to explode, too. "Now, here we are again, all these years later, you expecting me to clean up your mess again!"
Jo struggled, cricking her neck, looking up. She took in the black boots, the blue dress. She saw the apron, covered in blood, the butcher knife held firmly in the chubby hand, the red hair tied in a bun. She tried to scream, but the duct tape pressed securely over her mouth cut off her cries for help. Muscles straining, she struggled against her bonds, unable to work herself free.
"Then again, I guess the family that slays together stays together!" Edna Garrett cackled wildly.
Seeing the two sisters, Beverly Ann and Edna, coming towards her, butcher knives at the ready, all Jo could do was scream!
"May I speak with you?"
Nervously, she approached the desk. "Yes?"
The elderly woman reached out, taking a blue book off the desk, handing it to her student. "Introducing a character in the last three pages of the book that had never been mentioned in the previous chapters is hardly fair play. While everyone loves a story filled with suspense, the reader should be given a fair chance to figure out the ending."
"Oh." She didn't know what else to say. She'd thought the twist was clever.
"However, your work shows a lot of promise and I'll expect to see you on the best seller's list by graduation."
"Wow. Thanks, Ms. Wolff. Coming from you, that means a lot to me."
"It also means a lot of hard work for you, young lady." Ms. Wolff held up her hand to stop the blatant groveling. "And, I do have one more question for you, Ms. Green. Was the relationship between the two girls necessary to the plotline, or was it merely gratuitous lesbian-chic thrown in for dramatic purposes?"
"Oh, it was absolutely necessary, Ms. Wolff. I followed the first rule of writing," Natalie responded with a wink, a glance down confirming the "A" on the cover of her manuscript, "Always write about what you know."
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