The Obsession

The Obsession by Nora Roberts


August 29, 1998

She didn’t know what woke her, and no matter how many times she relived that night, no matter where the nightmare chased her, she never would.

Summer turned the air into a wet, simmering stew, one smelling of sweat and drenching green. The humming fan on her dresser stirred it, but it was like sleeping in the steam pumping off the pot.

Still, she was used to that, to lying on top of summer-moist sheets, with the windows open wide to the relentless chorus of cicadas—and the faint hope even a tiny breeze would slither through the sultry.

The heat didn’t wake her, nor did the soft rumble of thunder from a storm gathering in the distance. Naomi went from sleep to awake in an instant, as if someone had given her a good shake or shouted her name in her ear.

She sat straight up in bed, blinking at the dark, hearing nothing but the hum of the fan, the high pitch of the cicadas, and the lazy, repetitive hoo of an owl. All country summer sounds she knew as well as her own voice, and nothing to put that odd little click in her throat.

But now, awake, she felt that heat, like gauze soaked in hot water and wrapped around every inch of her. She wished it were morning so she could sneak out before anyone was up and cool off in the creek.

Chores came first, that was the rule. But it was so hot it felt like she’d have to part the air like a curtain just to take a step. And it was Saturday (or would be in the morning) and sometimes Mama let the rules slide a little on Saturdays—if Daddy was in a good mood.

Then she heard that rumble of thunder. Delighted, she scrambled out of bed to rush to her window. She loved storms, the way they whirled and swung through the trees, the way the sky went spooky, the way lightning slashed and flashed.

And maybe this storm would bring rain and wind and cooler air. Maybe.

She knelt on the floor, her arms folded on the windowsill, her eyes on the bit of moon hazed by heat and clouds.


She wished for it—a girl who’d turn twelve in just two days and still believed in wishes. A big storm, she thought, with lightning like pitchforks and thunder like cannon fire.

And lots and lots of rain.

She closed her eyes, tipped her face up, tried sniffing the air. Then, in her Sabrina the Teenage Witch T-shirt, she pillowed her head on her hands and studied the shadows.

Again she wished for morning, and since wishes were free, wished it were the morning of her birthday. She wanted a new bike so bad, and she’d given out plenty of hints.

She knelt, wanting morning, a girl tall and gawky, who—though she checked daily—was not yet growing breasts. The heat had her hair sticking to her neck. Annoyed with it, she pushed it up, off, let it hang over her shoulder. She wanted to cut it—really short, like a pixie in the fairy-tale book her grandparents had given her before they weren’t allowed to see one another anymore.

But Daddy said girls were supposed to have long hair, and boys short. So her little brother got a crew cut down at Vick’s Barbershop in town, and all she could do was pull her sort-of-blonde hair back in a ponytail.

But then Mason got spoiled silly, in her opinion, being the boy. He’d gotten a basketball hoop and a backboard, with an official Wilson basketball for his birthday. He got to play Little League baseball, too—something that by Daddy’s rules was only for boys (something Mason never let her forget)—and being younger by twenty-three months (something she didn’t let him forget), he didn’t have as many chores.

It wasn’t fair, but saying so only added on more chores and risked losing TV privileges.

Besides, she wouldn’t care about any of that if she got the new bike.

She caught a dull flash—just a shimmer of lightning low in the sky. It would come, she told herself. The wish storm would come and bring the cool and wet. If it rained and rained and rained, she wouldn’t have to weed the garden.

The idea of that excited her enough that she nearly missed the next flash.

Not lightning this time, but the beam from a flashlight.

Her first thought was someone was poking around, maybe trying to break in. She started to stand up, run for her father.

Then she saw that it was her father. Moving away from the house toward the tree line, moving quick and sure in the beam of the light.

Maybe he was going to the creek to cool off. If she went, too, how could he be mad? If he was in a good mood, he’d laugh.

She didn’t think twice, just grabbed up her flip-flops, stuck her tiny flashlight in her pocket, and hurried out of the room, quiet as a mouse.

She knew which steps creaked—everybody did—and avoided them out of habit. Daddy didn’t like it if she or Mason snuck downstairs for a drink after bedtime.

She didn’t put the flip-flops on until she reached the back door, then eased it open just enough—before it could creak—to squeeze out.

For a minute she thought she’d lost the trail of the flashlight, but she caught it again and darted after. She’d hang back until she gauged her father’s mood.

But he veered off from the shallow ribbon of the creek, moving deeper into the woods that edged that scrap of land.

Where could he be going? Curiosity pushed her on, and the almost giddy excitement of sneaking through the woods in the dead of night. The rumbles and flashes from the sky only added to the adventure.

She didn’t know fear, though she’d never gone this deep into the woods—it was forbidden. Her mother would tan her hide if she got caught, so she wouldn’t get caught.

Her father moved quick and sure, so he knew where he was going. She could hear his boots crunching old dried leaves on the skinny trail, so she kept back. It wouldn’t do for him to hear her.

Something screeched, made her jump a little. She had to slap her hand over her mouth to muffle the giggle. Just an old owl, out on the hunt.

The clouds shifted, covered the moon. She nearly stumbled when she stubbed her bare toe on a rock, and again she covered her mouth to smother her hiss of pain.

Her father stopped, making her heart pound like a drum. She went still as a statue, barely breathing. For the first time she wondered what she’d do if he turned around, came back toward her. Couldn’t run, she thought, for he’d surely hear that. Maybe she could creep off the path, hide in the brush. And just hope there weren’t snakes sleeping.

When he moved on she continued to stand, telling herself to go back before she got into really big trouble. But the light was like a magnet and drew her on.

It bobbled and shook for a moment. She heard something rattle and scrape, something creak like the back door.

Then the light vanished.

She stood in the deep, dark woods, breath shallow, and cold prickling over her skin despite the hot, heavy air. She took a step back, then two, as the urge to run fell over her.

The click came back to her throat, so sharp she could barely swallow. And the dark, all the dark seemed to wrap around her—too tight.

Run home, run. Get back in bed, close your eyes. The voice in her head pitched high and shrill like the cicadas.

“Scaredy-cat,” she whispered, clutching her own arms for courage. “Don’t be a scaredy-cat.”

She crept forward, almost feeling her way now. Once again the clouds shifted, and in the thin trickle of moonlight she saw the silhouette of a ruined building.

Like an old cabin, she thought, that had burned down so only the jags of foundation and an old chimney remained.

The odd fear slid away into fascination with the shapes, the grays of it all, the way the thin moonlight played over the scorched bricks, the blackened wood.

Again she wished for morning so she could explore. If she could sneak back there in the light, it could be her place. A place where she could bring her books and read—without her brother nagging at her. And she could sit and draw or just sit and dream.

Someone had lived there once, so maybe there were ghosts. And that idea was a thrill. She’d just love to meet a ghost.

But where had her father gone?

She thought of the rattles and creak again. Maybe this was like another dimension, and he’d opened a door to it, gone through.

He had secrets—she figured all adults did. Secrets they kept from everybody, secrets that made their eyes go hard if you asked the wrong question. Maybe he was an explorer, one who went through a magic door to another world.

He wouldn’t like her thinking it because other worlds, like ghosts and teenage witches, weren’t in the Bible. But maybe he wouldn’t like her thinking it because it was true.

She risked a few more steps forward, ears cocked for any sound. And heard only the thunder, rolling closer.

This time when she stubbed her toe, the quick cry of pain escaped, and she hopped on one foot until the sting eased. Stupid rock, she thought, and glanced down.

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