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The Beginning After by Kiersten Modglin (9)

Nine

PEIGHTON

Peighton awoke with a jolt, covering her ears. “What the—” she asked, jumping out of bed in a dazed state. The alarm blared through the house, a deafening roar. Her pulse raced, head pounding. Someone was in the house.

She ran to the closet, grabbing the closest thing she could find: a baseball bat. Todd had a gun safe, but she couldn’t for the life of her remember the code. The landline phone began ringing, causing her to let out a scream. They’d only gotten it for the alarm system, she’d even told Todd it was ridiculous to put a line in the bedroom, but he’d insisted. She sent a silent prayer of thanks up to her husband who was, of course, saving her life and winning arguments even in death.

She picked it up with shaking hands. “H-Hello?”

“Ma’am, this is Heather with SecureHome Security. We’ve received a distress alarm from your residence. Is everything all right?”

“No,” Peighton said, tears suddenly filling her eyes. She couldn’t help but be thankful Kyle was far away from the house at that moment. “No. I don’t know what’s going on. Please send help.”

“Absolutely, ma’am,” Heather responded quickly with the direct professionalism of someone who had been trained for this. “First Responders are on their way to you right now, Mrs. Claiborne. Would you like to stay on the phone with me until they arrive?”

“Yes,” Peighton said, her gaze bouncing around wildly at her surroundings.

“Great,” Heather said. “Are you somewhere safe?”

“I’m in my bedroom, hiding in the closet.”

“Okay, good. The police will be there soon. Can you tell me what you see?”

“Nothing. I’m hidden with the doors shut.”

“Okay, what about what you hear? Can you hear anything? Anyone?”

She tried to peek through the crack between the doors. Before Peighton could respond, the door to her bedroom was flung open and someone walked in, gun in the air. She covered her mouth quickly, barely catching her scream. She dropped the phone in fear, scooting toward the back of her closet. She could see the shadow of the man walking closer to the closet doors, fear pounding in her chest. She knew her heart would explode at any second.

“Are you still there?” she heard the operator’s voice through the phone’s speaker, but it was too far away for her to reach. The closet door swung open and Peighton screamed, throwing her hands up in the air, immediately dropping her only weapon and launching herself onto her back. The attacker grabbed her hands.

“Hey, woah! Peighton, Peighton! It’s me! Calm down! What’s going on? Who’s here? Where are they?” She opened her eyes, shocked and relieved to see Officer Nealson standing in front of her. He pulled her to her feet. “Who’s here?” he asked again.

“I don’t know…” she said breathlessly, shaking her head. “What on earth are you doing here?”

“Stay here,” he instructed.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

Without responding, he turned, headed out of the bedroom and into the hallway with his gun raised. She watched him disappear into the laundry room before she bent down, reaching for the phone on the ground.

“Ma’am? Ma’am, is everything all right?” the dispatcher’s frantic voice called over the line.

“Yes,” Peighton said, “yes, I’m all right. My friend is here. He’s checking the house now. He’s a police officer, so I’m okay.”

“There’s a police officer on the scene now?”

Peighton clutched her chest, trying to catch her breath. “Yes.”

“Okay, great. Do you feel safe now?”

“I do.”

“Okay then. The rest of the responders should be with you soon. As long as you feel completely safe, it’s okay to hang up now. We can stay on the phone if you’d like, though.”

“It’s okay. I’m safe. I’ll hang up,” Peighton confirmed, feeling her heartrate finally slowing down. I’m safe, she repeated once again in her head. “Thank you so much.”

With that, she pressed the button, allowing the line to go dead. When the officer came back into the room, he shook his head, holding a hand out for her. “It’s okay, the coast is clear. I called in to dispatch to let them know that I’m here. The other officers just pulled up. Let’s go into the living room to meet them.”

She took his hand, allowing him to pull her from the closet. “How did you…I mean…why did you…how…what are you doing here?” she stammered.

“I was in the neighborhood, heard the alarm going off,” he said simply.

As they walked into the living room, Peighton heard a man’s voice. “318 to dispatch, show me on scene.” She heard the buzz of his walkie before he entered through the open door. “Nealson.” He greeted him before turning to Peighton. “I’m Officer Kendrick.” He held out his hand to shake hers.

“Peighton Claiborne,” she said.

“The house is clear, I’ve already done a sweep. Point of entry was the front door, it was standing wide open when I arrived. It doesn’t look like it was forced open though, I didn’t see any damage.”

Officer Kendrick took notes as Nealson spoke. They both looked at Peighton. “Did you see anything? Hear anything?”

“Just the alarms going off. They woke me up. The alarm company called me and then called you guys.” She pressed her lips together, feeling incredibly damsel-in-distress-like.

“Is anyone else home?”

“No. My maid is off for the night. It’s just me and my son other than that, and he’s staying with a family friend tonight.”

“Okay, good. Does anything appear to be missing?” He glanced around the room. Peighton followed his gaze. The TV was still in place, laptops didn’t appear to have been touched. Her jewelry was all in her room and no one had entered there.

“I don’t believe so. I haven’t been able to check everything yet.”

“Good. That’s good.” They all turned to the door as another set of footsteps could be heard approaching them.

“320 to control, 10-4,” the new face, a third officer, said into his radio before looking at them. “Perimeter is secure, there aren’t any signs of forced entry anywhere. The ground’s too wet for a good set of footprints right now. Anything?”

“No. It doesn’t look like anything’s missing. The front door was open when Officer Nealson got here and the perp was already gone. Probably got scared off by the alarm before he could get whatever he came for.”

“Or whoever,” Peighton mumbled under her breath, causing the officers to stare her way.

“Do you know who could’ve been here? Do you believe you’re in danger?”

She thought first of Drew, who had admittedly been stalking her house the night before, but knew better than to mention it. She shook her head instead. “No, not really. I just think it’s strange that my husband’s death happened not two weeks ago and now we’ve had our first break-in in all the time we’ve lived here.”

“What are you saying?”

“Well, what if the person who killed my husband is after me too?”

Officer Nealson put his hand on her back. “Peighton, don’t let yourself get worried thinking about that. Most likely, someone broke in knowing that you’d be here alone. It was probably some dumb kid just trying to get his hands on something valuable, and that’s if it was anything. The door doesn’t look damaged, for all we know the door wasn’t latched properly and the wind caught it just right, causing it to open.”

Officer Kendrick nodded. “He’s probably right, ma’am. If there’s something that makes you think otherwise though, you can tell us. We’ll check into it for you.”

She didn’t answer, her mind racing. If she told them about Drew, Frank would be furious. But was it worth it to risk her life? She shook her head. She was being crazy, Drew wasn’t dangerous, disturbed maybe, but not dangerous.

She shrugged. “No, I’m sure you’re all right. I’m just a little shaken.”

The two officers looked at each other, the first putting his pen and notepad away. “Okay then. Since there doesn’t seem to be anything missing and no one’s hurt, we’re going to go. If you need anything, you just call. We’ll have someone patrol your street for the next few nights to be sure we don’t have any trouble.”

“Thank you,” Peighton said, clasping her hands together in front of her as her anxiety grew. The two officers turned, walking out the door with a final nod goodbye. She watched them pull away before turning to the officer beside her. “Officer Nealson—” she began.

He held up his hand. “I think you can call me Clay by now.” He smiled at her jokingly.

“Clay, can I tell you something in confidence?”

“Is it about your husband’s case?”

“Yes—err, no. I’m not one hundred percent sure either way, to be honest. Maybe?”

“I can’t keep anything about the case to myself, Peighton, I’m sorry. It’s my job to find out the truth about your husband’s death. So, if there’s something you need to tell me…I would certainly hope that you would.”

She paused, her last hope crumpled. “It’s nothing. I’m just…a little scared, I guess.”

“Would you like me to stay with you tonight?” he asked, his voice low. She looked up at him, his face looking as if he’d shocked himself with the question. “To help keep watch, I mean.”

“Is that allowed?” she asked.

“I’m off-duty,” he replied. “What I do tonight is my business.” She felt heat rush to her cheeks at his words, pressing her hands to them quickly. “I mean…” He cleared his throat. “Well, you know, I only mean that I can do whatever I want tonight. Including, keeping you company, if that’s what you want.”

“I’d like that,” she said honestly.

“Well, then it’s settled.” He walked over to the door, locking the deadbolt. “We’ll make sure that door doesn’t set off any more alarms, first of all. And then, I can sit up and keep an eye on things if you’d like to go back to bed.”

“If there’s one thing my momma taught me, Clay, it’s that it’s impolite to sleep while you have company over.” She smiled at him, for the first time allowing herself to really take a closer look at this man, her protector. His buzz-cut hair and strong jaw, the slightly crooked nose and small smile; he was exactly the opposite of her perfect husband. Todd had been what she’d often called “perfectly handsome.” Perfectly everything, in fact. His head full of beautiful, thick dark hair, his sea-green understanding eyes, porcelain skin, and movie-star grin made him a perfect candidate for any office he’d run for: councilman, mayor, and senator. He could’ve been president one day, and they’d often joked that he would. He had a face people could trust and he genuinely cared about those he could help. Thinking about her husband made her feel guilty about having Clay there. She lowered her head.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, sensing the change in her mood.

“Nothing,” she said quickly. “Maybe I’m just being silly. I’m not sure this is such a good idea after all. You really don’t have to stay if you don’t want to.”

He walked to the couch, running his hand along the arm. “Who said I don’t want to?” When she didn’t answer, he approached her. “Peighton?”

She shrugged. “Yeah?”

“What do you think this is?” he asked, pulling her chin up to meet his gaze.

She felt the heat rush to her face. “What do you mean?”

“Do you think I’m trying to come onto you?” he asked, straight to the point.

“I don’t…I mean, uh, well, no. I mean, I don’t—” She couldn’t even make her thoughts make sense, let alone her words.

“Because I’m not. I wouldn’t. You lost your husband barely two weeks ago. You’re not ready, and even if you were, I’m not that kind of guy. More than that, I’m the officer leading the investigation into his death. It would be completely unethical for me to be interested in you. I could lose my job. So, to be clear, I’m here to protect you because you’re home alone and you’re scared. Over the past few weeks, I feel like I’ve grown to know you a bit and I care for your wellbeing. That’s all this is.”

“Oh. Of course.” She nodded, feeling like a child who’d been scolded.

“I don’t say this to hurt you, Peighton. I just want you to know that you have nothing to worry about with me here. Nothing to feel guilty about,” he stressed his words, “I’m not here to be your husband or to try to overstep. I’m doing my job, that’s it.”

She frowned, sucking in a breath. “I didn’t mean to make you think

“You didn’t do anything wrong. I can just tell you’re worried something is going to happen. Something that wouldn’t be okay. I wanted to ease your mind a bit. I know how this might look but I can assure you it’s innocent.” He turned from her, taking a seat on the couch. “Now, come sit down and we can watch some crappy two a.m. television together.” He patted the seat next to him, propping his feet up on the ottoman.

She grinned sheepishly, trying to hide her shame and followed his lead, sitting down at the other end of the couch. As if to make matters worse, they reached for the remote at the same time, their hands brushing. She pulled her hand back too quickly. “You make me nervous,” she blurted out.

He stared at her, a smirk on his face. “I never would have guessed.”

“I know. I’m not subtle. Todd always teased me about that. I can’t hide anything that I feel. And right now, I’m really nervous. And maybe saying that out loud makes me look ditzy or weird or…I don’t know…like a silly little girl, but it’s how I feel. And, well, I just wanted you to know that.”

He raised his eyebrows, rubbing his jaw slightly. “Are you done?”

“Yes,” she said indignantly.

“All right then.” He grabbed hold of the remote, flicking the TV on. After a few minutes of silence had passed, he spoke again, this time so quiet she wasn’t sure she’d heard it at first. “Brave.”

“Excuse me?”

“Brave,” he repeated, looking at her without turning his head completely. “That’s what that makes you.” She stared at him, not sure what to say. “You know, talking about how you feel and all that…my wife always said that makes you brave. I’m no good at it but I wouldn’t call you ditzy or weird or any of that other crap. I’d say brave. Maybe a bit neurotic,” he smirked at her, “but brave nonetheless.”