Always trust your intuition. That was the lesson Erica learned. She knew from the first moment she laid her eyes on Frank and felt the pit of her stomach plummet that something was wrong. She always knew something was not quite right.
Her mouth suddenly dry, Erica set her morning paper down on the kitchen counter and grabbed a bottle of juice next to her half-eaten breakfast. She took a big swig and swallowed with an audible gulp, but it didn’t help. She abandoned the juice and poured a glass of water from the nearby refrigerator. Erica closed her eyes as she savored the refreshing liquid, and thought about the first time she had encountered Frank.
The force of the vivid ten-year-old memory broke Erica into the tiniest of frowns as she remembered how the event began with an argument with her mother.
“Erica, I’m tired of arguing!” her mother had yelled as she stood in Erica’s bedroom, her eyes wild and nearly murderous. “I swear to God, if I had known you were going to be such an insufferable 16-year-old, I would have sent you to live with your father last year and saved myself the aggravation.”
Erica had refused to acknowledge the barb her mother slung at her or how badly it stung.
“I don’t want to go down there with those people!” Erica had yelled. “They’re strangers.”
“They’re soon to be our family, and they wouldn’t be strangers if you would leave your bedroom and enjoy the lovely family barbecue Al put together in the downstairs. His parents are here and his little sister, Stacey. She’s a year older than you. I’m sure the both of you would hit it off great if you dared to step out into the world for at least ten minutes.”
Erica rolled her eyes. Deep down she knew she was being difficult, but so was having to accept her mother and Al’s recent engagement. Al was a nice enough man who had been in their lives for a year, most of which he spent trying to win over Erica’s affections. Erica, however, resisted. The idea of another man taking her beloved father’s place was downright blasphemous.
For all her discomfort at the idea of mingling with strangers, Erica knew her mother was at her wit’s end. All she had wanted was a nice family gathering.
With a heavy sigh, Erica shut the top to her laptop and stood to face her mother.
“Fine,” she murmured.
Her mother’s face had broken into the widest grin once she realized Erica was offering a truce. The two of them walked down to the stairs and headed to the backyard. The closer Erica got to the back of the house, the more noise she heard. Someone had a radio blasting some old r&b music that was practically all bass. She also heard some laughter and little children playing. It didn’t sound like a lot of people, though. Erica tried to psych herself up. With the best fake smile she could muster, Erica entered the back yard with her mother and introduced herself to everyone.
After a few moments, Erica had found herself sitting next to a sullen Stacey at a table laden with food. Stacey had politely smiled as Erica introduced herself, but didn’t offer any further conversation. She appeared content to pick idly at her half-eaten hotdog.
“What’s goin’ on everybody!”
Both girls turned towards the jovial voice coming from the open back door. There stood a tall man with the neatest facial hair Erica had never seen. Not one strand of his goatee was out of place. For that matter, nothing about him was out of place. His white outfit was crisp and wrinkle free. From her vantage point at the long table, Erica could see a bright diamond stud in his ear and a gaudy gold watch on his wrist.
“Who’s that?” Erica asked.
“My brother, Frank,” Stacey whispered. Erica glanced at Stacey and noticed she had hung her head with her long, wavy brown hair hiding her face.
Weird, Erica thought as she looked back at Frank only to see him heading in their direction.
“Hey!” Frank gave Erica a charming smile. She didn’t smile back. Something about that man made her nervous. Erica fought the urge to get up and run into the house. It was foolish, of course. Frank was far from threatening, but there was something off about him.
Erica said a meek “hello” and turned back to Stacy, desperately trying to ignore the sudden nervous flutter in her belly. Stacy refused to look at her brother; she had turned her back on him and held herself rigidly. That didn’t go unnoticed by Frank.
“Well, hello to you too, Stacy,” he said with a slightly malicious tone. Erica stole a glance at him. His leering gaze on Stacy’s back was enough to make her jump up.
Erica ran to the bathroom near the kitchen. Once inside, she locked the door. It took a few tries. Her hands wouldn’t stop shaking. After splashing some water to cool her flushed face, Erica opened the door and ran right into Frank.
He didn’t say anything, and Erica was thankful for that. However, when he licked his lips, raised his fingers, and softly stroked her cheek, she wanted to vomit.
The back door slammed. Thankfully, Frank released her as he ducked into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him. Erica took that as her cue to run away.
As Erica rounded the corner, she bumped hard into Stacy, almost knocking her over.
“Are you okay?” she had asked, concerned.
“Yeah,” Erica lied as her whole body trembled with fear and wracked nerves.
“Oh,” she replied. “I came to look for you. I saw Frank go inside…”
Erica stopped walking and looked at Stacy as her voice trailed off. Her wide brown eyes stared hard into Erica’s hazel ones. Right then, Erica knew she wasn’t wrong to think something was off with Frank. Stacy knew it, too, and from the looks of it, she had known such for a very long time.
Erica shook herself out of her memory of Frank and Stacey. Standing by the refrigerator, she turned and glanced at the headline of the newspaper she’d been reading before she’d hopped on the memory lane expressway: Rapist Caught with Pants Down. Below the glaring headline was a recent picture of Frank. He still bore the same charming grin.