Percy tossed on the couch, caught somewhere between sleep and wakefulness.
Guess what she's doing right now, ol' boy? that voice only he could hear asked. She's swinging on the porch, thinking about some other man. That seed will be a sapling before you know it. Thinking about that other man. Thinking about leaving you to be with him.
"Not Emma," Percy said to the foreign voice he'd grown to know so well. "Not my wife. She knows better. We've shown her what happens to sniffin' dogs."
Ah, but what if it's the bitch that's going sniffing, hmm? What if she wants to run away?
"Never happen," Percy told the voice. "She's just a scared little girl. She ain't got the guts."
Are you sure about that, ol' friend?
Then you're a fool. Maybe I should just let you find out for yourself. Let you deal with it on your own.
The voice was silent for a moment, then it said: Guess you aren't as sure as you thought, now were you?
On the couch, Percy moaned once before he settled back into a deep sleep with the ease of a baby rocked by its mother.
Two days later, she walked past Fox's house on her evening walk. He was chopping wood for the coming winter, there never seemed to be enough his momma said, and he ought to go get started. He was surprised when Emma stopped before going up to turn around.
He glanced back and smiled. "Hey." He dropped the maul on the ground and met her at the side of the road. "What are you up to, Emma?"
She caught him totally off-guard by smiling. "I'm going for my walk." Then she pointed to the road leading up into the mountains. "Except this time I'm going in the woods."
"Oh yeah?" His heart pumped just a little faster. He thought he could hear it in her voice. He wanted to. "I thought about going on a hike myself."
She nodded. "It'll help you remember." She stepped a little closer and whispered, "Go up to the old water tower. Remember how to get there?" When he nodded, she went on, "Wait for a while after I leave and make sure no one sees. Just ... make sure you're alone."
She walked away without glancing back.
Fox waited ten minutes, then grabbed a leash, his mother's larger than life golden retriever, and followed.
* * *
Percy sat hunkered in the basement, hands fisted in his hair at the temples.
A fox in the hen house, taking up chase. Better shoot him dead, before its too late, the voice sang in glee.
"You hush now. She's just walkin'. Just like every other day."
Hands up a skirt, fingers on her thigh, give it a few minutes and they'll be fucking outside!
"No! You're wrong."
Bet you'll be able to tell it when she gets home. She'll smell like love, ol' boy. Like love and sunshine and happiness.
"I'll take that bet. She'll be back in a few minutes and I'll prove you wrong," Percy told the voice. But already, the beast had awoken and his body had begun to change. Another perk that came with the voice ... and the beast. "She should be home any minute now," he said in a voice that was now not-quite his own. He struggled to force down the beast. He didn't need it yet.
Sorry, ol' boy, but not today. No, your woman is going to be very late today.
* * *
Emma sat on the ground in front of the old, rusting-to-nothing water tank with her knees bent. Her face was tipped back so she could look at the puffed clouds as they drifted lazily across the sky.
"Hey," Fox said. He slipped the leash around a tree and clipped it in place. "What's up?"
"Just thinking. Thinking and breathing and being." Emma smiled and looked down from the clouds to his face. "I like to be outside."
"Mind if I sit and talk to you for a minute?"
"Not at all. Cop a squat." Emma patted the ground beside her and jerked her head toward the dog. "Who's your friend?"
"Bo. He barks at everything." Fox sat down beside and slightly behind her. He stretched his legs out and crossed his ankles, ready to settle in for a nice long chat. Other than his mom and brothers, he hadn't talked to anyone. Not a real conversation anyway. And if he remembered anything about Emma, it was that she loved to talk; even if she was a bit shy.
"I see." Emma nodded. "He's gorgeous."
"Yeah." Fox picked up a rock and turned it over in his hand. Minutes went by without any further comment from Emma. Apparently, she was content just to sit with him. "Anything on your mind?" he asked, trying to start a conversation.
"There's always something," she replied.
"Want to talk about it?"
"No. It's too big. I can't even begin to comprehend it, really. I can't say what I'm thinking." From his place behind her, Fox watched one slender shoulder raise in a half-shrug. Her posture belied her calm repose; her entire body as tight and tense as could be.
"You're miserable, aren't you?" he asked.
"Misery isn't even close." Her voice was a whisper as light as the breeze, but heavy. Heavy with a sorrow he couldn't even imagine. It spoke volumes more than the words coming out of her mouth.
Fox looked down at the rock in his hands. I can't stand this, he thought. He looked at her back, at her tense shoulders, her trembling arms. She looked so vulnerable. "I'm trying so hard not to hit on you," he said.
"I know," Emma answered. She didn't move away when his hands slipped over her shoulders. She didn't fight when he turned her around.
And when his mouth found hers, she melted into him. Her arms snaked around his waist, pulled him closer. Her lips parted and she nipped lightly at his bottom lip.
He pushed her back until she lay on the ground. Her mouth opened as if to protest, but she pressed her lips together and nodded. Fox took his time and found his way around her body. She was covered in stretch marks, probably had gained tons of weight while pregnant with her kids. But she was still stunning. He placed kisses over every inch of her and was delighted to find that she did taste just as sweet as she smelled.
Emma closed the door behind her nearly two hours later. Percy looked up from his place on the couch, eyes narrowed.
"Long walk today."
"I fell asleep in the sun. It was so warm!" She shrugged and laughed a little. "I won't do it again."
"No, you won't." Percy got up and advanced on her. "Your cheeks are flushed."
"I was in the sun, remember?" She tried to move around him, muttering something about needing to start supper. Percy's huge, shovel-like hand shot out and grabbed a handful of her hair.
"Don't you know I can smell him on you?" he whispered. He breathed deep at her jawline and scowled. "He spent more time here, didn't he? I wonder how he liked smelling my flower."
"What are you talking about?" Emma tried to pull back, but his hold on her hair was fast. He twisted her head until her eyes were level with his. "You're crazy," she said.
"You're right about that, sweetheart." Percy's breath feathered over her cheeks, hot and sticky and rank. "Tell me who. I ain't had a kill in a long time, Emma. It'll be sweet. What's his name, honey? All I need is his name."
"There isn't anyone."
"And you lie to me again. Why do you lie? I can't abide a lying wife. No ma'am." Percy shoved her away; she hurtled across the room and landed on the couch. "I can smell him, Emma. His stink is still on you like last night's fuckin'." He stood over her and Emma cowered under his shadow, a shadow that grew longer and broader the angrier he got. "It's strong, too. Must have been some damn good lovin'. I hope it was worth it."
Emma tried to push herself further into the couch cushions. "Percy, I -- "
"Just hush now. It'll be all right in a little while. It ain't nothin' you ain't had before." He paused long enough to crack his long, now clawed fingers. "Well, maybe just a little something new. Can't have you gettin' used to it now, can we?"
Fox stood outside his mother's house, trying to figure out if what he heard was a cougar or a human. The screams didn't sound like any person he'd ever heard, so he assumed it was a cougar. He shrugged and went inside, but not before he made sure Bo came too.
Supper was on the stove, simmering. Emma stood in the bathroom by the sink, spitting out blood and fragments of chipped teeth. She leaned over the sink and cupped her hands under the running tap to rinse her mouth out, then raised up to look at herself in the mirror. Percy's face, his normal face, was just behind her own reflection. His breath rippled her hair.
"I ain't gonna make you stop walkin'. If I do, your ass'll get the size of Texas. You just make sure you don't come home smellin' like some other man's love no more. You say there ain't no one and maybe there ain't. But I'm a jealous man, Emma. Even a hug is too much. I won't let you make the fool of me."
Emma watched her reflection nod. "I know."
"You're too sweet a girl to be runnin' around, anyway. From now on, you walk where the houses are. That way I can keep an eye on you."
"I will. I'll stay where you can find me." Emma turned and moved past him. "I need to pull the sauce off the stove."
Percy stopped her with one huge hand and traced a finger over the criss-crossed pattern of slashes on her arms and back. "These'll be mostly gone by tomorrow night. Till then, you might want to put on long sleeves so the kids won't see."
"I will." Emma pulled out of his grasp and left the room. Her favorite flannel shirt hung on the bathroom door hook and she snatched it down as she went past. "Wash the blood off your hands before you come to the table."
* * *
Fox lounged on his mother's couch, a week after his first time with Emma. She was perfect. Her body had fit to his like a glove. He'd barely noticed the criss-crossed scars on her body, and chalked it up to stretch marks or maybe even his own imagination.
He glanced at the clock, trying to urge time to go by faster. He couldn't wait to see her again.
When four-thirty finally arrived, he couldn't get outside fast enough. He grabbed Bo and set off for the water tank. He and Emma had agreed the week prior that they'd only meet on Sundays and at the same time, same place. He knew it was wrong, morally, but didn't much give a damn. She was in pure misery, hell really, and if he could give her just a few minutes of happiness once a week ...
But was that enough for him? Was it? Did he want more from her than a weekly roll in the dirt? He did ... he knew he did. Maybe. Sometimes, he wanted to slide beneath the same blankets as she did every night. He wanted to wake up to her smile every morning. He wanted to hear her laugh. He hadn't realized until then that he had yet to hear her laugh even once. He wanted so badly to make her laugh.
But sometimes, he just wanted to feel her again, writhing under him in what he was sure was the only pleasure she'd ever had from sex.
Emma hadn't arrived at the water tank yet, so Fox decided to let Bo run and play for a bit to let off some of his energy. He'd thrown a stick ten times before he heard approaching footsteps.
He turned around and smiled at Emma as she drew near.
"I was beginning to think you weren't coming," he said.
"I can't stay. I had to wait for Percy to fall asleep." She stopped just in front of him and shook her head. "We can't do this again, Fox."
"What? Why not?"
"He'll know. He's going to catch us at some point. Probably sooner and not later."
"There's no way. He can't know -- he'll never know."
"Yes, he will." Emma looked at the ground, unable to meet his eyes. "He knew last time. Said he could smell it on me."
Fox put a finger under her chin and lifted her face. "He was just fishing, Emma. There's no way he could know." Fox watched her face and saw the secret behind her eyes. He knew there was something he didn't know. Something big. Something dangerous. "Or is there? What is it about Percy that has you so worked up?"
Emma shook her head and pulled back. She looked down at her hands. Emma spoke then, and her words caught him like a kick in the gut. "I can't cry. I have to wait until he's asleep. But now, I can't even cry at night. Afraid I'll wake him up." She frowned and shoved a hand through her hair. "He says tears are a weakness. They piss him off. And I have to do what he says, be what he says I am. I can't walk anywhere but the houses. I have to do just what he says, when he says it. If I don't ... he gets angry."
"So let him get angry!"
Emma laughed, a sad and pitiful wail of sound that pierced through Fox's heart. "If it was just anger, I wouldn't mind so much. But he's ..." She shook her head. "He's not like you. He's not normal."
"Look, I know Percy's weird, and he's got to be about the biggest prick that ever lived. But you can't be so afraid of him that you'll let us go." He moved to her and pulled her into his embrace. Her head nestled in the crook of his neck to rest on his shoulder. "This is special, Em. You feel it. Don't you?"
"Yeah. I do, but he'll kill us, Fox. He really will."
Fox held on to her as tight as he could and whispered: "He'll never know."
Emma let go of a heavy sigh. "He already does." Then she tipped her face back and caught Fox's mouth in a slow kiss filled with want and longing.
Part Three of Four