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A Hidden Puzzle
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ISBN-10: 1-77115-316-4
Genre: Paranormal/Suspense/Thriller
eBook Length: 262 Pages
Published: June 2016

From inside the flap

A young girl deals with an introverted father, the reality of her motherís terminal illness, her own insecurities, and a boyfriend who may not be who he seems.

A Hidden Puzzle (Excerpt)

Chapter 1

Mary's Early Years

Alone in the quiet of my library, I sit at my desk looking out at the peach blush of a dusk sky. My granddaughter will be coming in soon to hear the Standford story that I promised her, but for the moment I am free to ponder on what has been revealed. My parents are the link to both my existence and Grammy Amanda's, whom I never met.

On my chest hangs the double-heart locket that remains a symbol of courage and eternal love. I grew up seeing the locket everyday around Mother's neck. When I'd ask her why she wore the locket, she'd say, "This locket is a treasure, because many Standford memories are connected to it." By no means does the locket have magical powers, but this jewelry reminds me and my family of the Standford history.

During my adolescent years, I felt like the Freak of Linden in our small farming community in northern California. Father's clairvoyance should have sensed my pain. Instead, he chose to believe his gift, as he called it, had skipped my generation. Holding onto this belief, Father felt he did not need to involve me in the family's foretold fate. Self-doubt and self-worth fit tightly around my mental health, but I, like Father, hid my emotions and faced my insecurities alone. I could never fool Mom, though. Maybe her years with a gifted husband and daughter kept her well connected to our thoughts.

Weeks after my eighteenth birthday, I stumbled across a letter written by Grammy Amanda Standford. In the letter, Grammy clearly stated. "Sam and Caroline, do not forsake the truth from your children."

I struggled with the knowledge that my parents were forewarned, but they chose not to heed. Father, unfortunately, could not run away from his destiny which is linked to mine. I, Mary Amanda Standford, am led by fate's hand to find the hidden puzzle.

* * *

"Grandma, I finished my homework. Can we start the family story?"

"Oh, my word young lady. You startled me. Yes, yes. Come on in and we'll get started."

Mariana skipped into the room and jumped onto my lap. She laid her head against my chest. Her soft curls tickled my neck.

"Yes, now let's see. Where to start?"

Mariana lifted her head. "When you were three, Grandma, and Grammy Caroline was worried. That's what you were talking about before you told me to do my homework."

"Ah, yes, of course, the day when my father finally believed in the bad man."

* * *

"No go away! No like you! Bad man. Mommy! Mommy, help!"

My eyelids flew open when I heard my three-year-old Mary scream.

Oh, my goodness, not again.

"Mommy's coming!"

This nightmare was relentless. Every night since Mary's third birthday, she'd been tormented by the same dream. When will this end?

Sam groaned. The bed creaked under his weight as he flipped onto his stomach with his head turned toward me. I lay on my back and glanced at him. His hazel eyes remained closed.

"Caroline, do you want me to go this time?" Sam mumbled with half of his mouth buried in the pillow.

"No, I'll go." Groggy, I pushed up on my elbows and glanced at the clock. One thirty in the morning. What's going on with my baby girl? I rubbed my eyes. How am Igoing to stop this? I wondered. I jumped out of bed and scurried along the hallway to my daughter's room. The winter chill from the wood floor penetrated my bare feet and crawled up my body. As I approached Mary's room, I shivered beneath my long cotton nightgown. The fabric swayed loosely around my body. The fire must have gone out in the living room. In haste, I tucked my hair behind my ears and entered the nursery. A lump lodged in my throat. I bit my bottom lip and held back the tears. Mary's little hands were clenched into tight fists. Her eyes were squeezed shut. In a fit, she thrashed and pushed the fuzzy Disney Princess blanket away from her body. Mary kicked at thin air.

I knelt on the multi-colored wool rug beside my daughter's canopy bed and prayed that God would grace me with wisdom.

"Mommy! Help me!" Mary coughed between sobs.

I stood to lean in. "Sh, sh, Mary, it's Mommy. Open your eyes sweetie." I hugged her little body as she trembled in her sleep. Her head stopped moving side to side. I felt the tension in her muscles relax once she felt my embrace.

Focused on Mary's little chest, I watched as she exhaled and drew in short, quick breaths. A random tune came to mind. I hummed, "You Are My Sunshine, My Only Sunshine," while I held her closer. The song released its magic upon my sweet daughter. Mary let out a heavy sigh and squeezed her eyelids even tighter. I withdrew my bear hug, knelt next to her bed and caressed Mary's arm. Her brow lost its wrinkles. I knew that Mary's life did not follow the norm of a three-year-old. Many times Mary foresaw certain occurrences before they happened. These incidents were not huge, but enough for a mother to worry. Seconds before the toast popped up Mary would say, "Mommy, the toast is ready." On other occasions, she'd inform me of an incoming call. "Daddy is calling, Mommy." Three or four seconds later, the cell phone on the kitchen counter would ring. Sure enough, it was Sam calling.

I took hold of Mary's limp hand, drew in a long breath and squeezed my eyes shut. Seconds passed before I opened them again. Mary's little warm hand was in mine. I didn't want to wake her abruptly because I had done so in the past and the outcome caused her unnecessary distress. I gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "Mary, wake up sweetie. Mommy's here." I called out in a louder tone. "Mary, I'm here. Open your eyes sweetheart."

With a frantic jolt, Mary awoke. "Mommy!" she cried, wrapping her arms around my neck. "Mommy, bad man in dweam. He scawy." Mary's breath brushed my ear.

Her ebony ringlets swished against my cheek as her body shook.

"Sweetie, you were dreaming. Don't be afraid. Mommy and Daddy won't let anyone hurt you." I cradled my toddler. Mary hid her face in the crook of my arm as I picked her up and carried her to the oak rocking chair.

While caressing Mary's head, I rocked back and forth. Mary sniffled and quivered as her crying subsided. Within a few minutes, she calmed down and curled against my chest. I leaned toward her head and inhaled the sweet scent of baby shampoo. Mary's Hello Kitty flannel pajamas added more warmth to my gooseflesh skin. On impulse, I took hold of the locket around my neck and rolled it between my fingers. This action had become a nervous habit. Mary's clammy little hand grasped at the locket also.

"Mommy, tell locket story." Her gaze followed my actions.

I smiled. "Okay, sweetie. Now, let's see. How does this story begin?" I pursed my lips and continued to rock us back and forth.

Mary raised her head. "Mommy, locket was Gwammy's." She mimicked my pursed lips.

"Of course, now I remember. Thank you, my sweet Mary."

Mary smiled. She lowered her head once again near my heart.

"The locket was given to your Grammy Amanda Standford on her first wedding anniversary by her husband, your great-grandfather, Charles Standford. It was a symbol of eternal love, a bond that would not and could not be broken." I felt Mary's body release the tension.

"Mommy, what a bond?"

"Good question. The bond was their link." I held my hands in a prayer position and laced my fingers together. Mary shifted in my lap to get a good look at my hands. "You see, Mary, how Mommy's fingers intertwined, folded down, and the thumbs crossed? Now, when I pull on them, they don't come apart."

Mary wrinkled her nose in an attempt to understand. "Gwammy and Gweat-Gwandpa chained?"

"Hm, you amaze me, Mary. Yes, they were forever linked by love."

"Mommy, locket stwong like chain?"

A soft glow from the Tinker Bell nightlight filled the room while I focused on the ceiling, and hoped to find the correct explanation. A thought came to mind. I lowered my head once again and looked at my daughter's innocent expression. "Mary, why do you sleep with Mr. Curly?"

Mary glanced over at her bed where the stuffed sheep, Mr. Curly, lay.

"'Cause, Mr. Curly make me happy."

"Yes, correct. But, Mr. Curly is not as strong as Daddy, is he?"

"No." Mary giggled.

"Right you are. You see, the locket is not as strong as a chain, but whoever has it holds the memories of the past, which is-"

"Love, Mommy?"

"Yes sweetie, that's right. Now, this locket was lost to your great-grandmother Amanda on the day her son, James, left home forever. He took the locket with him. Three years later, on one unforeseen evening, God took your daddy's parents, James and Melinda, to heaven. Your daddy went to live with your Grammy Amanda at age three. Fifteen years later, when your daddy turned eighteen, he gave Grammy this locket thinking he was giving her a gift that had once belonged to his mother, Melinda. It was then that your Grammy told him the locket's story. On the day Grammy left this Earth, she handed the double-heart locket to me. It is a symbol of true love that cannot be broken."

"Love you, Mommy." Mary continued to rub the locket between her chubby fingers.

"Daddy and Mommy love you very much." I kissed the tip of her nose.

Mary giggled and said, "That tickle, Mommy." She nuzzled her head against my chest, yawned, then dozed off.

I drew in a deep breath, leaned my head against the back of the rocking chair, and silently prayed. "Please, Lord, keep Mary in your embrace. Protect our baby girl when we can't." Many times, I had shaken off my fears. Other moments, I over-imagined that my precious little girl might be in danger. There were nights when my psyche could not rest.

As I rocked the both of us, my thoughts twisted and turned in many directions.

Mary's third birthday had been last weekend. At the beginning of this week, the dreams invaded her innocent peace. Why is there a stranger in my toddler's dreams? There's no rational reason for my three-year-old to harbor such disturbing things. Mary has never been left alone in public, or at home for a stranger to approach her.

Pushing these thoughts away, I bowed my head and studied my daughter's angelic face. "She's sleeping peacefully, but for how long? Nothing is ever simple. Huh, simplicity is too much to hope for in this family," I whispered.

Mary's rhythmic inhales and exhales signaled she was fast asleep again. As I held Mary in my arms and listened to her breathe calmly, I closed my eyes and focused on more positive thoughts. Happy memories of my friend Nelly Meredith's wedding day came to the fore. I sighed and whispered. "If only Nelly were here instead of on her honeymoon. She would know what to do."

Still asleep, Mary squirmed in my arms and then settled down. Her ringlets fell over my arm. "Yes" I nodded. "As soon as Nelly comes back, I will talk to her." I continued to rock. Gently, I kissed Mary's forehead. "Nelly will help make us feel better." The long awaited tears streamed freely down my cheeks as I held my daughter closer to my chest.

"Please Lord, guide me. I know Mary is clairvoyant, even if Sam doesn't want it to be true. I haven't told Sam all the details of what's going on with our daughter. I want to spare him the extra strain. Sam's psychology position at Linden High has given him enough to think about as well as the responsibility of running a farm. I can handle the domestic part of life. But, there's no way that I can guide Mary alone."

My body sank farther into the chair as the rocking motion lulled me. Sleep wrapped around my conscious state and all concerns were drowned for a short while, until I dreamt of the past, before Mary was born. A letter written by Sam's grandmother, Amanda, had surfaced after she had passed away. In my dream a short section from the letter manifested.

"Caroline, you are Sam's heartbeat. Stay near Sam. You, my dear Caroline are stronger than you realize. Remember: Both of you must not withhold the truth from your child... tell all that must be told. Tell all... tell all that must be told."

I awoke in a cold sweat and peered down at my daughter safe asleep in my lap. "I will protect you, Mary, and we will tell you the truth. We will." I held Mary closer to me, stood, walked over to the bed, and laid her down. Slowly, I drew the Disney princess blanket over her. I remained a moment longer, watching Mary sleep, and listening to her even breaths. How could anyone or anything want to harm the inner sanctuary of a child's mind? Mary's expression remained placid. I wondered if it was just a facade. What could be brewing beyond the conscious boundaries of Mary's mind? Was she in dreamland again?

A nagging fear clung to me. Not knowing how to protect my daughter was such a horrible feeling. Maybe being a psychiatrist had made me extremely speculative. My colleagues had mentioned that I was overanalyzing the situation, but I knew deep down in my soul, as a mother, I couldn't ignore my daughter's nightmares.