First Chapter

Page

Window of Guilt
Chapter 1

The lanky youth stumbled on blistered feet through the pebbled landscape.  Neither dog walker nor bicycle enthusiast dotted his path. 

As the stranger dizzily traversed the sandy trail, he fingered a crumpled Greyhound ticket receipt and a worn paper napkin containing two addresses printed in kindergarten script.

An energetic lake breeze failed to muzzle the sun’s high-noon intensity. Sweat zigzagged down the young man’s back like a football player breaking for a touchdown.  Wincing, the stranger stopped to shake tiny gray stones from his dusty sandals.

Nearing his destination, the vagrant eyed the hodgepodge of houses to his left. Some were English Tudor, others modern monstrosities with floor-to-ceiling windows stripping away the illusion of privacy so coveted by the upper class.

Strips of modest-sized homes flanked by withered grass sat sandwiched between structural giants. Through glassy eyes, he confirmed the top address on his napkin matched the country mailbox of a simple white frame house set back on a corner lot. Like the other summer homes in its midst, the corner property sat naked of fence and gate.

The youth unscrewed the cap of his army canteen and thirstily ran his tongue around its circumference. Not a drop of liquid remained. He fumbled through his pants’ pocket for a mint. A lone peanut salvaged from the dusty road was his jaw’s only solace.

In a frenetic burst of energy, he sprinted toward the corner lot. A fluffy white dog the size of a bed pillow yapped at the far end of the yard. Shielding his eyes from the blazing sun, he gazed at the tiny white house, dwarfed by its scorched acreage.

Head down, the diminutive white dog slunk towards him. Its warning growl tweaked the silence. The young man tossed the nut shell past the dog’s head. As the miniature creature raced towards the perceived treat, the youth dashed across the treeless yard.  Suddenly, he grabbed his throat. Panic engulfed his facial features.

The curtained kitchen window sat in full view as the young man futilely gasped his last breath. Before losing consciousness, his eyes locked upon the small white animal lounging on a grassy area a few feet away, the nut shell stuck to his whiskers.

* * *

Laurie Atkins burrowed her hoe into the garden bed, and then swiped at her perspiring brow. She’d been working outside in the blistering sun since Ryan had high-tailed it off to the lake three hours ago. It was crazy, her being outside for such an extended period while the air-conditioner fans droned her name in the distance. But this morning’s argument with her husband had so incensed her that she needed to work off the fuel that burned deep within.

Swiping at the sweat running down the bridge of her nose, Laurie surveyed the drooping tomato plants that, despite the town’s ban on watering, she’d so diligently attempted to resuscitate. Even though gardening was definitely absent from her DNA strand, she was committed to giving it a run for the money.

In recent years, Laurie and her husband had continued her parents’ tradition of driving up to Oconomowoc’s lakeside community in an effort to escape Chicago’s most sweltering month of the year. This summer, she’d vowed to plant a single fruit tree in the back yard of their summer home to commemorate her father’s recent passing. Wisconsin’s record high August temperatures had scorched that vow.

With a sigh, Laurie visualized the flowered landscape that might have been had her renters bothered to water the garden throughout the year. But by the end of May, Shakia and her roommate had graduated college and returned home to the Chicago area, abandoning Laurie’s plants and flowers to nature’s capricious design.

Lightheaded, the thirsty gardener clicked the hose for a drink. Not even a trickle of water emerged. She glanced at the two water bottles that had kept her company through the morning hours. Nary a drop of liquid remained. Her throat felt like sandpaper.

Peering up at the sky, she noticed the sun directly overhead. Even an urban cowgirl like her knew when it was time to fold up and walk away. Besides, no yogurt had passed her lips this morning and she was starting to feel lightheaded.

Laurie was collecting her gardening tools when the sound of her dog’s sharp barks drew her attention to the front yard.

“Hold on, Rocky.  Mommy’s coming,” Laurie shouted, wiping her brow as she ambled across the rotted acreage. Her Bichon was circling in a frenzy. “If you found a dead squirrel, don’t go near it!”

The sight she came upon confounded her.. Rocky was licking the face of an emaciated-looking young man in a sweat-soaked yellow jersey and blue jeans. The young man lay prone on the withered grass, his head to one side.

Laurie’s eyes darted toward the road flanking Lac La Belle Who was this unexpected visitor napping on her property? The landscapers often took their siestas on Laurie’s front lawn during their weekly visit, but their truck had already been out this week.

She tentatively nudged him with her foot. “Hey.” She jumped back at the rank smell emanating from his body.

Where was Ryan when she needed him? Earlier this morning, she’d been studying for the third retake of her real estate exam when he’d picked a money argument with her. One in a cascade of  similar arguments since his heart attack.  Soon after, he’d stalked off to the lake.

The seagulls’ screeches pierced the stillness.

Laurie held Rocky under one arm and warily poked the horizontal figure’s yellow jersey. “I’m talking to you.” The young man refused to acknowledge her presence.  Perhaps he was a vagrant, or a college kid selling magazine subscriptions. Privacy was rapidly becoming a rare commodity in this neck of the woods.

Holding her nose, she knelt beside the man and lightly pressed his wrist. Shit! Her heart pounding like a classic rock singer on acid, she moved her hand to the stranger’s neck. “This isn’t happening.” Laurie felt in her shorts pocket. She’d left her cell phone inside the house.

“Stay,” she ordered Rocky, placing him by her side. Praying the young man didn’t have a communicable disease, Laura pinched his nose and breathed three quick breaths into his mouth.  Then she started CPR. Thrust. Thrust. Thrust. Breath. Breath. Breath.  Outside, the hot, sticky air clung to her like a cloak.  Her heart pounding like a furnace, she willed herself to stay on task. Thrust. Thrust. Thrust. Breath. Breath. Breath. After five minutes without progress, a wave of nausea hit. He was dead.

Laurie jumped to her feet. “Fire!” she screeched. That word, alone, should produce an immediate response. Then she laughed giddily. Up here, their nearest neighbors were a half acre away.

Laurie’s breathing came fast and shallow now. Heat exhaustion coupled with shock at finding a young person dead on her front lawn jumbled her depleted brain cells. Check for water. Her fingers clumsily unscrewed the young man’s canteen. Empty. Feverishly, she observed her dog licking the young man’s hand.

Back in Chicago, another mom, nanny, or passerby would have heard her scream, and this lone figure would have a chance to survive. Scratch “might”. They lived near De Paul University, where the police and fire departments responded without donning bulletproof vests.

Call nine-one-one. Like a drunk swaggering home from an all-night party, Laurie weaved across the yard and laboriously climbed the porch stairs.  Rocky nipped at her shorts. She slammed the screen door on him.

Once inside the house, Laurie collapsed on the cool kitchen floor. Refusing to acknowledge her dehydration, she scanned the kitchen for a telephone. Neither her cell phone nor the cordless were in clear view. She crawled across the white tiled floor.

Laurie eyed the wall unit parallel to the pantry door. The one in a million times she’d actually replaced the cordless receiver in its holder. Dizzily, she reached up to knock the phone from the wall. The telephone unit crashed to the floor, grazing her right temple on its descent. Her eyes closed. Rocky’s whimpering echoed through her ears. Darkness.

* * *

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