Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Bloodlust: A Killer Love Story
“I mean it, Celene! There are two halves in this world: the good and the evil. And it seems that the evil is always looking to harm the good.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. You’ve been reading too much science fiction.” Really! If nothing else, Jeanette had a vivid imagination. Where did she think these things up? “You know I get these premonitions from time to time. Just be careful, Celene.” I sighed, not wanting to get into a discussion about her premonitions right then. With a wave, I took off down the street toward the elementary school where I worked. My days were just too busy to think about good and evil. Besides, I worked with elementary school children. Where was the evil in that? As I walked into the office, my boss motioned to me. “Celene, I’d like you to meet our new teacher, Leith Carlton,” he said. “He’ll be filling in for Mrs. Hammond for the rest of the year. Leith, this is Celene Assante.” “Pleased to meet you, Ms. Assante,” the new teacher greeted me. I had to look way up for our eyes to meet because he was so tall. “Nice to meet you Mr. Carlton. But we’re usually on a first name basis here, unless it’s in front of the children.” “Then call me Leith.” He reached down and shook my hand. It was a big hand, strong and warm, and he had the most beautiful, saddest eyes I’d ever seen. I thought how the little kids in the fourth grade would love him. Then my boss, Principal White, led him away to meet the rest of the staff. Howard White was as proud as a peacock to have gotten someone of Leith’s caliber, especially since the school year had already started and most teachers already had jobs. As the school secretary, I’d handled all the resumes and reviewed them for Howard. Leith Carlton’s appeared to be among the best. Howard especially liked the fact that Leith had experience with outdoor programs, a kind of wilderness survival training for kids.Leith had excellent letters of reference, and I made sure Howard got the phone list of references to call, too. We wanted to make sure everything checked out okay because we were responsible for the people who worked with the children. Over the next few weeks, I’d see Leith from time to time as he came in to check his mail, or to ask a question, or just to hang out for a little while. There was something about him that attracted me. Maybe it was his dark good looks, or the sweet sad aura about him. I sensed that he was a good person who’d had a very hard life. I wanted to ask him about that, but I just didn’t know him well enough yet. Then one day he asked me out on a date. As excited as I was about it, I managed to calmly accept and asked where we were going. “I thought a quiet dinner, then maybe a long walk along the lake,” he said. It took a long time for me to choose an outfit for our date. I wished I could ask Jeanette’s opinion, but she’d been called out of town on business. I also wanted Jeanette to meet Leith to give me her opinion of him. Even though Jeanette’s opinions were sometimes a little “out there,” she was my friend and I knew she had my best interests at heart. I was nervous when he rang the doorbell, but Leith quickly put me at ease. During dinner, he wanted to know all about my life. Finally, when we’d left the restaurant and started our long walk along the lake, I insisted that he tell me about himself. “Let’s not talk about me,” he said. “No fair!” I said. “I’ve been talking about myself all night long.” “All right, then. What would you like to know?” “Where you grew up, that sort of thing.” “I grew up in the city, the inner city.” He clenched his jaw. I could tell it wasn’t a pleasant memory. “I’ll understand if you’d rather not talk about it, Leith—” “There’s not much to tell.” He lightened his tone. “I had a brother, younger than me. He died when he was five.” “I’m so sorry,” I said, reaching out to touch his arm. “It wasn’t your fault.” He looked puzzled, as though he’d never been comforted about it before. “How did—how did he die?” “He tried to climb out on the fire escape and he fell. We were five floors up.” I couldn’t even imagine the horror of that. I wondered where his parents were, who had been looking after that five year old. “Anyway, that’s enough about me. Your life is so much more interesting,” Then he drew me out about my own family and the good times we had while I was growing up. It occurred to me later that Leith didn’t want to talk any more about his family, so I was determined not to pry. He would tell me in his own time. At school, Leith would still visit me on his breaks, often leaving a little gift, like a flower or a wrapped candy, on my desk. Howard noticed and gave me a knowing grin each time. He was a hopeless romantic and would often encourage matches between staff members. Leith and I continued to date. They were mostly casual: trips to the coffee shop or walks in the park. Slowly, I began to feel something special for this man with the sad past. Each night, Jeanette and I would talk on the phone, and I would tell her about my feelings for Leith. “I can’t wait for you to meet him,” I said one night. But Jeanette was slightly suspicious. She thought I was going too fast. “What do you really know about him, Celi? Has he been married? Does he have children? Didn’t you ask?” “No and no. Jeanette, just be happy for me, please?” “Sounds like you’re hooked. All right, when do I get to meet this Leith?” I perked up then. “As soon as you come home! When will that be?” “I’m not sure yet. Just don’t go getting married without me or anything, you hear?” “I hear. How on earth could I ever get married without you?” I teased her. I had Leith over to my place and the strangest thing happened. My cat, Tuggles, shot out of the room as if the devil himself had walked in. “Tuggles, what on earth is the matter with you? Come and meet the nice man,” I told my cat, but she wouldn’t be persuaded. Leith just gave a quick laugh and shrugged his shoulders. “Sorry about that,” I said. “I guess she’ll come around eventually.” But the cat was the last thing on Leith’s mind that night. It was the very first time we made love, and I’d never had such a tender, considerate lover. “You’re beautiful,” he told me over and over again. I felt so safe, so secure in his arms. “Please stay the night,” I whispered. I loved the idea of sharing my bed with a man again. I’d had a casual relationship about a year before, but we’d decided to break it off. Now I realized how much I’d missed having someone in my life. By the time Jeanette got back from her business trip, Leith and I were sleeping together on a regular basis. It seemed like we couldn’t get enough of each other. He was becoming more and more important to me, and I desperately wanted my best friend to like him. I made reservations at Jeanette’s favorite restaurant. So she wouldn’t feel like a fifth wheel, she invited her sometimes-boyfriend, Dave, to join us. I told her it wasn’t necessary, that Leith was such a sweet, kind man who’d make her feel at ease. But something awful happened that night. To this day, I can’t explain it. The moment my best friend met my lover, she despised him. “Leith, this is Jeanette. We’ve been best friends, oh—forever, haven’t we, Jeanette?” I asked cheerfully. But when I turned to look at her, her face was cold and white, as though she’d just stumbled upon a corpse. “Jeanette, what’s wrong?” I whispered, but she continued to stare at Leith. Even Dave was confused by her behavior. “I don’t feel so well,” she announced, suddenly. “Dave, can you take me home? Celene, I’m sorry. I’ll call you later.” Leith and I stared after them as they left. Leith cleared his voice and said, “Well, let’s not waste those reservations, Celene.” “I’m so sorry, Leith. She must have taken sick suddenly. Maybe I should go after her.” “No!” He covered my hand with his. “What I mean is, she looks like she could use some time alone. Don’t let it spoil your evening,” he pleaded. We stayed at the restaurant and ordered a meal, but the night was ruined for me. Was she really sick, and was she feeling better now? Or had she left for another reason? Either way, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. “I think I’d better go home now,” I told Leith. I’d barely touched my plate, but he had eaten everything on his. “What? Without dessert?” I couldn’t believe that he didn’t see how upset I was. I got up and left the table, and he had to rush to keep up with me. When I was sitting in the car waiting for him to pay the bill, I tried to tell myself that Leith was new to my life and everyone in it. He didn’t know how much I cared for Jeanette. When she was upset, I was upset. It was a silent drive home. At my door, our goodnight kiss turned into a passionate one on Leith’s part, and he fumbled for my keys to let us into the house. “Leith, no, please. Not tonight,” I said, putting my hands firmly on his chest. He looked confused, then angry. “What’s wrong with you tonight, Celene?” He really doesn’t have a clue, I thought, stunned. Didn’t he see Jeanette’s face? Even the waiter knew something was very wrong and asked if he could help. It was the first time I had the feeling that Leith just wasn’t in touch with certain human emotions. But at the time, I attributed it to the fact that we didn’t know each other very well. Of course, I called Jeanette as soon as I got home. Her answering machine kicked in after three rings. “Jeanette, sweets, this is Celene. Are you all right? Okay . . .you must be sick and resting. I’ll call you first thing in the morning okay? Or you call me.” I didn’t sleep much that night. In the morning, I reached for the phone before even getting out of bed. Jeanette answered at last, telling me she had a very bad migraine the night before and that she was better now. She did get migraines often enough. Jeanette had told me they went hand-in-hand with her premonitions, or at least, the bad ones. I knew that she picked up these bad vibes from people and things now and then—but premonitions? I didn’t really believe in that sort of thing. Still, Jeanette was my friend and I loved her. All I knew was that she’d been sick and I wished I could take away the pain. But after that, any time I’d suggest she meet Leith again, she was always too busy. She was clearly avoiding him, and I began to suspect she didn’t like him. But that was crazy; she’d barely met the man. I stopped pushing for the two of them to get together. When I was with either of them, things went fine until I mentioned the other. Jeanette would be my old friend, her old self, until she heard Leith’s name. And Leith would be my sweet lover until I mentioned Jeanette’s name. Then he’d get moody and withdraw from me. It was so strange. I was living in a no-man’s land between them both. How could this go on? I wanted both my lover and my best friend in my life. But could she really see something in him that was hidden from my eyes? One day, I had to drop some papers off in Leith’s classroom. I noticed he’d put one of his students in the time-out corner. When I came back over an hour later to deliver a message from another teacher, the same boy was still sitting in the corner. Our school had a policy that time-out lasted only minutes. Had Bram done something wrong again that required a second session in the corner? “Is Bram still in time-out?” I asked. “Yes,” he said matter-of-factly, before returning his attention to his students. That disturbed me. I wasn’t a teacher, but I cared for those kids. Sitting for over an hour in time-out? I knew of no other teacher in the school who would have allowed that to happen. But Bram hadn’t looked upset, just bored. Maybe I was overreacting. Maybe this was what the last school Leith had worked at had required him to do in terms of discipline. I don’t know what made me do it, but I called that other school, telling them I was doing a survey to compare school policies. “Let me send you our most recent school newsletter,” the school’s secretary offered. “We print our rules and regulations in there to remind students and parents.” If the secretary had never mailed me that little newsletter, my life would have had a far different outcome. It arrived in the school mail a week later. I slipped it into my purse so that Leith wouldn’t see it on my desk and ask why I had a newsletter from his old school. Once I got home, with Tuggles curled up beside me, I read it. The more time I spent with Leith, the less time I spent with my cat, because she still couldn’t stand to be in the same room with him. “If you don’t watch out I’m going to ship you off to Jeanette’s!” I warned Tuggles, then started to read. Sure enough, the school’s rules were very similar to ours. I browsed through the rest of it quickly until something caught my eye. It was an article about the anniversary of a tragic accident at the school. Three students had drowned when their boat sank on a lake during a school expedition . . . led by a Mr. Carlton. I sat up. Mr. Carlton! There weren’t many details of the accident, just a profile on each of the students. And there, another article, this one about another tragedy the year before: a child who’d run in front of a car and died. Both incidents had happened on the same date, the fifteenth of June, a year apart. Thank goodness there was no mention of Leith in the earlier accident. But if three of his students had died only a year earlier, why had he never mentioned this to me? Perhaps he was in denial; perhaps he blamed himself because he was the leader of the outing. At least it explained the sad look about him. The poor man! My heart went out to this man who had suffered so much in his life. No wonder he’d wanted a job in another school. Every day there must have been torture, remembering the kids who’d died and wondering if there was anything he could have done to save them. But an accident was an accident; he shouldn’t have blamed himself. I wanted to comfort him, but I couldn’t very well do that without confessing to the snooping I’d done. I wondered if he would ever bring it up. But considering how close-mouthed he was about his family, something as tragic as the deaths of three students wouldn’t exactly be the first thing he’d talk about. And I surely couldn’t confide about this to Jeanette, who refused outright to speak of him. But one day, quite by accident, I found out more about the tragedy. Leith and I had exchanged the keys to our apartments. I was dropping off some dry cleaning for him after school. As the monitor for the school chess club, he’d be staying late that afternoon. I’d agreed to pick up his dry cleaning since the place would be closed by the time he left school. I only intended to drop it off near the front door and then head home. But just as I walked in I bumped into the front closet door where Leith kept his coats and shoes. I pushed the door closed, but heard something fall inside. When I opened it, I saw that it was a photo album. I should have just pushed it back up on the shelf where it belonged. But I was curious and thought there might be some pictures of Leith’s family, perhaps the little brother who’d died. Hesitantly, I opened it. There were no photos in it, only pages and pages of news articles. They looked to be school news items from the schools where he’d worked. There was one about a volleyball team he’d coached, a swim team, and a travel club. Nothing very remarkable. Then I saw it: an article about the boy who had died while wandering across a busy street. And on the next page, the one about the three students who’d drowned. On each of them, the date of the fifteenth of June on which the events had occurred was circled in red ink. Also, pushed at the back of the album was a very old article, crumpled and stained over the years. It was about Leith’s brother, who’d fallen from the fire escape. The two boys had been alone at the time. Leith had been seven and left alone to baby-sit his little brother. The boy had crawled out onto the fire escape and lost his footing, falling five floors to his death. That tragedy, too, had occurred on June fifteenth. At first, I didn't know what to make of it all. Was it just an incredible coincidence that all these deaths had happened on the same day of the year? That night, Leith brought me a huge bouquet of flowers and treated me like a princess all night long. I knew he was tired from a long day at work, as I was—but together, we were magic. We had boundless energy. I forgot all about those newspaper clippings for a while. How could I have doubted such a caring man? Some of Jeanette’s cynicism must be rubbing off on me, I thought. Yet in the back of my mind, I was aware that June fifteenth was again drawing near. “Let’s do something special this weekend,”Leith suggested when I saw him next. “I’ve made reservations at the Seven Pines Resort in the mountains.” “The Seven Pines! Oh, Leith, that’s way too expensive!” I protested. “You deserve it! No arguments. I want you packed and ready to go after school this Friday.” So again, I pushed my doubts aside and eagerly got ready for the trip. I called Jeanette but she wasn’t home, so I left a message that I’d be out of town with Leith for the weekend. I really hoped she’d come around about him, though my hopes were growing dimmer with each passing day. The weekend trip was heavenly.Leith had booked separate rooms, which I appreciated. It gave me the option to sleep with him or not; as it turned out he didn’t use his room much. We slept in both days and had room service bring us a champagne breakfast. We played tennis, hiked the trails and swam in the huge pool. It was like a page from a fairytale. And on Sunday, Leith proposed. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. But there was something about the magic of that place that made it all seem right. Leith was my tall, handsome lover, telling me he wanted to share the rest of his life with me. What could be better? So without thinking much about it, I accepted his proposal.Leith was overjoyed! He said that his life would be perfect now, with me to stand by him forever. Excited, I called Jeanette as soon as I returned home. It was getting late Sunday night, but I insisted that she come over to hear my news. “Marriage? Oh, Celene—are you sure about this?” Her tone sounded more like I’d announced I had an incurable disease, rather than I’d just received a marriage proposal. “Yes, I’m sure.” I was angry at her for bringing up those old doubts again. “Jeanette, why don’t you like him? And don’t give me any of your voodoo stuff. I won’t hear it. I want solid reasons why you don’t like him.” “Have you checked him out, Celene? Why did he apply for a job so late in the school year? Did your school really check his references?” Her words surprised me. For one it proved she’d been doing a lot of thinking about this. And for another, she just might be right. Did Howard White really check out Leith’s references, or had he relied solely on the letters of reference that Leith had attached to his resume? I shook my head. No, this was the man I was going to marry. I had to believe him, or what sort of marriage would we have? “Jeanette, I can see that you’ll never approve of Leith,” I told her. “I think, under the circumstances, that you should leave.” Quietly, she picked up her purse and left my house. Hot tears sprang to my eyes as I heard the door close. Something told me that I was making a terrible mistake . . . and not just about my friendship with Jeanette. I told Leith about my break-up with my friend. Once again, it seemed like he didn’t know how to console me. The next day, there was a big bouquet of carnations on my desk. That was Leith’s way of trying to make me feel better. That—and sex. I had no doubt that Leith was a great lover, but it disturbed me that he used it to solve all of life’s emotional ups and downs. That evening he came over to my house and we made love all night long. We didn’t talk about Jeanette or our upcoming wedding. It was like he couldn’t deal with the emotional stuff, as if he was hoping that sex would distract me from my problems. Before I knew it, it was the week of June fifteenth. I was tense all week, trying at all costs to avoid consulting the calendar. Leith and I spent each evening together. When we went for a walk, I held his hand tightly, as though I knew in my heart that something was going to take him away and destroy my happiness. It was so similar to one of Jeanette’s premonitions. On the fourteenth, I was a nervous wreck. My boss noticed; he even suggested that I take the rest of the day off. I did, leaving Leith a note not to worry, that I’d just come down with the flu. But on the fifteenth, I began feeling a bit silly. I wasn’t sick, and they really needed me at work. I got dressed and went to school. As the day went by, I began to relax. This whole thing about June fifteenth had just been a tragic coincidence in Leith’s life. There was no way it was going to happen again. When the dismissal bell rang, I breathed a sigh of relief. Because it was Friday, the students were eager to get home, and most of the staff had also left. But I stayed in the office, working on the endless pile of correspondence and requests that were just part of the job. After a while, I lost track of time. Finally, I looked up from my computer and noticed things seemed very quiet. I wondered why Leith hadn’t stopped in the way he usually did once classes were done for the day. I got up and walked down the long, lonely corridors of the school. “You still here?” Tom, the janitor, popped his head around the door of the supply room. “Tom, you nearly scared me to death! I’m just looking for Mr. Carlton. Have you seen him?” “Haven’t seen anybody except you. I’ll be leaving now. Can you lock the main door for me on your way out?” “Sure.” I watched as he locked the supply room door and let himself out. I continued wandering the halls, not quite sure what I was looking for. And then I remembered.Leith thought I was at home, still sick. He hadn’t been in the office all day, so he wouldn’t have known I was there that day. And I’d come in late that morning, so he wouldn’t have seen my car in its regular spot in the faculty parking lot. Feeling slightly silly, I began walking back to the office so I could get my things and go home. I heard a sound—an old door creaking, perhaps. Tom was probably just leaving through the main doors now. Still, the sound disturbed me. I turned back and continued down the corridor, stopping at the kindergarten room and finding the door locked. Mrs. Fuentes was very efficient, and she would have never left her classroom unlocked over the weekend. I looked through the window into the classroom. The little chairs were placed on top of the desks neatly so that the janitors would be able to sweep the entire floor over the weekend. Everything looked neat as a pin. Then why did it seem like something was terribly wrong? Then I saw it. A tiny wisp of smoke was coming from beneath the door of the classroom’s washroom. Occasionally a student would get himself locked in there. Howard had just ordered the lock to be removed from the door, but I was sure it hadn’t been done yet. All this was going through my mind as I watched the smoke rising. Probably nothing to worry about. Perhaps an older student had sneaked inside to have a smoke and left a cigarette burning in there. I started back to the office to retrieve my keys. And then, I heard another small sound, like a child in his sleep. My heart almost stopped. A careless cigarette left in the washroom was one thing—but a child trapped in there was another! I didn’t think. I slammed my hand through the glass of the door and reached around to unlock it. The washroom door was locked, too. I banged on it, hoping the child inside could open it himself. “Hello! Hello! Who’s in there?” I shouted, hearing little moans from the other side of the door. “Can you hear me?” I had to get the keys to get him out of there! The rooms in that old building weren’t equipped with phones. I kicked aside my high heels and started running to the office. Along the way, I vaguely noticed that my dress was wet. It was blood, probably from my hands when I broke the window glass. But I didn’t have time to worry about that at the moment! On the way back, with the keys in hand, I slipped in a pool of my own blood by the classroom door.I scrambled to my feet and saw that the smoke was now quickly filling the classroom. Squeezing myself halfway inside, I felt around on the floor for the child. I felt a hand and grabbed onto it, hauling his tiny body out. “Baby, baby, are you all right?” I said, carrying him out of the classroom. “Celene—what are you doing here?” There in the doorway stood Leith, looking calm and detached, as though he were doing roll call! “Leith, hurry! Call 911!” I screamed. “We need an ambulance and the fire department! What are you waiting for?” I watched as he hesitated a moment before leaving. The little boy was breathing but choking from the smoke he’d inhaled as I brought him out into the hallway. Though it only took minutes, it seemed like an eternity until I heard the sirens. The boy was doing better, but the poor baby was clinging to me in terror. It was only now that I recognized him. He was Jonathan Russett, and he was just five years old. As the paramedics took him from my arms, I said a silent prayer. They checked him over quickly, glancing a few times at me. That was my blood all over the boy. “You, too, ma’am,” a woman said, drawing me away from the scene. “Let us take a look at your hands.” While wrapping my hands to stop the bleeding, she told me I had to go to the hospital right away. As I was leaving, I overheard two of the firefighters talking. “Someone deliberately set that fire—and it wasn’t the little boy,” one of the men said grimly. Arson??? “But who would do such a thing?” I asked no one in particular. There was only one person I could think of. As I sat on an emergency room bed in the hospital, I thought about Jonathan and what a close call he’d just had. And I thought about Leith—the man I was about to marry, the man I should have trusted above anyone else. But he had been there at the school. He’d had the opportunity. And it was the fifteenth of June. At that moment, I knew it was over between us. I had to confront him with my suspicions before I went to the police. I felt I owed him that much. It turned out that the police wanted to question him, too. They’d asked me who else was in the building at the time, and I’d given them Leith’s name. When I went to his apartment, they were already there. “Ms. Assante, how are your hands?” the officer said as I pulled up to Leith’s apartment. “I think they’ll be all right. No permanent damage. Have you heard any word on Jonathan?” “Oh, he was released already. Just smoke inhalation. But if it hadn’t been for you . . .” “Have you spoken with Leith Carlton?” I asked. The officer stopped, squinting at me. “Is he a personal friend of yours?” “Yes. We’re—we were engaged.” “Then I think we’d better talk. Can you come over here to the squad car so I can take some notes?” I told them everything I knew. I told them about the scrapbook, about all the “accidents” that had just happened to fall on the same day. “You know, Ms. Assante, since you were his fiancée, we might have even suspected you in this . . . except for the fact that you were injured, trying to rescue the boy.” “Do you know where Leith is now?” I asked. He shook his head. Apparently, Leith had never returned to his apartment after the fire. They tried to piece together what had happened that day. A neighbor was supposed to pick up Jonathan, along with her own children, after school. But somehow, he was forgotten and waited alone at the front entrance. That was when they figured someone lured him back into the school and locked him into the washroom. “The suspect must have drugged the kid or something for him not to scream out while he was being taken,” the officer said. “Or it was someone he knew and trusted.” I could picture Leith coming up to the boy and talking to him, asking him why he was there all alone. Jonathan would have trusted a teacher. “In any case, the boy was given a sedative to keep him quiet while the suspect set up the fire in the washroom. Then he locked the boy inside and took off.” The fire was set with a lit cigarette in paper towels. The man had wanted the police to believe that Jonathan had been experimenting with cigarettes in the washroom and had somehow been trapped inside. Another tragic accident. I went home and cried myself to sleep. Later, I was vaguely aware that someone had tried to call me. It was about five in the morning before I picked up my messages. It was Jeanette. She had heard the news and was frantic, worrying about me. She came over right away. “You did see something the first time you met Leith, didn’t you?” I asked. “Yes. But I knew you wouldn’t believe me. You never put much faith in my premonitions.” I hugged her with my bandaged hands. “I promise I will from now on.” At the school I was hailed as a hero, but I didn’t feel much like one. Why hadn’t I gone to the police before this had happened? A little child wouldn’t have come so close to losing his life. “But you saved his life,” my boss told me. “And this was partly my fault. I should have called all of Leith’s references. Instead I just trusted the letters he sent, letters he must have written himself.” The police did a thorough search of Leith’s apartment and found the scrapbook. They found him a few days later, trying to leave the country. By then, they had enough evidence to have him convicted on the charge of attempted murder, although I learned that the other cases could take months or even years to prove. They did have one thing to go on, however: Leith seemed to like drugging children. The boy who had been struck and killed by a car may have been drugged. The kids in the boating accident, too. I believe in my heart that he did have something to do with the deaths of those children. I can only guess that the death of his little brother—the first tragic fifteen of June—had somehow sparked this yearly killing. How could I have almost married this man? They say that love is blind, but I never knew how dangerous and easy it could be to fall in love with a man like Leith. The scariest thing is, he can appear to be as normal as the rest of us. He could blend in with any work setting or social gathering. Jeanette and I are closer than ever now. She tries to set me up on blind dates all the time. But a part of me will never be as trusting again. It will take me a long, long time to allow anyone to get that close to me again.
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