Part 1

A Gift

"Earth to Mina. Hello?"

Fingers snapped in front of Mina's face. Her emerald green eyes focused on the hand waving in front of her. She pushed it away. "Can't a girl space out in peace?" She flipped her strawberry-blonde hair over her shoulder. Playing with the bunched hair in her hands, Mina Vivano looked up at her boyfriend. He gave her that sweet crooked smile of his. She hated how much she loved that smile. "What were you saying, Clay?"

"I was trying to ask if I could stop by at your place later tonight. I have something for you." Clay Swan raked his fingers through his dark messy hair. His dark eyes stared into hers. He always looked at her with a fierce intensity that made her feel vulnerable… and safe.

Mina rolled her eyes. "I don't know if I want anything from you. There's always this 'I love you' stuff attached to it. It gets a girl weak in the knees and I don't think I want you to have that power."

Clay pulled her into a hug. She melted into his embrace. "I can't help but show how much I care. You enchanted me with your witchy ways."

"That's right. And I'll turn you into a toad should you ever cross me."

"No problem." Clay leaned in to kiss her.

A group of kids ran by, shouting and laughing. Mina jumped out of Clay's arms. "Holy Huckleberry and jizz-balls!"

Clay laughed. "Where do you even come up with these phrases?"

Mina slapped his arm. "Don't make fun of me. Those kids came out of nowhere! They were like ninjas!"

"And the horrors they are sure to bring upon you."

"Tease all you want. You obviously have never babysat for the little monsters."

"No time. My hands are full with one." He brushed her hair behind her ear.

Mina slapped his arm again. "Are you calling me a handful?"

Clay laughed. "The biggest." He pointed at Mina's house. "Can I trust you to make it inside all by yourself?"

"I think I can manage. I've made it this far without any big, strong men to save me so I certainly don't need a man-child to try." She twirled on her heel and stuck her nose up in the air.

Clay feigned a broken heart. "Such harsh words for the one you love."

"I don't know what you're talking about. I'm very kind to myself." Mina opened the gate to her front yard. "See you at eight?"

"Five minutes before." Clay blew her a kiss. He continued down the sidewalk with that little pep in his step Mina had come to love.

Mina locked the gate and turned her attention to the lavender flowerbed beside her. She picked up the watering can nearby and filled it with water. She glanced at her house. The sky-blue shingles played well with the white Doric columns and cobblestone. Flourishing vines wrapped around the columns. With winter still strong, the flowers were still buds, but they were a sight to see when they were in full bloom. Mina loved the light pink shade contrast with the blue. A single glance at this exterior and one would think the residents had it all. If only.

Mina placed the watering can aside and headed inside. She placed her schoolbag near the doorway. "Papa, I'm home!"

No answer. She didn't know why she bothered. He never answered. Mina walked down the hall to the lounge. Her dad sat beside the fireplace with a blanket over his legs and an unopened book. He glanced up as she came in. He greeted her with his loving smile. "Baby-girl, how was school?"

"It was fine, Papa. Have you eaten today?" She knelt beside him and took his hand.

"Yes, darling." Mr. Vivano looked down at his book. "Did you want me to read you a story?"

"No, Papa. I'm all right."

"Are you sure? You brought me this to read, didn't you?"

"You already had it, Papa." Mina fixed his blanket. "Were you reading all day?"

"I don't remember." Mr. Vivano sighed. "My memory isn't what it used to be, baby-girl."

"You're still the smartest man I know."

"Flattery will get you everywhere. How was school?"

Mina forced a smile. "It was fine, Papa. Let me go fix dinner."

"Don't force yourself, baby-girl. Your mother is taking care of dinner. She's making our favorite: lemon-peppered chicken over roasted veggies." Mr. Vivano's mouth watered.

Mina tensed. Her gaze fell to the floor, "With a light sauce of buttery white-wine." She forced a smile.

"That's right." He ran his fingers through her strawberry-blonde hair.

Mina rose to her feet. "I'll go help mom in the kitchen."

"You're going to be a great cook, just like your mom, baby-girl."

Mina patted her dad's shoulder. She entered the empty kitchen. In the dim light, Mina leaned against the marble counter. She took a steadying breath but the tears welled up anyway.

Her dad developed early stages of onset Alzheimer's last year. Although he was barely in his fifties, his memory was rapidly deteriorating. His first symptoms began with simple things: a forgotten name, suddenly forgetting what he was about to do, and the date. No one thought anything of it. Everybody had those moments. Nevertheless, he knew something was wrong. Within six months, he could not remember conversations from only a few minutes prior.

Mina had taken him to see the doctor and they recommended a neurologist. The EEG scans showed nothing abnormal. They were at a loss. All the while, her dad worsened.

Mr. Vivano retired not long after. He wanted to leave with some semblance of dignity before his mind completely went. Now Mina worked a part-time job on the weekends and took care of him.

Mina jumped as her phone vibrated in her pocket. "Skillet bombs!" She let her heart settle. "Hello?"

"Hey, girl."

"Hey, Bev."

"Oh no. What happened? Clay say something stupid?"

Mina laughed. "Clay always says something stupid. That's one of his charms."

"Then, it must be your dad." Mina didn't say anything. "What happened this time?"

"Nothing really. He just mentioned mom... He forgot she died."

"Oh honey. I'm sorry. This must be so hard for you."

"What can I do? The doctors are doing everything they can. I'm just sitting here waiting for some kind of answer while papa gets worse by the day."

"You can always call Clay. That's what he's there for, to comfort you when you're having a hard time."

"I don't want to burden him with it."

"Don't do that. Don't try to take everything on yourself."

Mina moved to the fridge. She grabbed the handle and froze. "I'm not. Really! I do let Clay take care of me. In fact he's coming over at eight."

"Planning a little late night rendezvous?"

"Of course not." Mina chuckled. "He just wants to give me something."

"Sounds dirty."

"Bev!"

"What? Don't act like your mind didn't go there. You just keep me updated on all the dirty little details so I can live vicariously through you."

"Still no luck with Ben?"

"The bastard hasn't even called me back. I don't know why every guy can't be like Clay. I'm jealous and I hate you."

Mina laughed. "Clay has his flaws. It's not all sunshine and roses."

"Whatever. I still hate you. Now I'm going to go pout until my own boyfriend acknowledges my existence or I come to the decision to be free of him by putting him six feet under. Talk to you later."

"Bye, Bev." Mina hung up. She stood in front of the fridge with her hand on the handle. She didn't really have the energy to cook. Mina closed her eyes and inhaled. She opened the fridge.

Her appetite was gone. Mina pulled out a bag of thawed chicken. Her father may not be able to remember his wife died three years prior, but Mina did everything within her power to maintain a semblance of normal for him, even if it was just cooking one of her mom's dishes. She pulled out a few bell peppers, baby carrots, and broccoli and began chopping.

. . .

Mina turned the page of her textbook. Her eyes felt heavy. Reading about the history of the United States was always a bore. There were no exciting events like the battles of Greece or the conquerors of Spain. Mina yawned. She slapped her cheeks to try to stay awake.

A soft tap on the window stirred her from the oncoming drowsiness. She shuffled off her bed and opened the window. "Romeo? Is that you, Romeo?"

"My Juliet!" Clay jumped out from behind a tree. "I have come for thee to whisk thou away to better days!"

"My prayers have been answered! I feared I would have to drink away the lonely nights and fall into the depths of my despair." Mina theatrically put the back of her hand to her forehead. "My soul be saved! I can't wait another moment! I'm coming, Romeo!"

Clay chuckled as he watched her glide away spectacularly. He ran around to the front.

Mina skipped down the stairs and opened the front door. "Romeo? Wherefore art thou, Romeo?"

Clay jumped out from behind the pillar and scooped her into the air. "At long last I have you, Juliet!"

Mina laughed. "Put me down, you dweeb."

"As promised, five minutes before eight," Clay set her back on the porch and kissed her forehead, "and a gift for my fair lady."

"But I still have so many from my other suitors yet to open."

"But none could compare to what I bring."

Mina clapped her hands. "Such confidence! Forget the other suitors! What has thou brought me for my hand?"

Clay stepped back. He pulled out a large wrapped present from behind the pillar.

The present came to Mina's waist. True, she was small for seventeen, but she had still broken the five-foot mark. "Oh my… Clay, what is this?"

"You have to open it to see."

Mina ripped the paper off. She gasped. "Clay…"

"Just like the one your mom used to have."

Mina pulled out a beautiful porcelain doll. The doll had a thinner face than most porcelain dolls she'd seen. It had the facial structure of a woman in her thirty's. It looked more real than that of a doll, especially the eyes. The black silky hair flowed down to the shoulders and the ends curled into luscious locks. She wore a blue Victorian dress with white laces and a black choker. "Clay… what did you do?"

"I just knew this would be the perfect gift."

"It really is just like the one my mom used to have before she sold it. The only difference is the eyes. Mom's were blue." Mina caressed a finger below the eye. "But this one has green eyes like mom."

"I know life has been kicking you down recently, but maybe this could help bring back a little bit of joy."

"This must have cost a fortune."

Clay shrugged. "Not really. With all the shifts I've been covering recently, I had a good amount of extra cash." He took her hand. "You're the only one worth spending it on."

Tears came to Mina's eyes. "Clay, you sweet bastard."

"Your sweet bastard."

Mina pulled him into a kiss. "I'll cherish her forever."

"Go do your homework before we do something naughty." Clay took a step back but Mina grabbed his wrist.

"I'm okay with that." She pulled him into the house.

"You don't have to tell me twice." Clay followed her up the stairs. Mina led Clay inside her bedroom. She set the doll aside and sat on her bed. Her alluring smile brought him closer. He gently brushed her hair out of her face.

"Make me feel, Clay."

Clay leaned in.

. . .

Mina jolted awake. She pulled the covers to her chin and sat up. All she could hear was the quiet run of the heater.

As she lay back down, she heard something rattle downstairs. Her heart leapt. She nudged Clay's shoulder. "Clay. Clay. Do you hear that?"

Clay stirred. "Hear what?"

"Something's downstairs." She gripped the sheets tighter.

"Okay… Give me a sec. I'll check it out…" Clay stretched. He rolled out of the bed and searched for something to use as a weapon. He opened the closet door and rummaged out Mina's old baseball bat. "Stay here."

Clay silently tiptoed. The hallway's floors froze his feet even through the socks. He glanced down the banister. He only heard the rising winds outside. Clay slowly descended the stairs. His grip on the bat tightened.

Mina bit her bottom lip as she listened hard. She watched the stairs for Clay's return. Every second felt like it was dragging. Her heart beat rapidly against her chest.

Clay came back up the stairs with the bat swinging loosely in his hand. Mina felt better… until she noticed the doll in his hand.

"What are you doing with that?"

Clay lifted it up. "Found it downstairs by your dad's chair."

"Strange." Mina took the doll. She brushed the lovely hair out of its face. "Papa must have taken it."

Clay crossed his arms. He stared at the doll with a bit of hesitation. "Maybe…"

"What?"

"Nothing. Just thinking this is how every horror movie starts."

Mina slapped his arm. "Clay! I don't need those nightmares."

Clay laughed, "I'm sorry, babe." He pulled her into a hug. He glanced over at the clock and sighed. "It's already after two. My father is going to kill me if he finds out I'm not there."

"You can stay the night, you know. You don't have to go back to that tonight."

"I appreciate that, but it'll just make things worse." Clay kissed her forehead and pulled back. He sat on the bed and picked up his shirt.

Mina wrapped her arms around him. "Thanks again for coming, Clay. You don't know how much it means to me."

He gently placed his hand on her cheek. "Of course, my trembling scaredy-cat."

"Careful. I have you in my grip."

"I quiver."

"You're about to!" Mina tickled Clay's sides. He yelped and fell off the bed as he flailed about. Mina grabbed his foot and put it in a headlock. "Apologize."

"Mina… please don't."

"That's not an apology."

"I'm sorry."

Mina smiled mischievously. She gave his foot a quick tickle anyway to watch him squirm and buck. She let go and leaned back victoriously. Clay was still laughing hysterically, trying to rub out the tingles on his sole. She giggled. "Let that be a lesson to you."

Clay rolled his eyes. "You may have fooled other people, but I know you're a devil of a woman." She raised an eyebrow. He quickly tugged on his boots before she could attack him again.

"You're the only one I'll let see." Mina smiled, but the mischievous grin faded to one of forlorn. "I worry about you and your father."

"And I worry about you and yours. I'll be okay." Clay ran his hand through his messy hair. "I'll see you at school tomorrow."

"Okay…" She walked Clay to the front door. She pulled him for one last kiss before letting him walk off into the night. Mina closed the door and sighed. She glanced over to the fireplace. Embers still danced among the logs. Mina dragged herself over. She put out the flames.

Mina looked over at her dad. Since his Alzheimer, he would always fall asleep in that chair. It was like he forgot he had his own bed. Mina placed another blanket over him. She jumped as the winds grew stronger and the branches outside rapped against the walls.

She turned to go back to bed and yelped. The doll sat in the doorway. Its glassy green eyes stared directly at her. A chill ran down her spine. Clay must have left the doll there as a joke; probably as payback for tickling him. That had to be it.

Another chill ran down Mina's spine. She shook her head. "Stop it, Mina. You're just letting the night creep you out. Dolls can't move on their own." Still, she found herself staring at the doll warily. "It's just a doll… not a horror movie."

Mina stepped around the doll and moved to the staircase. The doll still faced the fireplace. Mina shuddered. "Even so, maybe I'll leave it down here." She ran up the stairs.