Phoenix’s Spies

The bony fingered lady swatted me away from the glass faster than a soldier running from a grenade. Without breaking eye contact, she wiped away the smudges I created on her precious counter. Those near black eyebrows rose high, threatening daggers to my soul if I so much as hiccupped in her general direction. That fake crooked smile aimed for a sale, but her eyes harbored man-eating-hatred for any poor soul like me who inquired about engagement rings. 

“That one.” I raised my chin, puffed out my chest and pushed my filthy finger on her glass case, not bothering to hide the smirk creeping its way up my face. 

The word livid wouldn’t describe her response. And, honestly, I didn’t give a damn. This was going to be the fucking happiest day of my life.

She gestured to the other case, full of rings with extra sparkle, additional jazz and double the dollar signs. “How about one of these, sir?”

I leaned over, allowing red paint to drip onto the glass. When the lady stifled a gasp at the red smudge on her glass, I smirked inwardly. Paintballing with the guys definitely had its perks.

“Maybe I’ll buy her a necklace instead.” Green splatters followed in my wake as my muddy shoes squished over the pristine white floor and crossed the store to another case, one filled with elegant necklaces. 

Witch-lady scorched lasers into my back, and I used all my energy to hold a serious face. 

She cleared her throat like a professional ready to perform a Broadway play, but instead of a musical note, a screech echoed off the diamonds through the shop and into the back office. “George! You have a customer!”

Good ole-Georgie-boy, who I’d never met a day in my life, sprang out from the back, like he was floating on air. “Ooh, does paintballing hurt? What if they hit you in the, you know…?” He winced and cowered like a ballerina at a dodgeball tournament. 

Though, come to think of it, ballerinas would be pretty badass players, twirling around each frantic throw. Like Dad always said, It’s not about the power of the beast behind the weapon, but the technique and skill. A snort escaped my throat.Tonight, I would definitely be showing Eva my technique and skills.

I chuckled. “No, man, paintballing doesn’t hurt. It’s not like a real bullet.”

“You’ve been shot?” George clutched his heart like a Grade-A Emmy award winner. 

“You should come next time…paintballing, I mean… not overseas.” A blond lock fell in front of my eyes and when I tucked it behind my ear, blue smeared across my palm. 

George batted his long lashes. “Oh, you’d like that wouldn’t you. A big meaty guy like you ready to protect me.”

I smiled at the stranger. “Protection is what I do. But if I don’t hurry up and buy a ring, my girl’s gonna be pissed that I’m late for dinner.” I smiled and caught my reflection in the mirror behind the cash register. Purple dye covered my teeth. The walkie talkie in my back pocket buzzed in static. 

A high-pitched voice spoke much too loudly for any human ear. “Roger, can you hear me? Over and out.”

I rolled my eyes and smeared yellow over the walkie-talkie as I pushed the button. “Tess, my name is Phoenix, not Roger.”

Static buzzed. “Oh, come on, just pretend. Like we’re doing it for real. Over and out.” Tess giggled, apparently unaware that she still had her finger on the button. 

I shook my head, when she finally let go, I dropped my voice. “Okay, Tess, you’re my spy number one. I need coordinates for the drop off point. Over and out.”

That would take her a minute at least. 

I glanced at my watch: 1800 hours. Soon tears would streak down Eva’s face when I’d look up at her from one knee. She’d clasp one hand to her mouth and do a little dance and pull me up by the elbow, squeeze my giant biceps and plant a huge kiss on my deserving lips. We’d probably rush through dinner just to get to dessert—licking chocolate syrup from each other’s skin. 

George pulled out two rings, one white gold with a one Karat diamond, the other rose gold with a spiral shape and smaller stone. “What’s your girlfriend like? I can help you decide based on her personality.” He propped his elbow on the recently windexed counter and centered his chin in his palm—ready for a chick flick-worthy romance story. 

“I know which she’d want.” I pointed to the smaller diamond. “With all her pottery making, she’ll take the ring off often, so it won’t get dirty. So, she’d want the cheaper option in case she loses it.”

George tapped a nearby clipboard. “We have insurance plans for brides who lose…things.”

“Nah, I’d rather take the risk.”

George nodded. “I knew you’d say that.” He took his time shining the stone and wrapping it. The clock above the counter ticked on, making me regret the choice to not shower first as paint oozed down my briefs.

Spy number one chimed into the device. “Roger. I have coordinates 35.0527° N, 78.8784° W. Rendezvous in one hour. Over and out. I mean, live long and prosper.”

That was fast. Who knew my fifteen-year-old cousin was so resourceful? I pushed the button and winked at George, before asking, “Does spy number two have my outfit?”

“Spy number two?” Tess giggled. “Oh, yeah. I mean, yes sir. But why did you pick a pirate costume, wouldn’t Eva want you in a tux? Over and out. So long, partner.”

I handed over my credit card to George, who was basically doing a tap dance on the other side, then pushed the button. “Negative. I’m sticking with the pirate gear. And it’s not a costume. It’s the real thing. Make sure you find my sword.”

George walked out from behind the counter and looked up at me. “Pirate? This proposal will be just…perfect.” I could’ve sworn tears formed in his eyes as this stranger leaned in and wrapped his arms around my waist, covering the front of his shirt in turquoise and yellow and red splashes. 

“Give me your card, I’ll let you know how it turns out.”

His eyes lit up like firecrackers. “Yes! Please! I can write a story about all the details on my blog! It’ll turn into a movie!”

After pocketing the jewelry box and his contact info, I marched over my puddles of red on the floor, trying not to think about how they looked like blood—a sight I was too familiar with. But that wasn’t a thought for today. 

The sun drenched into my cheeks as I stepped outside. Heat bore down quickly and powerfully, unusual for a February evening—even for the South. I tore off the paintball gear to my tee and jeans. My pickup truck beeped when I clicked my keys, startling a few teen girls sitting on the park bench. 

“Sorry,” I threw my gear in the back while noticing one girl eyeing my sleeve of tattoos up and down. 

“No problem.” She smiled with bedroom eyes, knowing exactly what she was doing when she uncrossed her legs. But her charming face wasn’t Eva’s, and even though I was only twenty, a teen girl wasn’t my thing. 

The truck door slammed shut, catching the fabric of my pants between the door and frame. I yanked it out, tearing a hole in the side of the rough fabric of my pants. “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos boomed through my stereo. I rolled down my window and sang along, replacing “Eva” in the lyrics. The teen girls giggled as I shoved on my aviators. I pulled out of the spot, burning rubber. 

Wind rushed in through the cabin and a sports car tried to pass, but I floored it and saluted the guy in my rearview, egging him on. The engine roared like the lion inside me and showed the mid-life crisis man who was boss. Unfortunately, my phone rang, interrupting all the fun and halting the song at the best part. 

Dad’s voice projected through the speaker. “Phoenix?”

“What’s up, ole timer?”

“I’m only forty-five.”

“Like I said, old as dirt. I probably won’t even live to that age.”

A door creaked in the background. “Quiet, son. Don’t want your mother hearing that.”

I checked the side mirror, watching for that douchebag sportscar to pop up unannounced. “But it’s true.”

He sighed. “We all know it’s true. Don’t need reminders. Anyway, I need your help with something tonight.”

“No can do, ole timer. I’ve got plans.”

His voice dropped. “What if it’s an order?”

I bit the inside of my lip and released the heavy pressure of my combat boots from the gas. “Is it an order, Lieutenant Peterson?”

Papers shuffled in the background. “It’s… important.”

Dad was messing with me. “Do it yourself.”

He basically growled. “Is that how you speak to your commanding officer?”

I pulled over, bouncing on my seat from the gravel. My jaw clenched as I took the call off speakerphone and held the phone to my ears. “What’s wrong, Dad?”

A cardinal landed onto the hood of my truck and stared at me through the cracked windshield. While I ever-so-patiently waited for Dad’s response, like a perfect only-child would do, the sportscar flew by me, and the man raised a middle finger in the air. Same to you, asshole.

Doomsday clouds appeared from nowhere and covered the setting sun, cascading shadows on the forest to my right. Anytime, now…

So, I asked again, “What’s wrong, Dad?”

He cleared his throat. “I owe someone a favor.”

Really? That was all he was gonna say?

I shook my head and checked the mirror as a cop car flew by. The sunset’s rays were fading, and darkness rolled in faster than usual. “Do I need to bribe you with Mom’s baking to get you to talk?” 

He grumbled under his voice. Something was definitely wrong, so I offered, “I can come to you. Where are you at?”

“No, no. I shouldn’t have called or gotten you involved. Nevermind.” His tone switched. 

My heart thumped fast as I straightened in the driver’s seat and changed gears. The tires kicked up dirt as I sped back onto the road and checked his location on my phone. “You’re home now?”

“No, I’m leaving. Your mother can’t know… Phoenix, just forget I called.” He hung up. 

Shit. What the hell?

With one steady hand I checked Dad’s location again, but he had turned off the sharing feature. Damn it! The speedometer rose higher down the country road.

Spy number one’s voice croaked through the walkie talkie. “We don’t have eyes on Eva. She was supposed to leave her pottery studio and meet us at the nail salon. Me and spy number two will be MIA while we find her, then will drop her off at the destination. I think I need a better nickname, how about Bond, Tess Bond.”

I didn’t respond. A needed exhale escaped my lips as I glanced at the dashboard. 1830. Find Dad. Fix his fiasco. Shower. Change into epic pirate outfit. Find sword. Meet Eva. Propose. Easy Peasy. 

Raindrops plinked on my hood as I sped toward our house, my heart rate quickening at each passing second. Would Dad have told Mom where he was going? 

Only three miles away. 

Why would Dad call me instead of his coworkers? Because he trusts me more. What happened? The drizzle turned to downpour, slamming water on his windshield and I could barely see. Squinting, I moved to the edge of my seat, cramping my long legs under the steering wheel and peering out into the monsoon. 

Two miles from home. 

What did Dad get himself involved in? Was he in danger? Wind erupted through oak trees and water sprayed up as I catapulted through deep potholes. The battering sound against my windows was almost deafening. 

One mile. 

A screech came through my quiet radio. “Weather alert: flood warning in Cumberland County.” 

Pop!

The truck pulled me off the road and metal screeched against concrete. Crap! A flat!

I checked my phone. No service. The glovebox dropped open at my forceful touch. I grabbed my Glock, just in case, pocketed my keys and phone and sprinted down the country road. 

In any other weather, I’d be there in seven minutes, but the rain blinded me. The gravel slid underfoot and water splashed up into my socks. Left foot. Right foot. They thudded heavily, but fast. My muscles burned and my breath quickened. 

Our two-story brick house came into view, complete with a white picket fence. Mom’s twenty bird feeders in the yard were all toppled over from the wind. I rushed inside, shook out my hair, and wiped my face on my jacket hanging by the front door. 

“Mom?” 

Her cat pranced forward, circling my feet and licking the water from my boots. 

“Mom?” I walked through the hall so fast, my shoulder caught one of the picture frames on the wall, knocking it down and smashing the glass to the floor. 

“Goodness!” Mom walked out of the kitchen, her long blond hair pulled back in a ponytail and worry lines stretched on her forehead. 

The scent of brownies made me suck in a breath. I marched to the fridge and gulped down a water bottle, crushing the plastic between my fingers with each swallow. 

“Sorry, I’ll clean that up.” I crouched and picked up the broken pieces of the frame.

Mom knelt too and laid her hand on mine. “Don’t worry about it. I need you to find your father.”

I met her hazel eyes. Her look confirmed that he was in trouble. “Where is he?”

The damn cat nudged against me, leaving fur stuck against my wet forearm. 

Mom’s hands shook as she picked up the glass pieces slowly and placed them in a neat pile. “I…I don’t know. He was mumbling under his breath and pacing around, said something about a bus, then ran out of here.” Her eyes darted to the pantry, where we kept a stash of hidden guns. 

“No, we don’t need those.” I pulled her to her feet. “I’ll find him but my phone is wet. I need yours.”

She nodded and rushed across the kitchen, pulling her phone from the charger on the counter. The oven blared just as the electricity flashed off.

Mom pulled out the brownies and leaned against the counter. “Last hurricane we lost power for two days.”

“This isn’t a hurricane. And I’ll get your power back up once I find Dad. Be right back.” I kissed Mom’s forehead, swiped the phone and stormed to my room, closing the door behind me. 

While tearing off my soaked clothes, I messaged people quickly. 

One to Dad- “Where are you?”

One to Eva- “May need to push back our dinner an hour or so. xoxo. I’ll make it up to you with chocolate and that strip tease you like.”

One to Spy number one- “Keep Eva distracted or take her shopping. I’ll pay for whatever.”

One to my best bud on my army team, Specialist Ryan- “I need your help tracking Lieutenant Peterson. Can you get his location?”

My watch beeped, reminding me that I needed to be headed toward the restaurant soon. The waiter I had paid to deliver a treasure chest full of her favorite chips would have to be patient for our late arrival.

My clothes lay in a heap on the ground, smelling like a wet dog. I pulled out the jewelry box from the pocket and set it on my dresser. Focusing on my meditative breathing, I opened it up and stared at the glistening diamond. 

The air conditioning turned on, sending a gust of frigid air through the vent over my naked body. I shivered and reached for a pair of briefs in my drawer when a soft knock tapped on my door. 

“One second, Mom.” I grabbed a pair and threaded one foot through the leg hole when my door creaked open. 

Hoping it was just the damn cat, I swiveled around to shut it quickly. Instead, I met Eva’s gorgeous brown eyes. My heart slammed under my ribs, threatening to break free and an erection formed immediately. 

She glanced down and instead of her cheeks turning rosy like I was used to; a frown covered that porcelain face. I yanked my underwear up and tried to step between her and the engagement ring, fully on display. 

But she saw it. 

Her jaw dropped a tad as she gently closed the door behind her and leaned against the wood, head angled up to the ceiling. Uh oh. My breathing accelerated and my chest rose and fell heavy as I moved toward her, with hands outstretched. 

She bit her lip and eyed the ring again, then squeezed her eye shut and backed away. 

“Eva?” My voice stuck in my throat and dread flooded through my veins at the look on her face. 

Her sweet eyes were hard as she stared out the window. “I…I didn’t know you’d be here.”

Whatever was bothering her, I could fix it. I could make it better. As I moved in for a hug, she blocked me with one arm. 

“No.” Her voice was stern.

“What’s wrong?”

She bit her lip. Any other time that slight movement would rile me up, but her energy wasn’t right. 

I studied her. “If you didn’t know I was here, then why—”

“I came to talk.”

“But we have plans tonight. We could talk at dinner, so why—”

“I didn’t come to talk to you. I came to talk to your mom.”

Goosebumps crept up my skin, covering my tattoos as the realization of upcoming bad news set in, but I clamped my mouth shut so I wouldn’t say anything to make it worse.

Eva’s eyes watered but she kept her face solid. “I came to explain to your mom… why…” Her voice shook. 

The torment harassing her was too much for me to bear. I wrapped my arms around her. “Take a deep breath. We can fix the problem.”

Eva pushed out of my embrace, completely shattering my heart. “No. You’re the problem.”

I froze and a new gust of air from the vent attacked me. Turning from her sharp face, I pushed my fingers into my temples and dropped my head.

She dug through a drawer behind me and when I turned back to face her, a dry shirt hung in the air from her fingertips. Fingers that had traced the outline of each line of all my tattoos. Fingers I had licked honey off. Fingers that formed her unique pottery pieces. And one specific finger that I picked out the engagement ring for. 

I forced a swallow, like a mound of rocks was stuck in my throat and gently pulled the shirt from her grip. She crossed her arms and moved a step back, eyes on the floor as the phone rang from my bed. 

I sighed. “Eva, what did I do to upset you?”

“Nothing. We’re just in different places in life.”

It felt like claws were ripping out my beating heart. “We can be in the same place. Let’s slow down.”

She gestured to the ring. “Clearly, we’re on even more different paths than I thought.”

My jaw tightened and my chest felt like it was on fire. “I don’t have to propose.”

Eva finally looked up and a tear from the corner of her eye. “But you want to.”

I nodded. Words wouldn’t form at the sight of her crying. I was the cause. I was making her cry.

Her eyebrows knitted together. “That’s the thing. I don’t want you to propose.”

The air was stolen from my lungs. The pain of daggers pierced my stomach. Over and over, tearing apart my insides. “Okay. What do you want?”

“I don’t think you want me to answer that.” 

Rain battered against the window and my phone rang again. 

“Are you gonna get that?” She wiped her wet cheek, moving her chestnut hair out of her face.

“No.” I slowly moved forward again. “Please, let’s talk.”

Eva reached into the bottom drawer, knowing where all my belongings were, and chucked a pair of pants at me. “Stop. I knew you wouldn’t accept what I have to say.”

I dropped the pants to the carpet and sank onto my comforter, sending out a loud puff sound as air escaped from the blankets. “What am I supposed to do? Let you walk out of my life? Tonight…” for a moment I couldn’t breathe. “I was going to…”

“I knew you were soon. I just didn’t think it’d be now.” She sat on the bed, but on the other end, worlds apart. 

Before, on this very bed, we had tossed and turned under the sheets for hours, flesh against flesh. How could she rip that away?

A throbbing pounded in my temples, but I pushed it away and faced her. “What can I do? I can wait. If you’re not ready. We can take our time.” 

The phone rang again, but I silenced it and threw it across the floor.

She blurted out. “I want to have sex with other men.”

Every muscle twisted in indescribable pressure. A roaring echoed in my ears and I could feel my eyes widen in horror while gazing into her brown eyes. Picturing her with another man was pure torture. I stood and stumbled across the room, to the opposite corner, fists clenched at my sides. 

“Why?”

“I’m twenty-one, Phoenix. We’ve had three great years, but you’re the only man I’ve been with. I want to see what else is out there. I have a full life ahead of me, options, adventures. There’s no way I can settle.”

Settle. To her I was settling. Those words were a gut punch. “Okay.” I stared her down as my heart rate quickened, terrified of her walking out my door. 

“Okay?” She stood and tilted her head. 

I wanted her to stay in that room. But if time and space were what she needed, I’d give it. 

I rolled in my lips and nodded. “If you need a few months or a year…”

Eva’s posture straightened. “No, Phoenix. We’re not leaving this open. I will always love you—”

I held out a hand. “Don’t. Don’t say that if you don’t mean it.”

She folded her arms. “Fine. I used to love you. But this is over. I’m not coming back. Don’t wait for me. Please find someone new.” Eva reached for the door. 

No. I couldn’t let her leave. Not like this. Not now. How could I wake up tomorrow without her in my life? I rushed over and dropped to my knees in front of her. 

“Please.”

She didn’t meet my eye. “We aren’t meant for each other.” Her dress fluttered against my jawline as she turned and left. The door clicked quietly behind her. 

The carpet tickled against my calf as I buried my head between my knees. Pain erupted threatening to steal my oxygen from my chest. Count to ten and move on, soldier. Dad’s words echoed back. Okay, I was alive. I had tomorrow. Count to ten. 

One. 

Sprawling flat on the carpet, I wiggled into my pants. 

Two.

I stood, pulled a knife out of my drawer and hovered over a pillow—one I had let Eva rest her head. 

Three. 

My knuckles clenched around the knife and I stabbed that pillow repetitively until feathers smothered the bed. 

Four. 

I snapped the jewelry box shut and buried it deep under my briefs. Breathe. In. Out. 

Five. 

I picked up the phone from the carpet and swiped the lit-up screen. Multiple missed calls. 

Six. 

No. I’m over the damn counting. Fuck seven through ten, Eva. Fuck you!

Before listening to the voicemails, I shook my body, releasing the tension and dialed Ryan back. 

“Your Dad is a hard one to find, man,” Private Ryan sounded serious on the other line.

“You can’t locate him?”

“Negative.” Ryan was in the zone, focused and alert. 

“Okay, call me if you find him or hear anything.” 

A tree branch smacked into my window, breaking through. 

“Shit!” I jumped toward the hallway, needing to check on Mom. 

But…Eva would be down there, breaking the news to Mom. Eva was the daughter she never had. That girl was breaking more than one heart today. I cracked my knuckles, holstered my Glock and walked downstairs. Mom was chopping brownies at the counter, eyes red-rimmed. 

My heart leapt again. “Are you okay?”

“I spied on you. I heard everything.”

I whirled around. “Wait, Eva didn’t talk to you herself?”

“No.”

“Where is she?”

Mom pointed her knife toward the door. “Gone. You deserve better.” She sniffed. 

She was wrong. Eva was perfect. 

“Then why are you crying?” I asked. 

Mom pointed that knife straight at me. “Because…you have a heart of gold. And I know it’s breaking and I can’t do anything to take away your pain.” She moved a crumbling brownie onto a plate. “Here, eat this.”

“I need to go after her. This storm is bad.”

Mom smushed a giant bite against my lips, forcing me to open. The gooey chocolate melted over my tongue, warming my body. 

“Thanks, Mom.” I disguised the hitch in my voice. 

“She doesn’t deserve your protection.”

“Everyone deserves protection. Listen, go sleep down in the bunker until the morning. You’ve got your magazines and food down there.”

She dropped the knife into the sink splattering dishwater everywhere. “Fine. But only because it’ll calm you.”

“I am calm.”

Her tender grip grasped my chin. “Don’t lie to me.” She released me and headed straight to the pantry, opened the trap door, and descended from view. 

The floorboards creaked as I marched toward the front door. I grabbed her car keys and rushed into the rain. Great, soaked twice in one day. I sped down the road, passing my abandoned truck on the way. 

In just a few minutes, her car came into view, swerving over the yellow line. Pulling up beside her, I honked gently to not startle her. After gesturing for her to pull over, I followed her to the shoulder. She jumped out and slammed her door, strutting towards me. Rain was the only thing connecting us. 

“What the hell, Phoenix? Just let me go!”

“I am. You’re free of me.” I threw up my hands and shouted. “But it’s not safe to drive in this.” 

“I’m a big girl and know how to drive. I know my limits.”

I bared my teeth, trying to hold back the comments I wanted to yell. “So, you don’t want my help?”

“No. Leave! If I crash, it’s my own damn fault. Please go.”

Every fiber of my being wanted to argue back, drag her back to Mom’s and safely tuck her into the bunker. But I squeezed back into my car without a word and drove off, leaving her alone in the rain. I slammed my palms into the steering wheel, jerking my entire upper body with them. My heart hammered out of control in my chest. 

“Aahh!” My scream echoed off the leather, stained with circle dots from the water rolling down my jaw and splattering everywhere. 

She doesn’t want me. We’re done. I couldn’t fix this. It was over. Say it out loud, soldier. Dad’s voice was like a phantom in the air. 

“It’s over.” A wave of calm washed over me as I said it once more. “It’s over.”

My heart rate steadied, and clarity struck. I knew what I had to do. 

I checked the phone. No new messages from Ryan. I called Dad. Straight to voicemail. Where would Dad go? What would he be doing? My mind reeled trying to piece together the few pieces Mom and Dad both mentioned. He owed someone a favor, regretted getting me involved, didn’t want Mom to know. What had Mom said? A bus? Would he be at the bus station? Why? Which one? 

Steering with one hand, I googled all the closest bus stations to our house and headed toward the first one. As the minutes ticked on, and I crossed off more bus stations off my list, the rain slowly softened. The clock showed 2300.

Mom’s gas tank binged and a red symbol lit up—near empty. Perfect. 

I called other bus stations asking for a man with Dad’s description, six foot three inches, 200 pounds, bald, most likely in camo. Though for the last five calls, I omitted the camo part. If something shady was going on, he wouldn’t want to be caught in his uniform. 

Glancing at Mom’s phone, I hoped she wasn’t worried sick. I should’ve given her mine, in case it dried out. Her screen showed twenty percent battery. I dug around for a charger. Nothing. Could buy one from a gas station while I fill up. I reached into my back pocket. Empty. Damn it. My wallet was in my other pants sprawled on my carpet. 

I stopped at a red light and flashed my hazards as other cars approached. The phone buzzed. Dad’s number. My heart slammed, threatening to break free. 

“Hello? Dad?” My voice came out high pitched. 

A painful groan came from the other end. He was hurt. Crap. No! 

“Marie?” He coughed and gurgly spurts of liquid exploded from his mouth. Don’t let it be blood.

“It’s Phoenix. Where are you?”

Another loud groan followed by “I’m…five minutes from… Oak City’s train station….” 

“Dad?”

“Hurry… the intersection….” His breathing faded. “… Onyx and Jewel…”

“Okay. I’m ten minutes from there!”

More like twenty, but I could make it work. “What happened to you?”

He spat something.

“Okay, okay. Don’t talk. Just stay on the line.” I moved the phone in sight, ten percent battery. 

I shook my head and floored Mom’s car, speeding through winding turns and zooming through red lights. All the while, I held the phone to my ear, listening as Dad’s breathing turned more labored as each minute passed by. Terror locked on tight to my chest and wouldn’t let go. 

Finally, I pulled into the empty intersection, where a flashing streetlight ignited a silhouette laying in a ditch. No!

I scurried out of the car, tripping on a tree branch, and fell to the ground. My palms landed hard on pebbles and broken glass that sliced into my flesh. Dad lay in the mud, covered in cuts and bruises. A large scrape on his temple oozed blood. I scrambled over, crawling towards him. 

“Glass,” he whispered, trying to point behind me.

“Ssh, don’t move.” I ripped off my shirt and wrapped it around his bald head. 

One eye was already black, and tears covered his shirt. “Were you thrown out of a car?”

He nodded.

“We need to get you to a hospital.”

“No.”

“Dad! Yes! We have to.”

“First…we have…to go…”

I checked his limbs for broken bones and signs of internal bleeding. The biggest concern seemed to be a likely concussion. I snapped in front of his face, checking his response, but it was hard to see with only the moonlight shining down. 

“Where do we have to go?”

He pulled a driver’s license out of his pocket, showing a sixteen-year-old girl named Cali Walsh. “Here.”

“Why?”

“That’s an order.” Dad coughed.  

He groaned when I helped to lift him to his feet. After wobbling for a moment and staggering to the side, he limped to the car. 

“How do you feel?” I held him steady by his waist. 

“Sore and dizzy. But I’ll live.”

“We’re still going to the hospital.”

“Her house first.”

After he eased into the passenger seat, he flipped down the mirror. Scrapes claimed his face and head, but the bleeding had stopped seeping through the shirt wrapped around his forehead.  

I entered Cali Walsh’s address into Mom’s GPS, knowing it’ll take up the rest of the battery, so I memorized the directions and drove forward. Dad stared at the window, lips rolled in tight. I eased into each turn softly, watching him out of the corner of my eye. 

The car rolled into a suburban neighborhood, full of spacious yards and houses to match. Squinting, I found the mailbox matching the driver’s license and pulled over. 

“Stay here.” Dad ordered and peeled the now-red shirt off his head. Slowly, he dabbed blood and dirt.

“I have to. I don’t have anything to wear. Why are we here?”

“I’ll tell you when I come back out.” He groaned and ducked out of the car, limping his way up the long drive.

The phone chimed again. Ryan’s number lit up the screen, next to the five percent symbol. 

“Peterson?”

I sighed. “It’s me.”

“We can’t locate your Dad, I mean Lieutenant Peterson.”

“I got him.”

“Roger.” Long pause. “Also… I hacked into his email and found something.”

“How? They’re protected.”

“I have my ways. You sounded like he was dying or dead… so, I didn’t have a choice. Just… keep this quiet.”

“Will do.” 

“All emails seemed routine for work. Except one.”

“Why?”

“It was a message from an unknown source. It said to deliver a briefcase to 222 Golden Street in Ash Mountain.”

“That’s it?”

“Yup. And I looked up who lives there. I’ll send you info.”

“Okay, hurry. This phone is about to die.” I hung up.

The phone purred as a link to an article popped up. A teen girl who looked the same age as Tess, stood on a farm next to a Golden Retriever. Mountains towered behind her and a camera draped around her neck. The title of the article read:

Our very own Ash Mountain sophomore,

Raelyn Bell, wins photography internship

I zoomed in.

What did Dad get himself into?

Authors- I know the Secret

“Writing my first novel will be so easy!” said no one, ever.

The day I jumped out of bed with an idea to begin writing, I had little understanding of how complicated the process would be. Exactly one year later I am a member of over 50 different author related websites. You read that correctly.

Over 50!

And that number will continue to grow. Companies I had never heard of became absolutely necessary (Bookfunnel) and others I only dipped my toes in, just come out traumatized (Hootesuite). During this process, who knew that I’d learn what a “png” was? Or the necessities of sensitivity readers on Fiverr. Before beginning my writing career, I could’ve guessed that Mailchimp was actually for monkeys.

So… hear me out…

There’s GOT to be an easier, more organized way to write and publish a novel. But, authors are smart. The smartest. No need to reinvent the wheel, right? Someone in the past must have recognized this same problem. So, if a new author, like me researches options for the steps to publish a novel, hundreds of self-help sites or books will pop up.

What the Frickin Frick! Really!?? Hundreds?

And so many of them have conflicting recommendation of how to be a bestselling author. So, honestly, where do we begin? How does a new author know if a Facebook Street team should start two or four months before a launch? I mean, there’s probably ONE correct answer and we all want to know the direct path to success. But there’s no way to truly know when and where and how to invest our precious time.

Should we engage with readers in comments or spend time setting up videos? The perfect lighting shining through the window on our stacks of books is super duper important. The only other option is to hire Rhysand to haul those books down the stairs, through the hall and outside, because they’re massive and heavy. (No spoilers please, I’m only on ACOMAF)

Focus. If we give away too many novels for free does that hurt our sales? I could log into Rafflecopter to create a giveaway. Wait! What’s my damn password? Because I have over 50 accounts to navigate all this. Maybe the answer is to pull out all my newly gray hair.

Insert meditation moment here. Take a deep breath. In. Out. Everything will be okay because I know the answer.

Just keep writing.

Yes, the other stuff is important, to an extent, but it can suck authors dry. The marketing and networking and newsletter swaps are all great and dandy. But we are writers. We want to write. It is our passion and what makes us tick.

So, grab a pen, grab your computer, grab your cat.

And write a new story.

The other stuff will fall into place… maybe. But writing is what matters.

Check out my short stories on www.cassieswindon.com They are prequels to my debut novel, Break the Stone.” Whenever I feel lost in the marketing attempts, I write a quick short story to feel productive.

William’s Lies

A breeze blew in from the window, but I sweated bullets. I glanced at the grandfather clock in the hallway, somehow ticking at double speed. Ticking that matched the rhythm of my heartbeat. Raelyn would be home from school in two hours, and I couldn’t fathom the lies I’d have to create if she saw the briefcase. 

This must be a mistake. I blew out a deep breath and slid my hand over the leather, clicking the latch open—again. 

Who the hell left all this cash on our porch? Why? 

Bear lifted his head from his paw and whined in his corner of the kitchen as I paced. Even the dog’s calm energy couldn’t soothe my racing nerves. The old wooden floors creaked with every step of my boot, and I rubbed my beard—something my father always did. 

Maybe the sum won’t be a big deal. Problem solved. My hands shook as I reached inside and thumbed through the stacks of bills—all hundreds. There had to be over $100,000 neatly bundled inside the briefcase. I stepped back. 

A piece of paper caught on my dinged-up wedding ring and fluttered to the floor. I couldn’t hold back a groan when I crouched down. All those hours at the construction site did damage to my thirty-seven-year-old body. I grabbed the note, accidentally smearing oil on the corner. Still trembling, I squinted at the messy handwriting:

To WB, 

Hide it. Don’t tell anyone. Stay safe.

No signature. Where did it come from? Something deep in my gut fired a warning, but I pushed it away. I shut down the option that this might be connected to Joanna’s old job, and instead stroked the cool metal of my compass. 

Maybe the money was a joke from my poker buddies, and the bills were counterfeit. There was only one way to find out. I slammed the briefcase shut, locked it, and held it tightly. Bear bolted upright when I grabbed my keys and raced after my wide steps past the garden, the tire swing, and line of oak trees. His paws kicked gravel up just before barking at the side of my truck. 

“You can’t go with me, boy.”

Another loud bark soared through the country air as he wagged his tail. The mailman drove by and waved, as usual. I fought every urge to hide the briefcase behind my back, but I couldn’t raise unnecessary suspicion. 

“Hey, Norbert! Busy Monday?” A tingling sensation crawled up my skin. 

“Same as always.” The same mailman who gifted lollipops to Raelyn as a child now threw a dog treat out his window to Bear. He gestured to the briefcase. “Job interview? I thought you loved the hardware store.”

I swallowed hard, not used to lying. “My dad keeps his meds in here.”

“Tell Vincent I say hello,” he said, smiling and tipping his cowboy hat. “Oh, and that young lady of yours is too smart. I’m sick of delivering all these college pamphlets and brochures to y’all.”

I forced a smile and ran a hand through my hair, the oil between my fingers greasing the thick locks. Maybe if I kept the money, she could go to whatever college she wanted. 

Norbert waited for a John Deere tractor to snail by, before pulling away. Dust rose from his tires and clouded the bright February day. Bear barked again. 

My temples started throbbing at the thought of the damage this briefcase could cause. I tossed my toolbox and fishing lines into the back and sighed. “Okay, boy. Get in.” 

I shook my head as he swooped in gracefully and kicked the passenger door with my boot to close it. Maybe some extra cash could get us some new trucks, though. I glanced at the clock on the dashboard. 

1:00. 

Raelyn would be home at 2:45. My heart rate sped up as I pushed hard on the accelerator. 

The smell of manure wafted through the broken air conditioner vents, so I rolled down the window. A chaos of golden fur blinded me for a split-second as Bear circled and stuck his nose out the window. I would’ve normally patted his head, but that meant I’d have to pry my white knuckles loose from their death grip on the steering wheel. 

My foot jittered frantically, and I sat up straighter as we drove by the police station. Officer Sam Smith exited the side door and nodded as I rolled by, but I pretended not to see. Glancing at my hunting rifle on the floor gave me just an ounce of relief, but that disappeared as fast as it came when his squad car pulled up beside me at a red light. The tightness in my chest grew more constricted. I leaned forward and hit the dashboard, hoping some radio station could block out the eerie silence invading my security. 

Chris Stapleton rang loud and clear for just a few beats before turning into a jumbling mess. 

“Crap!” I fumbled for the volume knob.

The light turned green and Officer Smith sped away without a second glance. Thank God. It didn’t matter that I used to play baseball with him in middle school, he’d arrest me at the drop of a hat if he saw the briefcase. 

My turn signal mocked the tension coiled in my stomach with a happy, click click click as I pulled into the bank’s parking lot. My arm felt like a sack of potatoes as I reached down for the briefcase. I gulped hard and took off my blue plaid shirt, laying it over the briefcase like a blanket. No one at the bank would think twice about my oil-stained t-shirt. When I stepped out of my Chevy, the cool air turned my freckled forearms into a goose-bumped landmine, ready to explode. 

“Come on, Bear.” I focused on Bear’s easy breathing. If my dog wasn’t worried, I shouldn’t be. 

He bounded out, tongue sagging, and trotted to the bank’s door. Bear must be smarter than me, because he sat down and looked at me, like he understood what was going on.

I opened the door, and the top of my hair brushed against the bell, making it ding. Three employees I’d known since kindergarten glanced up and smiled. The clock on the wall mocked me. Maybe Raelyn would have her photography club and stay late after school. 

Out the window, four cardinals landed atop my truck, guarding what was hidden inside. I loosened my clenched jaw and marched toward the manager. 

“Hey, Darla, do you have a minute?”

“William! Thank you for fixing my mom’s gutter.”

“Oh, no problem. Tell her thanks again for those brownies.” I patted my stomach out of habit, but could hear the strain in my voice. 

“Bear, what trouble has William gotten into?” Her brows crinkled as she motioned us into her office. 

I followed her in and leaned against the wall. Unfortunately, she had five clocks on her wall. They all showed a different setting in the background, a mountain, a river, a desert, a rainforest, and a snow covered pines. I couldn’t take my eyes off the desert themed clock, as if it were calling my name. 

Darla closed the door behind her with a click. “What’s up, William?”

She sat at her desk, and a lock of blond hair fell in front of her blue eyes. Her eyes didn’t compare to Joanna’s. 

She pointed to an extra chair but I shook my head and leaned against the wall. “No, I’ll stand. I’m full of dirt.”

“William, you’ve always been full of dirt. Go ahead and sit.”

Her long pink nails tapped the desk like a command, and the chair cushions let out a groan as I sat down. Bear followed her command as well. 

When I caught Darla scanning my upper arms, my cheeks flushed. “Well, I needed to ask y’all a question.” 

She bit her lip slightly. Damn, I wasn’t expecting that. It had been too long since— 

Focus.

“William, what do you need?”

She reached over and laid her soft hand on my forearm. The paleness of her skin looked off compared to when Joanna had made the same movement. But that was so long ago. 

I withdrew my hand. “Right, so, um, what would you do if…” 

Bear jumped, placing both paws on Darla’s office window and barked at my truck. She pushed him down and snapped, pointing to the floor and making my pup follow her command immediately. 

My brow raised. “Impressive.”

Darla lifted her chin and moved to the edge of her chair. “What were you saying?”

I rubbed my hands together. “If I… if you… found something…” I cringed and scrunched my nose. “Well…”

Darla tilted her head and laughed. “William, did you join the dumpster divers last weekend and find a treasure?”

“No, no. Listen, I need to report or file or…” I dropped my head in my hands. She’d only call the cops if I tried to donate or deposit a hundred grand. 

A knock rapped on the door, saving me. “Darla? I heard you had Mr. Bell in here?”

She stood. “Yes, come in.”

A new employee rushed in. “I actually just received an urgent notice about Mr. Bell’s account.”

I straightened in my chair, my hand palming the compass swinging from my belt loop. Darla must’ve sensed my shift because her eyes narrowed, “What is the notice?”

“A large sum had been automatically transferred to his account from a Mrs. Joanna Bell.”

My heart stopped, and I lunged forward so quickly. The leg of the chair snapped in half, sending me flat to my butt. I hit the carpet hard and Bear lunged to my face, licking my cheeks. 

“Stop it, Bear!” I jumped to my feet and stared at the man. “What did you just say?”

He stepped back against the wall, intimidated by my harsh tone “There is a specific option in some wills. It’s called a Deceased Account and says when someone dies, a sum of money can be withheld and released to a designated person on a specific date. Mrs. Joa—”

I pointed in his face. “Don’t say her name.”

He glanced at Darla before continuing. “Today an account under her name released a sum to you. Here, there’s a note.”

I couldn’t tell if the room was spinning, but held out my hand, anyway. 

The man spoke slowly. “It’s electronic, sir.” He moved to the other side of Darla’s desk and fumbled with the mouse. After a few clicks, he turned the monitor. “See?”

I wanted to look as much as I didn’t want to look. The screen showed:

Mrs. Joanna Bell ———— Mr. William Bell

$200,000

I sucked in a breath, trapping it inside. Bear knew just as well as I did that something was wrong. His furry eyebrows see-sawed up and down the same way questions were bouncing around in my mind, but I read her note underneath. 

“My Dear William,

What am I supposed to say? If you’re reading… I just hope it wasn’t cancer. How am I supposed to know what words you need to hear from me? How am I supposed to comfort you if I’m not there? I’m sorry for keeping a secret, but this money is from my journalism award. I saved it for Raelyn’s college tuition. If I’m not there to drop her off at her dorm breaks my heart. You’ll do a good job. You always have. Love you… even from this side.”

My hand went to my forehead to cover a tear trickling down. It had been almost ten years since she had died, but this wasn’t the first message from beyond her grave. Joanna couldn’t have received that much money from an award. It didn’t make sense. Letting Darla know about the extra money in the briefcase would be too suspicious now. Darla, the man, and Bear were all staring at me when I looked up.

I cleared my throat. “Well, okay, then. Do I sign something?”

Darla hesitated. “So you didn’t know about this?”

My hand found my beard again, rubbing my chin. “No, but Joanna was always full of surprises.”

The man eyed me and clicked a few buttons. “Here, we just need your electronic signature.”

I leaned over and tapped my initials into the keyboard just as Bear barked again. Out the window, a group of teen boys were jumping in the bed of my truck. 

“Hey!” My loud shout made Darla hop. “Sorry, I need to go.” I sprinted out of the room with Bear on my heels and out the door. 

The suffocation of early pollen immediately attacked my nostrils as a gust of wind blew through town. 

“Get off my truck!”

They laughed, hooted, hollered, and dispersed faster than a group of ants being targeted by a kid’s sneaker. When I scooted into the driver’s seat, my shirt still laid over the bulk on the floor. The realization that we had $300,000 more than yesterday sliced into my core. 

I kept it together during the fast drive home, but the moment I rolled back into our gravel driveway, my phone’s alarm sent me into a frenzy—2:00. My daily reminder to tell my father to take his meds. I didn’t even send him a text but whipped the briefcase from the floor and raced out of my truck through the yard, past the farmhouse and into the back barn. The scent of wood and lumber rushed my senses, but I couldn’t focus on my projects. 

“Where can I hide this, Bear?”

He circled three times and grabbed a baseball from his bin of toys in the corner. 

“Not right now, boy.” I jumped over the canoe blocking my path and scrambled up the ladder to the loft. 

All of Raelyn’s childhood, I’d forbidden her from the loft. Hiding the money here would have to do until I came up with a better solution. At the top, I moved toward a door camouflaged in the back corner. I took a key from my keychain and inserted it. Dust rose and made me cough, and I had to push hard to move inside the small space. A large canvas picture of Joanna standing with other women in the desert haunted me. Her eyes pierced my soul as if trying to communicate some secret message. 

Joanna never realized that I already knew the truth. I knew what she had tried to hide from me, I knew from the very beginning. But I never had the chance to ask her why. 

I slid the crates full of cobwebs to the side and stormed to Joanna’s other items. Raelyn would hate me if she knew what was up here and what I kept from her. Too much time had passed now to come clean. From behind the canvas picture, I pried out a tiny key wedged in the frame. I hated whoever cursed us with this briefcase for making me relive through what laid buried up here.

So many memories came back. Our wedding photo album sat, full of dust, but I didn’t want to reminisce in those joyful days.

Ghosts in white flickered in the beam of light that danced in the shadows on the barn’s walls. No, this was a terrible place to hide the money. If I ever truly needed cash for an emergency, I never wanted to have to come up here again. The past was done. Forgotten. Over. 

 But something sparkling caught my eye. I reached down. A spike of wood caught my hand, slicing a cut. Wincing, I pulled away, sucked the blood from my skin and spat it onto the wooden beams. 

“Damn it!” 

The unfamiliar red sparkle flashed again. Slowly, I inched my hand through Joanna’s possessions and gripped what felt like a small box. Beautiful red jewels that outlined a compass on the white box. What is this? What’s inside? 

“Pa?” Raelyn’s angelic voice rang from the farmhouse. It couldn’t be 2:45 already. I shoved all the items away. There was no time to lock the door, so I rammed my shoulder into it, hoping it would stay closed, then climbed down. I jogged past Bear, asleep in a pile of hay. A streak of warmth soaked into my cheeks as I ran through the yard, shoving the box in my back pocket. 

Wait! I stopped in my tracks. The briefcase! I swiveled on my heels back to the barn. 

“Pa?” The screen door screeched, and I knew she was right behind me. I turned again, hoping my face didn’t look flustered. 

“Yes, hun?”

“Why aren’t you at work?” She stuck out her hip with sass.

“I was. I forgot to pack a lunch so I came home midday.”

Her long brown hair whipped in all directions from the wind. “But it’s not lunchtime. You didn’t go back?” She hugged a journal close to her chest. 

“No, the mailman, a bank. Nevermind. Well, um, what do you want for dinner?”

Raelyn’s amber eyes shone brightly in the afternoon sun. “You went fishing yesterday, right?”

I shoved my fingers in my pocket, not knowing how to talk to her ever since she turned into a teen. “Well, yup. Caught some salmon.”

“Okay, I’ll cook that.” Her thick eyebrow raised, studying me. 

I turned away quickly, but realized the box would stick out from my pocket too so I faced her again. Maybe I could tell her about the box and we could open it together. We’d finally have something to share again, a project to bond over. 

“Pa?”

The gray clouds blocked the sun, sending a shiver up my spine. “Yes, hun.”

“Why are you all red?”

What if…. 

I twisted my boot in the clay. “Just working, hun. You know.” I pointed to the log pile. 

She scrunched her pointy nose and yelled, “Bear! Bear, come!”

A flash of gold whizzed by and tornadoed around her heels as they walked inside. After hearing music blare from her open bedroom window, I trudged to the barn. Each step buried me deeper into the earth with the weight of the lies stacked upon lies. I can’t ever tell her. It’s too late now. 

Back in the barn, the briefcase was on the ground, so I grabbed a pile of lumber and carried it over to the workbench. The loud buzz of the table saw thrummed in my ears as little flicks sprayed the air. I nailed together a wooden rectangle box—12 in x 4 in x 6 in and attached it to the bottom of my work bench. It camouflaged right in. 

My gaze darted in all directions as I reopened the briefcase. I held my breath and shoved the cash into the makeshift spot. Raelyn wouldn’t find it there. I sealed it and stepped back to survey my work. Perfect. 

A cardinal sang from the nearby birdhouse Raelyn had built, and I twisted the metal of my wedding ring, wishing it didn’t have such a hold on me. Yesterday I was ready to take it off, let go and move on. But then the briefcase and bank account ruined those plans. 

The briefcase needed to disappear. I kicked several logs off the woodpile and started a fire. I sighed at the comforting smell of burning leaves. I threw the leather briefcase into the middle and watched the leather peel away. Embers sparked. Visions swirled of a fire on the other side of the world. A fire I couldn’t control, that would always plague my heart. 

“Pa?” I jerked alert. 

“Yeah, hun?”

A pen stuck out of her messy chestnut hair. “Can I borrow ten dollars?”

She couldn’t know anything had changed. “What for, hun?”

“There’s this animal shelter project I want to donate to.”

He scratched his beard. “I’ll think about it.”

The only sound was the flames crackling. 

“Nevermind, I’ll use my paycheck from the library.” The door squeaked close just as I dropped my head. She was disappointed—again. 

Why had everything changed when she turned thirteen? My baby girl never wanted to play board games or hike or fish or camp together anymore. 

The door squealed again and Raelyn walked out with a glass full of water in one hand and a blueberry muffin in another. 

“You look thirsty.” She handed them over and smiled, that grin melted my heart. 

A chuckle escaped my lips. “Aren’t we eating dinner soon?”

“No, it’s only 3:15.”

“Oh, right.” The freezing water iced its way down my throat, When I bit into the soft muffin, it crumbled to pieces.

Bear licked them up like a vacuum, and I leaned against the woodpile while eating on the rest. 

“Pa, what’s that thing in your pocket? You always make holes in your jeans. That…” she pointed, “is one reason why.” 

“Just a tool from the store.” More lies.

Raelyn shifted her weight and crossed her arms, as if expecting something from me, then eventually dropped her chin. “Okay, I’m gonna go do homework.”

I wiped my fingers on my jeans and nodded. “Okay, hun.”

She frowned and left me again. 

I stared into the flames, seeing another world through the orange. A world without regret, loss, sorrow or confusion. A world that didn’t exist. Money couldn’t bring Joanna back. And it couldn’t change the lies we had both kept. The lie I continued to keep. 

I readjusted my position, reminding me of the box rubbing against the woodpile. In the barn, I tried every tool to pry it open. There was no keyhole, no opening, and barely a seam in the side. When I shook it, something small seemed to flap, like paper rolling or knocking against the side. Fatigue washed over me from the day’s events. I’ll open this tomorrow. 

As the sun dropped lower behind the mountain, darkness devoured our yard. Faint purples probably painted the sky, but I stared into those dying flames for hours, wondering what life would’ve been like, if only…

A shock of lightning struck the darkening sky as Officer Smith’s squad car rolled into our gravel drive. How long had I sat outside? 

He’s here to arrest me. 

But I burned the briefcase to a crisp, and the money was hidden. 

Thunder boomed and rain splattered down, pelting the clay like bullets. I jogged to the porch covering and looked down to meet the brown eyes of Officer Smith. 

He twisted the sheriff’s badge on his uniform and craned his neck up. “How’s it going, William?”

“Same as always.” I could feel his stare, but I locked my focus on the rain pinging off Raelyn’s truck windshield. 

He shifted his weight and looked behind where music drenched the walls as much as the rain drenched the yard. “I heard from folks in town that you skipped work today. Sick?”

“I’m fine.” 

Another loud rumble above made the sheriff glance up, just enough so I could see cracker remnants in his mustache. “Anything unusual happen today?” His broad shoulders creased his uniform when he shifted.

“Hi, there!” Raelyn’s sweet voice rang clear over the splashing of rain into puddles. “Come on inside, you two. You’ll get soaked.” 

“Yes, ma’am.” Officer Smith treated Raelyn like a grown woman, the lady of the house. Something about that just wasn’t right. She had just gotten her driver’s license. Hell, Officer Smith probably would write her a traffic ticket soon. 

Inside smelled of fresh salmon, and the sizzle sound on the oven hissed louder. Bear stayed on Raelyn’s heels, begging the entire time she set the table.

A third plate clattered against the wood, and an extra set of silverware clinked together. I met Officer Smith’s eyes, and he immediately challenged back. What does he want?

The leg scratched against the hardwood and Officer Smith dominated his chair. He cracked his knuckles and leaned back, giving me a full view of his gun. The news played silently on our tv in the back corner, until Raelyn turned down her music. 

Raelyn didn’t skip a beat, but chopped our two fish evenly into three portions. “Did you see that report?” She pointed to the tv.

The news video showed a Black teenager with her parents in a fancy house with granite countertops and giant windows. 

The girl’s long braids swung through the air, and her charm bracelet jingled with each gesture. “So this drug dealer man told me to bring a briefcase to a train station…” Half her words cut off because she moved so dramatically the microphone didn’t pick up the girl’s story.

At the word briefcase I walked toward the tv and blocked Raelyn’s view from the tv, and turned down the volume. 

The girl continued, “Then I crashed his car, and he soared through the windshield epic-movie style. There was glass and blood everywhere! I swear!”

Her mom patted her back. “We are looking for any leads on the identity of a white man, six foot, three, two hundred pounds, bald with a blonde beard, and green eyes. And if anyone recognizes this car, please call Walsh Law.” The mother held up a picture to the camera. “The plates were removed, but it has a North Carolina sticker.”

I didn’t know the man or the car, but I definitely had a gut feeling it was the same briefcase. 

“William?” Officer Smith’s strong hand clamped my shoulder, and I jumped. “What are you watching?” I flipped off the tv fast.

“Nothing.” I cleared my throat without meaning to. “Go ahead and have my portion, Sam. I’m not hungry anymore.” My gaze flickered out the window to the barn where the light was still on over my workbench. 

He pushed out a fake laugh. “You haven’t called me Sam since little league.”

I side stepped him. “Hun, maybe you can wrap up Officer Smith’s portions to go. He’s a busy man.”

“Okay, Pa.” She gobbled up the rest of hers and flicked a piece to Bear who chomped it mid-air.

I could feel Sam’s hawk-like stare on me as I turned, exposing my back to a man who didn’t trust me. I shut the door behind me and turned the lock. He’d come knocking any second now. But there had to be a good place to hide this box—just in case. 

Joanna’s journalism article and awards were on the walls, a rare piece left I hadn’t sold or donated. I rushed over to the desk, swiped out the box from my pocket and tossed it into a drawer full of office supplies. 

A soft swish came from the drawer and Officer Smith knocked. “William? Are you sure everything’s okay?” The handle rattled. 

“Yes, sir.” 

Stall him. 

“Why did you come over today?” I asked. 

The handle turned frantically. “William, open the door.”

“One second.” The barely audible swish sound happened again. I looked down to see the marble box had opened and fell over and opened.  The contents spilled out of the box.

I pulled out the piece of paper, unfolded it, and scanned over the words. My heart slammed against my ribcage like a stampede, and a dizziness took over. Seeing what laid inside confirmed everything I had already known. 

I was right. 

Chapter 1 of ‘Break the Stone’

Should I search up there or not? 

Raelyn Bell stared up at the forbidden barn loft. Her truck’s keys clanked against the ladder as she hovered one hand over the rung. The sweet scent of straw wafted through the autumn air. 

I have to look. Maybe there’ll be something of Ma’s up there. 

Bear placed his fluffy golden paws on the ladder, his sharp barks echoing throughout the barn.

“Okay, Bear, I’ll go. But if Pa catches us, I’m blaming you.” She pointed a finger right at his big brown eyes.

Raelyn’s cowboy boots scuffed against the ladder. The higher she climbed, the whiter her knuckles turned from clenching the rungs so tightly. Once at the top, a damp musty smell crept into her senses. She stood alone in the abandoned loft. The emptiness around her felt familiar, paralleling all her current relationships. 

While she looked around at the deserted space, Raelyn lost any hope of finding anything of Ma’s. She sighed and poked her head over the side of the platform. Bear’s rear wiggled back and forth on the ground, his whining bringing a faint grin to Raelyn’s face.

“Don’t worry, boy. You’re not missing anything. There’s only dust up here.”

He barked and danced in a circle below.

As she turned, the toe of her boot caught on one of the slats of the floor, and she fell straight to her knees. The strap of her satchel rolled off her shoulder, spilling her journal onto the cracked beams. Mid-groan, she glimpsed the sunlight shimmered through the rafters, reflecting off something metal in the back corner. Raelyn crawled closer. A latch protruded from a warped, wooden door. The door whispered her name, its secrets creeping over her like a cold chill. Her pulse quickened. She jiggled the rusty handle. 

Stuck.

Raelyn gripped it harder and yanked.

“Hun?” Pa hollered from below.

Raelyn jumped at the sound of his deep voice. After stumbling backward in the loft, she started to hurry down to see what her father needed. 

Wait! What about what I want?

Raelyn chose to ignore him for the first time since … ever … and moved back to the door. She accidentally kicked her journal. It soared over the side and landed on the barn floor with a splat.

Crap!

Raelyn held her breath for a beat, praying Pa hadn’t heard it, and peeked between the wooden slats of the wall.

Thud. Thud. Thud.

Under the oak tree, Pa swung an ax down hard, splitting each log with one swift blow. Heart pounding at the thought of getting caught, Raelyn turned and pulled on the latch again. 

Nothing. 

She gritted her teeth and rammed into the door hard with her shoulder but fell back onto her side. The straw she flattened tickled her forearm. Glancing around, Raelyn spotted her canoe paddle hanging on the wall. A soft grunt escaped her lips as she leaned off the side of the loft and pulled up the paddle. 

Wedging the tip between the door and frame, she tightened her fists and pushed with all of her 110 pounds.

The door jerked open, sending her flying through the opening and tearing through a spider’s silky web and into a tiny room beyond. The chopping sound of the axe hitting the wood stopped. 

“Raelyn?” Pa’s boots stomped and cast a bear sized shadow on the floor. The man others called William Bell, stood below with his broad stature filled the barn.

Raelyn hunkered down in the back corner of the secret space, struggling to quiet her panting. 

Please don’t look up. 

Pa ran his hand through his thick, wavy hair. Bear sat right next to her journal, tongue hanging from his mouth. Raelyn silently dropped her forehead into her palm. 

Pa squatted, picking up her journal. His strong hands made her journal look so small as he laid it on a barrel. “Where’d she go, boy?”

Why does Pa suddenly care?

Pa turned quickly and jogged back to the farmhouse, dialing his phone on the way.

See. He gives up easily and forgets about me.

Once his footsteps faded, Raelyn looked around. Behind a pile of dusty crates was a large trunk.

In her way rested a canvas picture of Ma standing among a line of a dozen young women who were all covered from head to toe in hijabs. Raelyn hadn’t seen the picture before. Ma wore her typical journalist attire, her work ID badge reflecting the desert sun, showing her name Joanna Bell. The other women looked defeated and exhausted, but Ma’s sapphire eyes hinted of hope—like she possessed a secret. Raelyn flipped it over, revealing the year 2004. Twelve years ago. She moved the canvas and walked over to the large chest. Scratches and dents marred every corner of the worn, wooden trunk. It was sealed with a rusty lock. 

What’s inside? Something of Ma’s? Treasure? A skeleton? 

When she kneeled in front of the chest, her jeans brushed dust away from a small metal oval. She bent down and rubbed harder, revealing a name: 

Joanna Rae Bell

Raelyn froze. 

Finally! I knew I’d find something!

She placed both hands on the top and blew out a big breath. Dust flooded the air like the faded memories swirling in her mind. Picnics by the lake, baking cupcakes, and planting strawberry seeds—all with the mother she had lost years ago.

Raelyn pulled on the lock, but it didn’t budge. 

Pa’s axe!

She descended fast, stayed out of view of the farmhouse windows and snuck around the side of the barn. The heaviness of the axe felt familiar from all the times she helped Pa around the yard. She lugged it back up the ladder as Bear watched the spectacle enfold. Raelyn raised it high above her head. Before swinging down, she peeked through the wooden slats again to check for Pa. She crashed the axe hard onto the lock, making her bounce back a bit. It didn’t even make a dent. Bear barked. 

Raelyn whispered, “You’re right, Bear. The wood. I’m a genius.” She slammed the axe into the side of the trunk, creating a quick crack at the bottom. A hard grunt escaped her lips as she pounded the axe one more time, turning the split into a hole just big enough to fit her thin wrist through. Kneeling, she reached in and felt blindly. 

There are way too many papers in here. 

Raelyn tugged on a stack and pulled it out, having to re-angle her wrist to maneuver it through the hole. A bundle of her parents’ wedding pictures was wrapped with a rubber band. At the bottom of the pile, a thicker parchment stuck out. Raelyn cocked her head to the side, turning it over. 

What is this a map of? 

There were a bunch of handwritten symbols. 

At the bottom, written in cursive, was one word: Zohaib.  

Squinting, she read small numbers, potentially a serial number or USB code: 35.1415N and 79.0080W.

Raelyn snapped a picture of it with her phone.

“Raelyn!” 

She dropped the pictures but shoved the map into her pocket and hustled out. With the axe in one hand, she also grabbed her satchel and hurried down the ladder. A sharp piece of wood sliced into her fingertip, making her gasp, but she held in any signs of discomfort—as usual.

When she landed with a soft thump, Bear circled her heels. She crouched and kissed his forehead. “Don’t you tell a soul.” 

His adorable growl brought a smile to her lips. She placed the axe back in its spot just in time and turned on a playlist from her phone as an easy distraction. The song, “Burning House” by Cam, played loud and clear. 

Pa strode around the corner of the barn. “There you are. I was worried.” 

Worried? No, Pa’s never worried. 

His scent radiated fresh wood. Pa always smelled of the forest. If someone ever mentioned the word hunting, the comfortable memory of his scent whirled through her mind. Raelyn looked up to him, her neck uncomfortably angled to meet his gaze. 

“Don’t disappear on me like that,” he said softly. 

Raelyn turned toward the log pile so he wouldn’t see her eye roll. 

Like he cares …

By her boot, a dandelion sprouted up from the hard-packed clay, tough despite all the odds stacked against it.

I’ll never be as strong as that dandelion.  

Raelyn scrunched her nose. “So, did you catch any fish earlier?”  

“Trout. It’s in the fridge. You’re still making dinner?”

“As always.”

After awkward silence, Pa rubbed his back and stretched. “I feel old.” 

“Guess you’re falling apart before you even turn forty.” Raelyn picked up his axe and chopped the log in half with one swing.

“Good one, hun!”

Their conversation was longer than any of their interactions over the last week. Forgiveness came easily when Pa gave her some attention. She smiled and playfully pushed his shoulders, feeling his sturdy muscles beneath them. “Come on, Pa. You used to chop wood for hours.” 

“I’ll just fix myself with some duct tape.” Pa grunted. “Remind me what it feels like to be seventeen?”

His green eyes went vacant, like he had gone back in time. What was he thinking about? Probably Ma—as usual. She used to bring him lemonade whenever he worked outside for too long and then sit on top of the pile of wood, flirting in that gross way parents should never do. 

He scratched his chestnut beard, which was peppered with hints of gray. Raelyn looked nothing like Pa, with her thin frame and high cheekbones. His emerald eyes didn’t match her amber ones, either.

“Let’s borrow the Ferguson’s horses for a trail ride later?” she asked eagerly, hoping he would stay in this good mood.

“Too tired.” 

Why do I even bother?

She twisted the heel of her boot and dropped her gaze to the ground. “Uh, so do you need anything?”

“Well, during my fishing trip, only one paddle was in the boat. Have you seen the other one?”

She wiped sweat off her brow and forced herself not to look to the loft. “Um. I’ll look for it.” 

“Thanks.” His callused hand pulled out a rolled-up newspaper from his back pocket. A page flipped from the warm breeze. The date in bold on top read: September 23

The anniversary of the last time I saw Ma … so long ago.

Pa Handed it over. “Can you check for any listings looking for handyman work? I could pick up some extra cash on the weekends.” 

He began chopping again, slamming the axe down strong. Raelyn’s fingers grazed the nearby tire swing that her parents used to push her on—a reminder of a different time, when family laughter rang like a constant melody. Neglected for years, its only remaining purpose was to tether them to the past. 

Some days, her memories with Ma felt like wounds from a dagger—not a thin slice that barely grazed the surface, but a deep cut that could pierce her entire soul.

Raelyn leaned against the barrel and skimmed through her journal, landing on her book wish list, full of stories about desert worlds and handsome heroes. She plucked a pen from her messy bun and placed it on a fresh page until gold ink bled.

My soul split between the options ahead.

Searching for a clue of what beliefs to shed

“Hey, Bear. What rhymes with ‘shed’?” She tapped the pen to her round chin. “I wish Ma wasn’t dead.”

Bear nudged her leg softly, always knowing what she needed. Raelyn tightened the plaid shirt snug around her waist, working up her courage to investigate further. She drew in a deep breath before she could lose the nerve, and fabricated a lie. “Pa, I have a project for class. I need to bring in a family heirloom.”

“Use your grandma’s little mirror.”

Does he know about the trunk or not? 

“Actually, I was hoping I could bring in something of Ma’s. The project is about connecting with our ancestors, and I thought you might have something you could lend me.”

His eyes hardened and flickered to the loft for a moment. “Got rid of all your ma’s stuff years ago. Plus, you don’t need Ma. You have me.”

No. I don’t have either of you. 

Raelyn identified with the red leaf falling down from their oak tree, completely at the mercy of the wind—and alone.

As Pa turned, each stride he stepped away, he grew more distant from her heart. 

She swallowed her nerves and raised her voice as she followed him across the yard. “You gave away everything?”

He marched into the house. “Yup.”

The scent of burning wood from the fireplace filled the air. 

She stared at the compass hanging from his belt loop. “You still have the compass Ma gave you.”

He squared his jaw. “That’s different.”

Raelyn pulled the crinkled map from her pocket. “What about this map? Was it Ma’s?” 

Pa hustled forward and tried to swipe it from her grip.

“What is it a map of?”  

“Nothing. Just a souvenir.” 

“Can I keep it?” She pressed the map to her chest.

“No.” 

Raelyn raised her voice. “Why?” 

“Give it here.” 

She reluctantly laid it in his hand. “Are you lying about–?”

Before she could finish, Pa ripped the map into pieces, marched to the brick fireplace, and chucked them inside. The paper turned brown, curling under the fierce heat. 

Her heart pounded. “Why did you do that?”

Pa didn’t look at her. “I love you. That’s all you need to know.”

No, he doesn’t. 

Raelyn looked out the window at the barn without responding. 

I need to see what else is in Ma’s trunk.

I DID IT

My hands are shaking as I type this, my foot is jittering on the kitchen stool, and my heart is racing. I just officially submitted my first novel, Break the Stone, to the professional interior designer. That means it is COMPLETE. No further changes will be made to any content, plot, character development, sentence structure, setting—nothing. It’s finished! Is it perfect? No. But I am DONE! I DID IT!

Today is April 3, 2021. I’m in a bit of a state of shock. After checking my calendar, I’m fairly certain that April 4, 2020 is when I walked downstairs for breakfast with my family and announced that I would be writing a book. This means I produced my first novel in exactly one year. #goals

When I began, Covid had settled in our midst and the future was unknown. I have to say that without the three supportive people sitting at my kitchen table that fateful morning, combined with the characters in this book, I do not know what would’ve become of me. Break the Stone was my coping mechanism when our world turned upside down.

Writing is drastically more challenging than I had ever assumed, I mean on an epic proportion. I had no idea what I was doing and I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve learned something new every day. Through the process of creating Break the Stone, I’ve went through over thirty rewrites, relied on countless beta readers, collaborated with tons of critique partners, learned from research platforms and continuing education materials, dealt with bullies, gained fans, shed some tears, screamed at my children, adopted two kittens, bought a new laptop, and murdered a few trees from all my post-it notes.

I want to say thank you to friends and family who have beared with my passionate rants, my complaining and venting, my fixation on certain ideas, my rambling, the times when I’ve ignored you, and yes Matt… thank you for bearing with me when I’ve spent the pennies. My dream became a reality and, the series continues with two more novels. And guess what, I already have my idea for a fantasy dystopian series. Three novels to be published in early 2023.

But, slow down, in one month, I’ll hold onto my first physical copy of ‘Break the Stone.’ Who wants to make bets on if I’ll cry…

Cali’s Escape

I jammed half of a fresh cookie into my mouth, letting the chocolate melt over my tongue. The other half crumbled and fell apart into pieces, still warm from the oven. My charm bracelet tattled on my intention with a slight jingle as I reached in for another cookie.

Mom swatted my hand away, her flowery perfume overtaking the room. “Calipescia! Save some for Kody.”

“No way. He’ll eat all these in a minute tops.”

“Cali, he deserves them after that win.”

Her dress swooshed across her calves as she turned to grab a potholder, giving me three seconds to shove another cookie in my cheek. I squeezed my eyes shut in ecstasy and held back a moan of perfection as I chewed on heaven and let the pieces of heaven glide down my throat and enter the queen’s palace that was my belly. When I opened my eyes, Mom stood with one hand on her hip and shook her head.

“What am I gonna do with you?” She pointed a finger at me. “It’s a good thing you’re fifteen and don’t have to worry about your metabolism yet. One day you’ll look back and…”

I stopped paying attention. She was wrong. When I’m old and gray, I’ll never regret my life. New York had called me and I’d answer with a smile.

Right after I graduated from Slate High, I’d be under the stage lights every night!

My phone dinged to the melody of “Chandelier” by Sia but I silenced it. Messages lit up from Anna and Derick, both asking me out to the party down the street. All the Juniors would be drunk already, swaying around some family’s fancy living room, acting like it was their victory when Kody was the one who led the basketball team to State victory earlier that night.

My big brother. My hero. Kody

The oldest of us, Coop was cool too, but twenty years old was just—old. Speaking of the devil, Coop walked out from behind the corner and had to stoop a bit to wrap his arm around my shoulder.

“Any sign of him, Cali?” Coop’s scent radiated fresh after shave. Had he been borrowing Dad’s?

I peered out the window into the darkness on the lookout for a green Jeep. “Why is Kody taking so long? You don’t think he got pulled over, do you?”

Coop’s arm tensed. Rigid as Mr. Dinglebutt’s mustache in chemistry lab. His afro swayed back and forth when he shook his head. “Naw, Kody’s fine. He never drives over the speed limit. I swear that boy needs to loosen up a little.” But I could see the fear in Coop’s dark eyes. We both knew what it would mean if Kody was pulled over. Cops didn’t take well to a six-foot three, two-hundred-pound Black teenager.

Kody’s best friend and teammate, Avery, hopped through the back door. “Are all these decorations for me?” His ridiculous wink made it look like he had a bug stuck in his eyeball and was trying to keep it in there like his whole damn life depended on it. Amateur.

Avery swiped a cookie from Mom’s platter. “You should open a bakery, Mrs. Walsh.”

Mom’s smile was warmer than the blissful dessert. “Thank you, dear.”

Avery followed my movements like a panther stalks its prey, so I focused on the driveway again, past the green bushes that Dad hadn’t tended to in weeks. Why was he always working so late when he and Mom shared the same law practice? It didn’t seem fair that Dad had longer hours.

“Kody’s here!” I slammed my head on Coop’s chin when I jumped up.

“Ooww! Damn!” He winced.

Mom flipped off the lights. “Hide!”

A balloon burst when I crouched down, making me jump out of my skin.

“Shh!”

In the darkness, behind the couch, Avery’s sweaty smell made me gag. His hand brushed against my thigh and rested on my leg. I slapped that flipping trash-wad like a ninja on steroids. If someone was going to hit on me, they at least better be smelling like gold and glistening like diamonds from a shower. No joke.

The back door handle turned. My heart stopped for a second. Surprises were legit, the best thing since ukuleles, and that was saying something.

The back door jammed for a moment, then creaked open under his solid push. Kody’s broad build filled up the frame. “Uh…guys?”

“Surprise!” I leaped up and turned the lights on, blinding us all for just a smidge of a moment. Swaying my hips to “Bang Bang,” by Nikki Minaj on my phone, I turned up the volume higher and started a dance party in the kitchen. With: me, myself, and I.

Kody’s eyes didn’t show any trace of winning the State championship. His shoulders were slouched heavy, and his footsteps trudged along the hardwood until he dropped his gym bag with a loud thud in the corner. What was his deal?

Mom bustled around the kitchen, rattling pots and pans as she looked for something in a cabinet. “Kody! Tell us all about the game! What did it feel like to shoot the winning point?”

“Good.” Kody picked up three of her fresh cookies from the counter and crammed them into his mouth. He didn’t look good, but more like Eeyore on depressants. Maybe he finally broke up with that awful, possessive Christine chick. 

Pretending like I didn’t give an elephant’s hoot about his mood, I collapsed on our couch, the leather sticking to the bottom of my thighs. I swiped through my phone but couldn’t focus on the messages. My reflection stared back at me on that little rectangular screen. I didn’t look at all like Coop or Mom, but the spitting image of Kody and Dad. Us three had epic celebrity model features with our wide noses, squared off jaws, and fuller lips that belonged on the front of a magazine. My white friends said I have skin as dark as midnight, but that wasn’t even a thing.

Out of the corner of my eye, Kody sunk his forehead into his palm. The good sisterly thing to do would be to go over there and see who put a monkey up his butt, but a new message dinged on my phone.

Derick sent a million emojis while Anna just sent one heart. A night making out with Derick’s buttery soft lips would be like devouring scrumptious vanilla cupcakes. But Anna’s skin was too delicious to resist. She would be my peanut butter swirl milkshake on a spring day.

I met Kody’s gaze as he entered our family’s kitchen. Something was wrong. The tension in the air snapped tighter than my guitar’s strings.

Mom turned off the stove. “Well, Kody, if you don’t want to talk about the game, then at least give your dad a play by play when he gets home. He was stuck at the office all night and was heartbroken that he couldn’t make it.”

Kody cleared his throat and projected his voice. “I need to tell you all something, right now!”

I looked over. Were his hands shaking? No, he never got riled up.

Coop poked his nose over the back of the couch cushion.

Mom stopped clattering dishes.

Avery froze in the midst of raiding the fridge.

“I’m not going to Duke,” said Kody plainly.

Mom clapped her hands together. “So, you decided on Chapel Hill? That’s so exciting. They have so many good programs. I was thinking pre-med, but it’s your choice… I’ll just…” She zipped her lips.

Kody looked at each of us. “Is it really my choice?”

“Yes, dear. Always will be. Always has been.”

Uh oh. He was about to drop a bomb. I clenched my fingers around the armrest.

Kody pushed his shoulders back. “I’m joining the army.”

Time stopped and all air was sucked out of my lungs.     

The plate Mom held onto slipped through her fingers and glass shattered across the floor. She placed one hand on her heart. “Oh!”

Kody bolted to her side.

Her eyebrows knitted together, then she looked up at him with a stern face. “Kody—I—” She placed one hand on the counter, steadying her swaying motion.

“Here, come sit.” Kody guided her to a kitchen chair at their wooden table.

“Engineering or desk job?” Mom asked.

“No. Infantry. I want to specialize in artillery.”

I lurched off the couch, and kicked a kitchen stool to the floor, letting the metal stool tumble to the ground, over the broken glass. “No! You can’t be shot at! I won’t let you go!”

Kody crouched down and picked up the larger glass pieces. “I’ll be safe. I’ll be trained and professional. Plus, I probably won’t even be deployed. Things are good under Obama.”

“No!” I stomped in place like a child, but I didn’t care. This had to be some joke.

“I’ll still take college classes on the side,” said Kody. 

Coop grasped his shoulders and spun him upright again. “What are you talking about? You have a 4.0. You already have college credits! If I had your brain—”

“No!” I ran at Kody, punching his gut, but making no impact on his brick-like stature. “I won’t let you join the army!”

“Cali, calm down.” The sadness in Kody’s eyes was still there. He was holding onto a secret and only I knew the key.

“Come here.” I dragged my Hulk of a brother up the stairs to my room. Inside, I pushed my drums and keyboard out of the way and swept all the sheet music off my bed. “Sit!”

He flopped on my bed, making the springs squeak in protest. “Cali—”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

My finger doubled as a dagger pointed to his face. “No brother of mine is flying to the other side of the planet and getting blown up by some evil demon bad guy.”

He sighed. “I’ll be fine, Cali. Don’t you have a dream?”

“Sure, singing on Broadway.”

“Joining the army is mine.”

“But—you’ll—” Tears pooled behind my eyelids. I hadn’t cried for twenty-four hours, so it was about time for another waterfall release. But this time things felt different. Kody’s face showed no signs of backing down. I could almost see his teeth grinding together in secrecy.

“You can’t go! What if—”

Kody stood and put both his large hands on my shoulders. “I have to go.”

“Why?”

He dropped his gaze and headed for the door.

I bolted between him and the exit, using my 120 pounds as a shield against this wanna-be soldier. “See. You have no reason to go!”

He crossed his arms and lowered his chin, just like when Dad was about to give a lecture about drugs or alcohol or B’s on report cards. “I don’t want to deal with this right now.”

“You mean you don’t want to deal, with me. You don’t want to waste any time on your little sister getting in your way? I’m why you’re leaving, aren’t I?”

“Cali…” His minty scent wafted through the air as he moved and pressed his thumbs against his temple. “Just, leave me alone. Go write another song or something.”

And with that, he stormed out across the hall and slammed his bedroom door behind him. Well, so much for a celebration party for his basketball win. Rage boiled in my veins. Who did he think he was?

I sank into the oversized beanbag on my floor, creating a loud squish sound. Making a decision like joining the army affected all of us. How could that selfish prick not consider what I needed? A girl like me lived in fear of something happening to her big brothers every freaking day and now my smart-ass brother decided to move towards danger voluntarily. The nerve. I plucked a guitar pick against my chin, as lyrics came to mind.

The moon beamed in through my window and shone on my guitar. If he was leaving, so would I. My heart pounded fast. Staying in Oak City served no purpose without Kody. I poured out my backpack full of unused school books and shoved in the necessities: clothes, phone charger, granola bars, sheet music, toothbrush, cash, keys, and who cares. For a moment, I just froze and glanced around my chaotic room. The clock ticked on, closer to midnight by the second. If I had Kody to tell me otherwise, he’d say to slow down and think about my choice first.

Fuck him!

I spotted Dad’s credit card on my dresser from when he let me buy tickets to that Beyonce concert and swiped it into my pocket. Heart racing, I pulled a Cubs sweater over my head and shook my long thick braids out down my back. The sweater smelled like Kody. I had forgotten I stole it last week for that campfire with Anna. My phone buzzed again, this time Anna’s gorgeous face blessed my screen, but I silenced it again. This life was over. My past. No more contact.

I sucked in a deep breath and lifted my window. A strong February breeze blew in, rustling all my sheet music around the carpet. Temptation trickled in to go back and sort out my favorite songs, the only possession in my room that truly mattered. But there was no point if I’d never play those again.

A band would let me join once they witnessed my skills. I stepped out onto the rooftop with practiced confidence and scaled down the pergola. A thorn sliced my fingertip, making a throbbing sensation pulse under my skin. That wouldn’t stop me. Neither would a hundred semi-trucks or pirates with lasers or a pack of wolves from an armageddon movie.

My sneaker slipped on gravel underfoot as I raced to Mom’s white Volkswagen Bug. Her keys rattled together as I unlocked the door. I only had my permit, but Kody had taught me how to drive safely. Driving all the way to New York, though, by myself—too much. Bus station was the best option. I knew what I was doing. My plan would work.

Unfortunately, the automatic floodlight on our garage shone directly on my North Carolina license plate, but I started up Suzie Q and zoomed her down our street faster than a kindergartener could slurp ice cream.

The empty streets sent warning signals to turn back at each stop light, but I didn’t care, only pushing on the gas harder. My hands shook as I turned up the volume louder and ran a red light through town. The trees swayed from the wind in that eerie way like in the films where someone would jump out from behind a rusty dumpster. But this was no movie. Kody’s words echoed in my mind. Army. Leave me alone.

This would teach him to leave his best friend. We always had each other’s back. Who would be there for me now?

I’m the one who taught him a C chord and how to catch a snake. He needed me to survive. Yes, that made more sense. I didn’t need him anymore. All Kody ever did for me was to teach me how to play chess and tell me boring stuff in his books and—nope. I was definitely better off without him. The fact that the Army would finally relieve me of his annoying habits blessed me with the opportunity to attempt my musical career. I had all those stupid colonel and commander guys to thank. Just as I pulled into the empty Greyhound parking lot, I pulled out my phone and set a reminder. “Send thank you notes to all the army people.”

The bus depot sign flashed neon lights but the “Grey” wasn’t working so the word “hound” flickered repetitively. When I stepped out of Suzie Q, an owl hooted in the distance, making me aware of the otherwise creepy silence surrounding me. Music was my life. A moment without sound felt like doomsday, burying me in a pit of emptiness. An odd sensation of slow motion overtook my senses as the oak trees circling the lot towered over me like sharp drumsticks pointing toward the black sky. As I walked toward the front ticket booth, I scuffed my feet along the concrete just to hear some sort of reassuring noise. Closed.

“Damn it!”

Why wouldn’t they sell tickets at midnight? Stupid town. I kicked the base of the stone wall, sending a piercing jolt through my toe. Tires rolled slowly closer behind me. I gasped and swiveled on my heels fast. Cigarette smoke drifted to my nostrils and a Drake song rang out from the car. Green eyes peered at me through a partially rolled-down, tinted window. A white man puffed smoke through the window.

“Hey, pretty thing.”

Don’t make eye contact. I gripped my keys so fiercely that it probably imprinted a dent in my skin. Only ten feet to my car.

“I’m talking to ya, sweetheart.”

Eight feet to the car. I gulped and picked up my pace, immediately aware of the length of my skirt above my knees.

The tires of his car cracked over rocks at a snail’s pace next to me and the man reached out his arm. I lurched to the side but his door swung open fast. He stood even taller than Kody with a bald head and thick blonde beard. Of course I noticed the gun strapped to his waist as he blocked my access to Suzie Q. If only my car had a mind of her own and could spring to life.

“Look at me, girl,” he roared.

I clenched my fists into balls and raised my chin high. “What?”

“I need your help.”

“Please move.” Flashbacks of the boxing lessons Kody had given me rushed to the forefront of my mind, but my feet were cemented to the spot.

“It looks like you’re looking for a way out of town?” He nodded to the ticket booth and smiled. His parents were probably dentists and had a bunch of plaques all over their office, with their deadbeat son’s picture plastered alongside them. I could hear their squirrely voices now. Oh, yes, Dudley is the most well known drug dealer in Oak City. We’re so proud. If Anna were here, she’d like the Harry Potter reference. Though, this guy wasn’t round or comical. His razor-sharp glare shot treacherous threats without a word.

“The train sells tickets at this hour. I’ll buy your ticket wherever you wanna go if you make a delivery for me at the station.”

Inside his car sat a briefcase. No, no, no. I wasn’t about to get mixed up with some James Bond situation. No, thank you.

“I’m not leaving town. Excuse me.” Trying to sidestep this mofo was pointless. We played a quick game of a silent tango. His cowboy boot tripped me and sent my backpack falling off. My palms smashed into the gravel and cut into my skin. Asshole.

“Don’t lie to me.” He stared down at me and stars framed his head like a bass clef. Those puke green eyes trailed up from my bare ankles to the hem of my skirt. My heart slammed an allegro tempo, about to bust out of my ribcage.

I kicked Mr. Creeper’s shin hard and scrambled in a crawl toward my door. Sirens screamed as a squad car flew by. Not for me. I’d have to save myself.

His arm reached down, showing the extensively hairy knuckles and thick hairy forearms. Why the hell was he bald? My sweatshirt choked me so tight as he pulled me up toward him.

“Lemme go!” I slapped at his broad shoulders as he laughed.

“Listen, you’re a strong kid. But, you’re gonna help me. Get in.” His grip tightened around my elbow, pulling me closer to his stale whisky stench.  

The guy wanted to abduct me. Cool. Sounded like a great plan. I couldn’t reach my backpack to grab my phone. The streets were empty. I needed Kody, but he was asleep. Plus, he’d probably kill this guy and put himself in jail. No, I could handle this. Delivering the briefcase, which was probably full of puppy ears and kitten hearts, would be my toll to escape this city for good.

“I’ll deliver it if I drive my car to the train station.” I could hear the shakiness in my voice.

“No. Get in.”

“Let me drive.” I stuck out my hand.

Mr. Creeper laughed in my face, a low deep growl that would send coyotes into hysteria. Maybe, I knew nothing about coyotes.

“You don’t look old enough, but I like you. You can drive.” He grabbed my backpack, dug through it and held out my drivers permit, with my address on it. Great, now I’d have a stalker. With his hand over the gun, he frowned. “No games.”

Bile rose in my throat and I choked it down, tasting the sour remains of Mom’s cookie. He opened the driver’s door for me. “Your chariot, my lady.”

Overwhelming dread consumed my gut and a shiver went up my spine. I had no other option. Sliding into the driver’s seat, or my new prison, I took a deep breath as he rounded the hood of the car. I buckled up as I convinced my inner voice that I’d be done with this guy in a few minutes. The smell of leftover McDonald’s wafted inside. I coughed and rolled down the windows.

Mr. Creeper tossed the briefcase onto the floor and lumbered into the passenger seat. His fake smile turned down and the creases of his face deepened. “Drive.”

Born and raised in Oak City, I knew where the train station was but maybe if I drove past the police station…

He pointed; his bony finger scarred with lines. “No, turn left.”

Well, my brilliant plan wasn’t written in stone. My hands turned clammy on his steering wheel as I could feel his eyes on my body. At least I wore Kody’s giant hoodie that hid my curves. But I’d bet my collection of headphones that Mr. Creeper’s thoughts weren’t about what tv show he’d binge tomorrow.

“So, running away from home?” He rested a rough hand on my knee.

I rolled my lips in tight and squinted ahead as a drizzle started bouncing off his windshield. Crashing was an option. Perhaps I could run his side of the car into a lamppost. Karma would send some piece of metal straight through this guy’s chest.

“Come on, a girl like you must know a thing or two.”

I moved my knee, but his touch followed.

He clicked his tongue and rubbed his crusty hangnail up my thigh. I sped through a red light and whirled around a corner.

Mr. Creeper’s head smashed into the door and his hand flew off. “Hey! Watch it!”

Clenching my jaw together, I floored the pedal and raced down the two-lane city road.

70 miles per hour.

“Slow down!” He grabbed the oh-shit-handle with one hand and tried to alter my steering with his long arm outstretched.

80 miles per hour.

Right when Mr. Creeper started to reach for his gun, I slammed on the brakes. The dude went soaring through the windshield, shattering glass into more pieces than when Mom broke her plate earlier. My fast breathing turned to panting and a tightness formed in my chest. No hesitation. No weakness. In a daze, I reversed and drove toward the train station. The rain fell harder, splattering.

Sirens wailed in the distance. To where? Hopefully the guy died, and then the devil could torture him in her own ways.

Suddenly aware that I had pulled into the train station lot, I had no memory of the last few minutes of the drive. People sat on wooden benches in the brightly lit train station. My heaving chest started to slow and my shoulders loosened. I grabbed the briefcase, but realized my backpack was still lying in the bus depot parking lot, with my ID and cash. Wait! Sliding my hand in the thin pocket, I felt the plastic credit card. Hope.

Abandoning the crook’s car, I threw his keys past the train tracks into some bushes. I lugged the briefcase with two hands and fumbled with the latch, but a lock combination sealed it shut. While walking into the train station, I shook the briefcase slightly. Drugs or money? Both? Maybe neither. There could be jewels, gems, diamonds, treasure. Maybe the deed to a castle.

A lady who resembled my grandma, with gray hair wrapped in a bun smiled at me from behind the ticket-booth counter. “Are you okay, sweetie?”

I could use my theater skills and act my way out of this dilemma.

My cheeks felt frozen but I forced a smile. “Hi. One way ticket to New York, please.”

My grandma’s soul-twin scrunched her nose, making her glasses wiggle. “You look familiar. Shouldn’t you be home?”

I thought of my warm bed for a moment, shoving aside the disgust from the fear that man just imprinted on my entire future. “New York is my home.”

“Mhm.” Her tone was undeniable as she studied me, using her sixth sense like a fairy godmother. I’d never wish for a flippin blue dress for a ball, but rather to book the gig to play at the prince’s ball, to sing in front of the land’s greatest and make a name for myself.

 “How much?” I slapped the credit card on the counter and slid it under the little glass barrier. Why did they have those?

“One hundred fifty, sweetie.” The lady stared at the credit card far longer than she should’ve before sliding it through the machine.

A train whistle blew from the distance.

She frowned. When I reached out to take Dad’s credit card, she laid her hand on my wrist. Those rounded nails were like soft puppy paws. “Can I call someone for you, sweetie?”

An old-school office phone sat just next to her. Mom, Dad, Kody, Coop—they’d all pick me up without questions asked. Did I really want to leave them all?

Hell yes. If Kody was going to the army, then I had no purpose in Oak City.

The train whistled again, and I could hear the rumbling. The strangers in the lobby gathered their belongings like half-asleep zombies and I followed the walking-dead line outside. Wind shipped my face and rain soaked my cheeks. I used the briefcase as a shield against the battering showers.

The train chugged up and stopped with a screech. The robot-people filed on just as a tall woman smacked right into my side and tried to rip the suitcase from my clutches. I wrapped my knuckles around the handle harder and stood my ground.

Her nostrils flared as she whispered in my ear. “Let go.”

A sharp blade poked under the Cubs sweater and against my stomach, a millimeter from breaking my skin. What did I get myself into? A dizzying sensation took over as I released my grip and let her take it without a word.

“Good girl.” A slimy smile snaked up her cheeks as she jumped on board.

 I opened my mouth, unsure of what would even come out when the conductor shouted, “Last call!”

The ticket in my hand flapped in the wind and water splotches formed on the paper, wetting the ink. I made eye contact with the conductor, and he waved me on, but I stepped back. I was acting like an idiot. What the hell would I do in New York without clothes, money, my phone or food? In the last hour Kody had announced he’d be leaving me, would probably die in battle, a creeper had assaulted me, and both a gun and knife had threatened my life. A flippin nightmare. Tears poured from my eyes as I leaned against the station wall.

I just wanted to go home. The conductor shrugged and closed the doors with a click. The crossing barriers lowered along the street and the train pulled away into the night. Rain drenched my hair, and a crack of lightning disguised the sobs escaping my lungs. I turned to Mrs. Fairy Godmother’s counter. She looked at me knowingly and came out from behind the glass shield with her arms open wide. Running into her arms immediately warmed my iced over heart.

“Let’s get you home, sweetie.” She wiped a tear away from my cheek.

I nodded and shoved my cold hands in my pocket. “I don’t have a car.”

“Do you want to call someone?”

“Can you drive me home?”

She wrapped her hand around my shoulder and guided me across the lot, passed the creeper’s car. If the guy lived long enough to find his car, he’d be pretty pissed that the pretty leather interior was soaked.

Mrs. Fairy Godmother’s SUV smelled of lilacs on a summer day. The storm eased the closer we drove to my neighborhood. Exhaustion weighed like an anchor on my body, slowing everything down. Even the songs on the radio seemed to decrease its pace. Maybe I could survive Kody’s news afterall.

He deserved happiness. Maybe the army was his calling. I never even found out why he chose to enlist instead of register for college. He always over thought every decision. This one wouldn’t have been any different. I needed to accept Kody’s choice and support him.

One pair of headlights flashed in my eyes and turned in front of us. I rested my wet hair against the headrest.

Hopefully Mom and Dad were asleep and never even noticed I had left. I could cut up their credit card and suggest someone stole it to buy a train ticket. But all those hopes disappeared when we pulled up my drive. Every light was lit inside. Crap!

Mrs. Fairy Godmother smiled sweetly. “You’ll be okay. Just tell them the truth.”

A giant sigh escaped my lips. “Thank you for the ride.”

With each step up the sidewalk I considered all the ways they might punish me. Plus, I’d have to ask for extra shifts at my job at the record store to buy a new phone. A few droplets landed on my nose and slid down my face as I stood outside the door. My hand hovered over the door knob and shook my head. They’d never trust me again if I told the truth.

Straightening my shoulders back, I stood tall and walked through the side door to the illuminated kitchen. Mom leaped out of her chair and rushed over, wrapping her hands around my drenched form. I sighed and let her hug me. Dad laid his head down on the table and made a prayer shape with his hands. Kody darted out of the office with terror in his eyes, until he met my gaze. His shoulders softened, but before I could say anything, another person trailed Kody from out of the study. Was Coop still here too? From out of the shadows, a bald man with a big blond beard and deep scratches on his skin smiled at me, limping closer.

My heart hammered in my chest. Mr. Creeper found me.

(Stay tuned for another short story in Kody’s POV to see how this one turns out)

Raelyn’s Last Shot

Need to climb higher! I only have two hours left.

Raelyn stretched her leg up to the next limb of an old oak tree. The evening breeze tickled her nose with the scent of autumn leaves and tangled her long wisps of brown hair together. Thankfully, a glow from the stadium’s bright lights lit the branches above. She climbed higher with confidence, until one cowboy boot scuffed against a loose piece of bark, sending her flailing into the air. Darkness rushed around Raelyn and her heart beat wildly.

“Aahh!” At the last moment, Raelyn caught herself against the trunk and wrapped her arms around it tight, clutching on with all her might. A sliver stuck into her pale skin creating a tear in her thin wrist. The camera had ricocheted around on its strap onto her side, but otherwise it seemed undamaged. She took a big gulp, then stepped higher again. Bear barked below, but she couldn’t see him as his golden fur blended into the darkness.

Raelyn laughed. “You try getting up here, boy. It’s not easy.”

The cheers from the stadium’s crowd rose as the scoreboard clock decreased with each passing second. Finally, at the top of the tree, Raelyn steadied herself. Grabbing her Canon camera, she held it up to her eye. Her heart rate accelerated while trying to balance, teetering back in forth in the breeze. Everyone in the stadium stood on their feet, half jumping up and down. The center snapped the ball between his legs. Out of focus, students in red jerseys smashed into purple blobs.

Ten seconds left.

The quarterback of her high school arched his arm behind his head.

Eight seconds left.

He threw it hard to the ten-yard line.

Six seconds left.

Matt caught the ball and squeezed it tight to his chest, then started sprinting.

Snap. Snap. Snap.

Raelyn photographed Matt racing toward the endzone. A player from the opposing side drew closer. Raelyn gasped.

Two seconds left.

Matt dove into the air. From the treetop, Raelyn clicked another picture as he soared over the line.

Touchdown!

The team rushed onto the field just as Raelyn lowered her camera and smiled. She released a big sigh as her gaze settled on the stars speckling the inky night sky.

That better be the winning photograph. All the others haven’t been good enough.

Bear barked again below.

“I’m coming. I’m coming.” Carefully, she descended until her feet were back on solid ground.

Bear wagged his fluffy tail and shoved his nose between her knees, making her legs give out. She toppled to the ground and kissed his forehead, right between his big brown eyes. Her ripped jeans were now stained with brown and the white tanktop would have to be washed with extra soap during the next laundry day.

Bear flopped next to her on his side, dirt speckling his golden coat as he rolled around with his tongue sticking out.

Raelyn brushed off her hands in his soft fur. “You want a cheeseburger, don’t ya?” She rubbed his soft belly. “Okay. One second.”

She turned her camera back on to check the images she had taken of Matt’s victory moment. It had to be good enough to win the photography contest. Upon looking at the football images, her heart sank.

No! No! Why do I even bother!

A strong beam from the stadium lights shone right through the focal point of her photograph, blocking the entire view of Matt rocketing through the endzone. Raelyn kicked the dirt, sending pebbles rolling down the hill. Bear ran a slobbery tongue over her face, and his sour breath flooded her nostrils. At ten years old, his yellow teeth needed some work.

“Ew! Bear, gross.” Raelyn scratched behind his ears. “Okay, I’ll try again, I’ve got less than two hours until the contest deadline closes.”

Bear jumped up and trotted down the steep hill. She followed the scent of warm pretzels, hot dogs, and hamburgers wafting through the night air. Raelyn shivered, unwrapped her blue plaid shirt from around her waist, and threaded each arm through the soft sleeves. Back when Ma was alive, she used to have the same shirt.

Wish Pa had kept some of Ma’s things.

A few shirts or jewelry, really anything would have sufficed.

Parents swarmed around the outdoor concession stands. Bear roamed between them, begging for a bite from those willing to share. Raelyn’s stomach twisted in hunger. A knot of students collected near the food stand and Raelyn’s best friend, Amy, waved her over. Raelyn tilted her head, rose her camera to her eye quickly and snapped a picture of Amy in her element, surrounded by friends. Her pearly whites shone bright in the darkness. Even though Raelyn had known each of the teenagers since they were all in diapers, she still wasn’t comfortable in large groups. Crossing her arms tight across her chest, she trudged over to Amy with her chin down.

Amy bumped her hip into Raelyn’s. “Where have you been? You missed my Matt’s big win!”

If only Amy knew all the poems Raelyn had written about Matt—the boy most off limits to her. In one hand Amy held a cinnamon roll and ripped off pieces, then licked her fingers after each bite, as if it wouldn’t get sticky again.

Raelyn forced a smile. “You know sports aren’t really my thing.”

“But boys should be your thing! Did you see the tight end on the other team? Hot damn!” Amy’s blue eyes danced with excitement.

Raelyn shook her head. “There’s no one to date in this tiny town. I may as well wait until college.”

Amy moved closer and twirled Raelyn’s long, silky hair between two fingers. “There’s that one boy who keeps coming to the town library every time you work. I think he’s got a crush on you.”

Raelyn waved her off. “Nah. Hey, remember how I switched library shifts with you as a favor?” She poked her best friend’s thin waist. “Well, guess what. You owe me, now.”

Amy stuck out her hip, making her blond curls bounce. “Owe you? Since when do we keep track?”

Raelyn sighed. “Please! I need your help. I only have an hour and a half to get a good photo for the contest.” A group of freshmen accidentally nudged into Raelyn’s shoulder as they tried to squeeze through the crowd. She naturally protected her camera with both hands. 

“What contest?” Amy peeked behind Raelyn’s back, most likely hunting for any sign of Matt. 

“Focus. Come on. You remember, right? The most important photograph contest of my entire life?”

Amy shrugged. “Oh, that. Yeah. I can help tomorrow.” She shoved a bite of the cinnamon roll into Raelyn’s mouth. “Here, try this.”

Raelyn moaned and closed her eyes, savoring the sweetness on her tongue. After swallowing, she sighed. “Are you listening? I said I’ve got an hour and a half left.”

“What happens in ninety minutes? Your carriage turns into a pumpkin at the stroke of twelve?”

Raelyn had sacrificed so much for Amy and didn’t receive anything in return. What was the point of friendships if Raelyn couldn’t rely on her in a time of desperation? Bear re-joined them, having munched a full meal from all the scrap handouts from strangers. He laid at Raelyn’s feet and rested his chin on his golden paws.

Amy stepped around Raelyn and started hopping up and down. “Hey, Matt!” She swerved between bodies and raced across the parking lot.

Matt flicked a few droplets from his freshly showered mohawk onto his muscular shoulder. Raelyn’s heart fluttered at the sight of him, but Matt didn’t notice her as he held out both arms, letting Amy rush in. She jumped up and wrapped both legs around his waist, smothering his neck with her lips. Raelyn groaned and turned away, then checked the time on her phone. Only eighty minutes left. Thought I had more time.

Excited chatter surrounded her as teachers and parents shook the hands of the team emerging from the locker room. Raelyn slowly backed away from the chaos. She slapped her thigh for Bear to follow and hustled away to her red truck in the lot, the dog’s pitter patter paws clicking on the blacktop. But then the soft sounds turned into fast footsteps thudding behind her. Raelyn turned and looked up to meet Matt’s hazel eyes, sparkling with security.

“Ouch!” Matt grimaced and gripped his leg. “Cramp!” 

“You okay?” 

“Yup, all good. You?” 

Raelyn giggled. “Yeah, I’m fine.” She didn’t need to unlock her truck; the locks had never worked anyways. She let Bear hop in, then slid into the front seat and started up the engine. Bear attempted to wriggle over her lap to reach Matt’s hand through the open window.

She tried to fight the blushing sensation on her cheeks, knowing it wouldn’t work. Raelyn peeked in her rear view mirror, where round amber eyes stared back with the basic cream colored eyeshadow and chapstick. There wasn’t any need to bring attention to her button nose or high cheekbones when everyone always gawked at the chocolate colored hair that stretched down to her waist.

“Uh, congrats on the game.”

His wide smile stretched up to his ears. “Thanks! Amy wanted me to chase you down and ask if you’re coming to Zach’s party tonight.”

Amy knows I don’t go to parties. Is he lying?

Raelyn scrunched her nose. “She couldn’t have texted me?”

He looked off at the stars, probably able to name more constellations than she could, which wasn’t common. “You know Amy, she lost her phone—again.”

Raelyn glanced at the clock on the dashboard out of habit, though she knew it was pointless. The time had been stuck on 2:22 for years. “There’s something I need to do first.”

Matt cocked his head. If he wasn’t dating Amy, Raelyn knew he was the only guy at their school she would’ve considered dating. Not because he won MVP at each game, or was the senior captain of all the sports, but because in fifth grade he volunteered to be her lab partner when no one else wanted to. In sixth grade he was the only boy who didn’t slam a dodgeball into her shoulders during P.E. In seventh grade, Matt showed up to her first co-ed party with her favorite book in hand, which he wrapped himself. And last year, he brought her an application for a poetry show, encouraging her to sign up. 

Matt leaned both forearms on her window and one bushy eyebrow rose. “What do you possibly need to do at 10:45 at night?”

“It’s not a big deal. I need to take a great photograph in the next…seventy-four minutes.”

He flashed his toothy grin again. “No problem. I’m a natural model. On the count of three, I’ll say cheese.”

Raelyn gently pushed him through the window and laughed. “Move back. I gotta go.” She reversed slowly, unable to check her side mirrors, for lack of any.

“Wait!” His smile disappeared. “I know a good place.”

Raelyn’s heart sped up for a moment. “Isn’t Amy waiting for you?”

I can’t like him. He’s Amy’s boyfriend.

“I’ll catch up with her soon. Scoot over,” he said.

Raelyn chewed the inside of her lip. “Seriously? It’s my truck. I’ll drive.”

“Fine! Move, Bear.” After Bear jumped in the backseat, Matt clambered in through the open driver’s window, crawled over Raelyn’s thin frame, while purposefully shoving his butt in her face.

Her stomach hurt from laughing. “What are you doing?”

Matt buckled up and pointed north. “Adventure awaits my lady.”

“Where to?” Raelyn didn’t dare turn to check if Amy was staring her down across the lot.

“Turn left and go about two miles. I know the perfect spot.”

This contest held her entire future. Her photography club teacher swore up and down that Raelyn had a natural gift, and that she just had to let loose and be more brave with her angles. That was precisely why she climbed a twenty-foot tree—to prove herself. Nothing could stand in her way.

Matt pushed the radio button but… again—pointless. None of the stations worked, which only intensified the awkward tension lingering in the air between them. When had she last alone with Matt? A school project her freshman year? His fresh shower scent and a woodsy smell filled her car. Her skin tingled from the thought of running her lips over that newly cleaned skin to taste his chest. Raelyn bit her lip and rolled the window down, hoping to eliminate whatever enticing scent radiated from him.

They passed no cars since most people in town were still at the game, even though it was late. As she watched the road, Raelyn could feel Matt’s gaze on her chest. Her tank top didn’t show much cleavage, but she unconsciously pinned her shoulders back straight.

This is new. What is he thinking?

Raelyn gulped hard and hoped he didn’t notice her boot jittering on the floor. A shiver spiked her entire body as Matt ran a large hand through his mohawk. From the corner of her eye she noticed he popped in a stick of gum from his pocket.

“Left here.” Matt pointed to a creepy looking entrance where branches that had been struck down from lightning hung from a dead tree.

Raelyn turned and followed a narrow, shadowed street that opened up to a wide prairie full of wildflowers. For a moment, a feeling of stupidity washed over her that she hadn’t thought of this location before. Raelyn had often visited this field as a child, back when Ma was still alive, but most traditions stopped when Pa took over. Things just weren’t the same after her death.

When she parked, Matt pretended like he was going to crawl back over her lap to escape the truck but she swatted him away. He chuckled and seemed to purposefully lower his voice. “You look good tonight. Maybe I can take your picture?”

Raelyn purposefully seized that moment to jump out of the truck and avoid his eyes, pretending like she didn’t hear.

He circled around the back of her truck. “What are you gonna do for lighting?”

“I’ve got stuff in the back.”

Matt helped her unload fast, hauling out the lighting with his firm arms. She couldn’t help but stare at the curves of his biceps, but when Bear barked in the prairie, Raelyn focused on setting up her equipment at record breaking speed.

Just over an hour left! What if I don’t make it?

Raelyn climbed atop the hood of her truck and pointed her camera at the flowers, searching for the best option. Nothing. She huffed and palmed her forehead. “Ah! This isn’t going to work.”

“It’s okay, we have time.” Matt offered his hand and she hopped down, sending a puff of dust into the air.

When she turned away to find a better angle, Matt didn’t let her hand go. He pulled her body into his chest, causing her breath to stick in her lungs. Their faces were only inches apart. Those hazel eyes she had spent years studying were now within reaching, looking back at her with the same intensity. Matt lifted Raelyn’s chin assertively.

“Your amber eyes are gorgeous.” Matt leaned in, his smooth lips moving dangerously close.

Raelyn lurched backwards. “What are you doing?”

An owl hooted nearby, otherwise only silence encompassed them as Matt simply rolled his lips in tightly.

“Amy is my best friend! What are you thinking?”

Matt shuffled his sneakers in the dirt and looked down. “I don’t want to be with Amy.”

Raelyn’s heart thumped wildly. “Then why are you dating her?” She spat out the words a bit too harshly.

“Because you’re always hanging out with her.”

Throwing both hands up into the air, she yelled. “That doesn’t make any sense! Why wouldn’t you just ask me out?”

Matt crossed his arm. “Right, like William Bell would ever let his precious daughter go on a date.”

Raelyn froze.

He’s right. But is that why no one has ever asked me out?

Matt walked closer and held out both hands as a peace offering. “Listen, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have.”

“It’s okay.” She didn’t take them but backed away.

Matt rubbed the stubble of a half beard forming. “Can we still hang out? I don’t want to mess up our friendship.”

Raelyn avoided his eyes and hustled around. “I don’t know. Let me think.” She rushed to her equipment to pack up.

“You don’t have to pack up because of me, I’ll walk back to school. Stay here and get your shot.”

He started backing away toward the street as she packed her materials in the truck. Raelyn knew she should offer to drive him back, but couldn’t tolerate the energy between them in her truck. She pressed a finger into her temple, hard, creating sharp pressure. “Let’s pretend this didn’t happen.”

Under the moonlight, his cheeks noticeably flushed. “Got it, okay. I’ll see ya at school Monday.” He ran off into the distance, making Bear scurry after him.

Raelyn hollered. “Bear! Come!”

He pivoted and sprinted to her side.

“Bear, we have to get home. Maybe one of my old photographs will be good enough.”

Bear growled playfully in agreement. Back in the truck, she stepped on the gas pedal faster as she turned out of the wildflower prairie. The wheels jumped over potholes on the way. Regardless of every effort to not look behind her, she caught a glimpse of Matt jogging further away, back from where they had started. She sighed at the lost chance. How could he have considered doing that to Amy?

Focus! Thirty-five minutes left.

After only a mile down the deserted country road, she cruised into her long driveway. Long white curtains blew out from the open windows, but all the lights were off in the farmhouse. She parked next to Pa’s old blue Chevy with a dent in the door.

Racing inside, Raelyn darted to her room. She dropped to her knees and dug under her bed—but her box of pictures wasn’t there. Out her window, the bright lights of the barn revealed a moving silhouette, the broad shape of Pa working with his tools. The alarm clock on her desk showed 11:17 pm. While staring up at the crescent moon, an idea clobbered her mind. With Bear on her heels, she slammed the door to her room and skipped every other creaky step down the stairway, then hurried outside to Pa. The screen door snagged her long hair in the process, pulling her back.

“Ouch!” Raelyn unhooked her chestnut hair from the hinge and massaged her neck.

“Hun?” The tall and broad figure of Pa exited the barn. “Is that you?” He raised one hand over his eyebrows to peer out toward her.

Breathing heavily, she called out, “Yeah. Pa! I need your help!”

He dropped the toolbox by his boots and charged to her side. “What’s wrong?” His emerald eyes were wild and full of concern.

Raelyn looked around. “What? No, I’m fine. Nothing’s wrong.”

He clamped his hand over his heart. “Jeez, Hun. You sounded like something blew up.”

Between ragged breaths, she squeaked out. “Where’s my box?”

Pa rubbed his brown beard, peppered with gray. “What box?”

“The one under my bed, with all my pictures.”

Pa shrugged but didn’t meet her eye. “I don’t know, Hun. You always keep things so organized. It couldn’t have gone far.” He tugged on the gold compass hanging from his belt-loop.

The circular shape reminded her of a pocket watch. The image brought a clock to mind, which in turn sent a thrill of anxiety singing through her veins.

Thirty- minutes!

Raelyn stumbled on her words as she leaped forward to Pa, grabbing his wrist. “I need your help with a contest.”

His eyes softened and he stroked her hand. “Hun, calm down.”

“I don’t have much time!” Tears started to pool behind her eyelids. “It’s for college.”

“You’re only a junior.”

Raelyn whispered. “We can’t afford tuition otherwise.”

He stepped forward. “I can get you money. Whatever you need.”

“Your paychecks from the Hardware store won’t cover half, even if you work overtime.”

Pa looked away, into the abyss of the woods behind her. “I have other ways.”

Raelyn laughed. “So you’re a magician now?”

“Then we can find a cheaper school.”

“I don’t want to leave Ash Mountain. If I go to classes just down the road, I won’t have to move out.”

His voice turned soft. “Hun, you’ll eventually leave home.”

She froze. “That’s what you want then? To get rid of me?”

“No.” He paused. “What do you need?”

Raelyn pointed to the peak of Ash Mountain. “I need to take an amazing picture, one that could win awards. I need your help.”

The thick head of wavy hair tussled back and forth as Pa shook his head. “Well, you know I’m not good at that type of thing.”

“So you won’t help me?”

“How will you have time to get the picture submitted anyway from up there?”

“My camera is digitally connected to an app on my phone. I can transfer it over and send it in.” Raelyn groaned. “If you won’t help me. I need to go. I’m wasting time.”

Frustration turned to fury. The three people she assumed she could count on were all letting her down. Rage began to boil in her veins and despite always following the rules, being responsible, and helping others, her tolerance finally snapped.

“Why won’t anyone help me?” Raelyn poked Pa’s chest. “Who cooks you dinner every night? Who helps pay the mortgage with a part time library job? Who cleans all Bear’s shit from the yard? Who scrubs the counter, cleans the bathroom, organizes your medicines?” Her heart hammered in her ribcage and her chest heaved up and down.

Pa raised both hands in the air. “Woah, where is this coming from?”

“Who doesn’t ask for anything in return? Me! The one time I need you—” She choked on her words.

Pa’s jaw dropped and his shoulders slouched. “That’s what you think of me?”

Raelyn growled louder than her golden retriever would and sped past Pa to the forest. Bear pranced by her side as the long grass tickled at her ankles. As she stumbled along, the dirt shifting under her feet, resentment soared in her blood. Pa hadn’t shown her any love. He provided the basics—food and a roof. Whenever she asked to play board games, like they used to, he’d complain about being too tired. Their hunting and fishing trips have decreased too. Raelyn stomped closer to the trail.

“Everything’s fine, Bear. I have you.”

He didn’t look at her this time, completely in the zone and fixated ahead on their destination. Tall trees loomed under the mountain straight head. With each thunderous step forward, the camera bounced against her side while hanging from its strap. She weaved around trunks and bounding over logs. Small animals scurried over leaves nearby as her boots crunched loudly, announcing her intrusion of their nocturnal life.

Knowing the woods like the back of her hand, Raelyn found the trail that threaded toward the treacherous ascent to the top of Ash Mountain as the moonlight lit her path. As long as she stayed away from the cliffs’ edge, Raelyn could reach the peak in twenty minutes. The wind twisted her hair and stung her eyes as she pounded her boots on the rough ground.

Faster. Faster.

Raelyn pumped her arms. After only a bit, sweat beads dripped from her temple.

A stone bridge creaked below her feet, then she zig zagged in the darkness around the thorny bush. The familiar rushing sound of the stream to her right made her wonder if she’d ever be brave enough to go skinny dipping at night.

Maybe if Amy and Matt ever broke up.

She heard the faint rumbling roar of the waterfall ahead making her grin. That used to be her spot with Pa, but every passing year washed away more time with him.

Pa let her roam the woods, the creeks, and the prairies alone with Bear since she was seven, but the waterfall was the furthest she was allowed to explore alone. She might not be able to get there in time at night. The elevation wasn’t the problem, just the severe incline near the top that even an experienced rock climber could have trouble with if they made a wrong move. Not to mention, the splashing of the falls onto the rocks made it too slick. Pa always had to help her in the past. But if she could make it in one piece, the view of the canopy of trees would be priceless.

Midnight was approaching and thousands of clocks in the valley below marked the seconds.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

The air turned colder, and wind whipped her face fiercely. Raelyn’s calves burned from digging into the soil. The flare of soreness crept up into her hamstrings and hips. The slopes abruptly turned sharp and slippery.

“Bear, lay down.”

He whined but followed her directions. As she continued on, Bear crept closer to her side.

“No, Bear.” Raelyn pointed to the ground.

Craning her neck up, she clenched her jaw and kept marching up. Every step forward was an effort. Raelyn started crawling, gripping onto vines rooted in the soil to pull herself higher. Dirt crusted in her fingernails while she climbed the natural ladder. Finally reaching the side of a ridge, she heaved up onto flat ground. Her arms shook from strain. Struggling to suck in a deep breath, she stepped forward on shaking legs. Even at 11:53, the view was breathtaking under the full moon. Nature’s gorgeous curves and shadows painted a breathtaking panorama over the gorge. Raelyn raised her camera to her eye and side stepped. She tumbled to the side, twisting her ankle. Pain rippled through her as she tumbled to the side. Her palms smacked against the hard earth.

“Crap!” Raelyn rolled onto her side and hovered her hands over her ankle. She slowly pushed out a long, audible exhale from her lips then gently rotated her ankle in a circle. Exhausted, Raelyn moved to all fours, then cautiously stood. She braced herself against a trunk and put weight on her ankle. No sharp pain.

“I’m fine, Bear.”

When she glanced below, instead of spotting Bear, a crushed Canon camera lay in pieces over fifteen feet. Raelyn clenched her fists at her sides, dropped her head back, stared at the stars and screamed at the top of her lungs.

A howl from close by returned her call. Her heart pounded in her chest.

Raelyn whispered, “Bear?” Dread crept inside her heart. “Bear!”

A deep, throaty growl arose from the darkness behind her. She whirled around at the menacing sound and met the glare of two yellow eyes gleaming through the foliage. Fear swarmed her soul. Slowly backing up, Raelyn crouched to pick up a thick stick.

A newfound energy sparked in her bones.

The animal pounced forward, flinging its agile body into the air. Raelyn screamed and swiped the stick in the air, actions fueled by a wild fear. No contact. She streaked toward the nearest tree, prepared to scramble up. The creature chased her and chomped down on her cowboy boot, it’s needle sharp teeth piercing through the soft material as a low growl exploded from its throat. She kicked what seemed to be a coyote—straight in the nose. A startled yelp sounded from below Raelyn, and suddenly, the jaws around her foot were gone. Bear barked by her side.

Raelyn glanced at the treetop, then at the coyote.

She jumped between the beast and Bear just as it lunged toward Bear. The animal slammed all her to the soil. Her head thudded hard against the painfully hard earth and a dizziness overtook her vision. She shielded her face by crossing both arms in front, but nothing attacked her. Squeals and cries rang through the night, followed by deeper growls and snarls. Raelyn peeked between the slats of her fingers. Bear had the coyote pinned and his teeth bore into the creature’s neck. But it thrashed and fought and writhed.

A shot pierced the darkness.

The coyote slumped limp to the ground. Bear backed up, teeth still bared and gleaming in the moonlight. Pa’s heavy boots clomped across the clearing and with one strong kick, knocked the coyote of the cliff’s edge. The body thumped down the side until the only sounds in the air were crickets chirping.

“Pa?”

His green eyes widened, as if he hadn’t known she was there. “Raelyn!” Pa dashed to his daughter, his calloused hands lingering over her face and forehead. “I’ve been tracking you!”

Stuttering, she peeped, “I—I’m okay. Ch—Check Bear.”

“No, you’re bleeding.”

“What?” Raelyn brushed her hand over her head where warm wetness trickled down past her ear and smeared on her fingertips.

Bear frolicked up to Pa and licked his hand as he readjusted the strap of the hunting rifle.

Raelyn stood, her ankle already swollen, but her body wobbled to the side.

“What happened?” Pa said softly as he scooped her into his arms. Bear trotted by his side as he carefully slid down the steep decline. Rocks cascaded fast under his feet and he almost skidded halfway with Raelyn in his arms but stopped their momentum just in time.

Raelyn’s face flushed when Pa had to grip her tighter. “I can walk. I’m okay.”

“Stop being stubborn, Hun. Why would you come up here alone?”

“I needed a good photograph.” Her words blended together from fatigue. “What time is it?”

“12:10.”

Raelyn hung her head.

Pa cleared his throat. “Whatever you need, I can get it.”

He can’t get me into that college. No matter how much overtime he works.

Tomorrow, Raelyn could contact the photography contest and see if they’d allow her a twenty-four-hour extension. She’d also have to tell Amy during their library shifts that Matt tried to kiss her. Most likely Pa would check her into a hospital and confirm she wasn’t brain damaged. For now, she let her body melt into Pa’s sturdy arms.

Maybe someone does care after all.

Kody’s Secret

Kody Walsh’s large mahogany hands gripped the basketball, the tiny bumps creating friction on his sweaty fingertips. A titan of an athlete, in center position, stood in his way. Kody couldn’t take his shot.

Five!

Four!

Three!

Together, the crowd chanted, “Two!”

Their voices matched the rhythm of the basketball’s thump, thump, thump against the gym floor. Kody pivoted. His sneakers squeaked on the sweaty gym floor. He exhaled, jumped, and released the ball into the air.

Swoosh!

The ball soared through the net. The sound of the buzzer couldn’t compete with the volume of cheers echoing off the walls. Kody’s teammates stampeded onto the court, surrounding him with wide grins, but Cali reached him first, rushing over from the Slate High School’s sophomore section. His sister hopped on his broad back, making the beads from her long tight braids dangle onto his cheeks.  

Cali screamed over the chaos. “Effin chocolate pancakes! My big brother! State Champion!”

He shook his head as thoughts rushed in.

Wasn’t just me. Team effort.

Kody grinned and wiped his brow. He rolled his sister off his back and bent over with both palms on his quads until his heartbeat slowed back to resting rate. He drew a deep breath and took in the scene. The smell of popcorn and sweat filled his nostrils.

A scout with a blue Duke University polo pushed between the sea of bodies and stuck out a business card. “Walsh! Congrats!” She nodded.

He bowed his head slightly, as someone jostled his shoulder by accident. “Thank you.”  

“I bet we can offer a full ride with some perks Chapel Hill can’t afford. I’ll be in touch.”

He forced a half smile.

Kody read the handwritten message on her card. The curvature of his lips faded into a frown.

I need to tell them all—tonight. Cali won’t like it.

Kody met his brother’s gaze over the heads of the crowd, easy to find with his afro. Coop pointed to him with both hands, then gave a thumbs up.

The opposing team shuffled off the court with their heads hung low.

I didn’t even get to shake their hands.

His coaches chatted giddily among a circle of parents, including his mom. Her cornrows were pulled into a bun at the base of her neck, but no one would notice her new hairstyle while her dimples danced on her cheeks.

Someone bumped into Kody, sending him staggering into other bodies. He spotted Cali again and tapped on her shoulder.

“Where’s dad?”

Cali didn’t seem to hear him over the roar of the crowd. She nudged his shoulder playfully.

Kody cupped his hand around his mouth, prolonging each word. “Have you seen dad?”

She shrugged. “Work?”

“Eight o’clock on a Friday night?”

She didn’t seem to hear him.

Without his teammates, Kody raced into the locker room. He dug in his red gym bag and  pulled out his phone. He texted his dad: ‘You okay?’

Dad hasn’t ever missed one basketball or football game.

‘Yup’

Ellipses popped up, then disappeared.

Did Dad find out my plans somehow? Is this punishment?

Kody’s phone buzzed. His girlfriend’s text showed a dancing cat image, followed by, ‘‘You did it! I need you here in one hour, or I may have to punish you! P.S. Don’t listen to Avery or whatever his plans are. I need you.’

Kody’s heart pounded in his chest. He tore off his damp, red jersey and threw it into his locker.

The shouts and clatter from the gym grew in volume as the percussionists started their fight song. Rumbling bass vibrated the walls. Leaning against the wall, Kody slid down the coldness, feeling the remnants of the February temperatures from the exterior.

The dingy carpet under his burning calves itched his skin. Groaning heavily, Kody massaged his aching legs. A single ant scattered along the dingy carpet, carrying a piece of cracker. He hovered his thumb over the ant. It froze. Kody tilted his head and pulled away.

Other teammates filed into the locker room, followed by rambunctious chears and endless smiles.

Kody sprung to his feet and kept his head low.

Coach Stevens stood on a crate. He sneezed and rubbed a finger over his thick mustache. “Boys! You did it! State champions!”

A round of hoots shook the room and Kody’s best friend, Avery, playfully slapped everyone with a towel, instigating a towel war.

“Okay, okay now! MVP this game goes to—the one who keeps y’all in line and hasn’t missed a single practice since freshman year—your captain!”

Kody forced a smile.

I did it for my dad. Where is he?

His teammates started throwing their red jerseys at him, shouting, “Kody! Kody! Kody!” Rotten sweat fumed throughout the air.

Coach Stevens raised a plaque. “This goes to the player who will have to choose between a wrestling and basketball scholarship—the kid who managed a 4.0—”

“Boo to school!” Avery chimed in, laughing. He ran a hand through his wavy chestnut hair.

“Okay, Kody, here ya go.” Couch Stevens passed the plaque to Kody with a proud smile. “Good job, son.”

Kody bowed his head, then met the eye of each of his teammates, irises of each shade, blue, green, hazel, and Avery’s last—dark brown like his own.

Kody rose on his tip toes, and propped the plaque on top of the lockers, against the wall, and said, “This is staying here. We earned this as a team.”

Avery winked and whispered. “I’ll do Christine with you as a team.”

Kody pointed a finger in his friends’ face, trying to hold back a smile. “Hey! Watch it.”

Avery and his teammates walked off to the showers. They’d expect him to go to a party and celebrate, just like Cali and Coop and his mom would want a movie marathon at home.

I can tell Dad all about the game.

“Walsh? Are you listening?” Avery’s deep voice came from within the steam.

“Mhm,” Kody grunted.

“We’re all going to Opal South. How many of us can you fit in your Jeep? Seven?”

Kody couldn’t help but laugh. “Naw, man. You and two others.”

Avery almost slipped on the tile floor. “Hold up! You’re finally coming out with us!”

“First time for everything.”

“We’re eighteen. We won’t get caught.”

Kody grunted.

“You okay, man?”

Kody didn’t meet his eyes. “Yup. I just need to stretch. Lactic acid and all.”

“I bet Christine will stretch you out later.” Avery snorted.

 Kody narrowed his eyes. “I’ll text ya about my plans later.”

Avery smiled. “Don’t do one of your marathon sessions with her again!”

Kody shook his head. “Grow up.”

The coaches left, leaving Kody alone with some needed space. Before he could enjoy the peaceful quiet, Coop strolled in, sporting his polo work shirt and flashing his pearly whites. “My hero! My little bro’s gonna be on ESPN!” He wrapped an arm around Kody’s neck.

Kody shook him off. “Naw, I only averaged one point higher than Avery. Team effort.”

Coop shook Kody’s hand. “I saw the scout from Duke! Did she say if you’d get a full ride?”

Kody swallowed and rubbed his temple.

How much should I say?

“Mom and dad have probably saved up enough for tuition, but think of the opportunities. If I hadn’t messed up my shoulder—”

Coop needs me to live out his lost dream.

“Wanna go for a run?” Kody lightly punched his brother’s arm.

Coop’s jaw dropped. “Uh—bro, your legs should be dead.”

“I need to think. Come on.” Kody bent down to double lace his size thirteen sneaker.

“Now? It’s dark.”

Kody couldn’t help but grin. “You’re afraid of the dark?”

“Shut it. I know a way where the reporters won’t see you.”

Coop glanced in each direction, heading to the final row of lockers. He climbed on the locker and flipped open a window. “Come on!” He crawled out to the pavement of the parking lot.

Kody chuckled and followed his brother up and out. The scent of burning firewood wafted through the night air as they began to jog. The rhythmic flop, flop, flop of Coop’s steady pace next to him calmed his racing mind. His brother’s afro swayed back a bit from the breeze.

“Go easy on me this time,” Coop’s breathing already sounded labored.

Kody slowed, letting his mind whirl. “How did you decide your future after high school?”

His big brother panted between words. “I’m…going…back to college…someday.”

Kody shook his head. “I know. I might do that too.”

Coop’s footsteps stopped. Crickets chirped over the thrum of faraway traffic. Kody stopped, but didn’t face his brother.

“What?” Coop’s voice cracked.

Kody stood still as a statue, eyes locked with Coop.

Just tell him.

A flash of blue lights knifed through the darkness as a cop car drew nearer. Kody’s heart rate spiked. They were only three blocks from Slate High, but he couldn’t let his guard down. He placed himself between the car and Coop. Kody tightened his fist into a ball, clenching his jaw until the car passed. He breathed a sigh of relief.

“What the hell did you do that for?” asked Coop.

Kody froze. “Do what?”

“The cop didn’t even notice us. But you used yourself as a human shield, man.”

“Didn’t notice.”

“Don’t make the ultimate sacrifice for anyone, Kody. Not even me. Of all the people in this world, you’re the one who needs to live.”

They jogged back in silence. The pounding of Kody’s heels on the sidewalk released an ounce of tension at each drop. Once reaching the school building again, only a few cars remained scattered across the lot. Coop saluted him and he jogged off to the front, where parents gathered. Steam poured out of the low window to the locker room. Kody snuck back through, barely managing to squeeze his wide frame through the opening.

Alone in the stale locker room, Kody crouched and tore off each shoe. He chucked them at a red bench and they resonated off of it with a satisfying clang. Kody checked his phone for a message from his Dad, but instead found one from Christine, including a selfie only half dressed paired with: ‘Sugar plum. I’m so proud of you, but I don’t want to argue about Avery stealing you away again. I need you here in 45 minutes! Please choose me this time!’

He walked into the misty showers while thinking about Christine’s soft curves. Readjusting the shower nozzle higher, he closed his eyes and dropped his head back into the refreshing, cool water. The droplets dripped from his sore shoulders, down his side and onto his toes. The fruity smell of the soap Christine gifted him overtook his senses, reminding him of the last time he had been tangled up in her sheets. He held a palmful of white bubbles in his palm, then slammed his hands together, spurting water into the air.

Christine would expect to celebrate together later. He could imagine her blonde curls bouncing. Her thin lips would curl over a straw of a milkshake, purposefully insinuating her plans for later that night.

She could clear my mind.

He shook his head.

No—I need to tell them tonight.

In the empty locker room, he didn’t bother with a towel and walked across the messy floor, littered with Gatorade bottles and granola bar wrappers. He stopped in front of the mirror, scanning his reflection as water dripped down.

Just like Dad. Cali and Coop only look like Mom.

Kody yanked his clean clothes from his bag and threw them on, making small water spots on his jeans and extra-large Cubs shirt. The strap of his gym bag dug into his shoulder. He braced himself before opening the door. Photography flashes blinded his vision and microphones crowded his face. Questions roared from a sea of reporters.

“It’s been reported that Chapel Hill offered you a full ride with an early admission to their summer basketball camp. Did you sign?”

Kody ignored her.

I have to get home. My family needs to know, before the news finds out.

A large tv camera bumped his shoulder and stranger’s bodies surrounded him.

“Kody, I’m journalist Cavington from ESPN. Is it true you’re also enrolling into the honors program at Duke? Prelaw?

He turned, looking for an exit. Cali magically appeared, grabbed his hand and whipped him out the side door. It clicked shut and a fresh breeze blew up his soft shirt.

The scent of oak trees wafted through the wind under the crescent moon. A message chimed on his phone from Christine. “Kody, At least answer me. Get here within 30 minutes or…’

A tight knot built in his chest.

I can’t keep this from Christine any longer.

Cali skipped across the lot. “Hurry up, slow poke! It’s not like your muscles should be sore or anything.” She bumped his hip and pranced around Kody in a circle. “Frickin snickerdoodles and tornadoes! How are you not flipping out! You won! By two points! I mean, at the very end, a three pointer? That was meant for a movie!”

Kody ignored the congratulatory honks meant for him as cars rolled by. “Yeah. We did good. Did you drive?”

“No, I get my license next week, remember?”

“I don’t have my Jeep. Is Coop with mom?” asked Kody.

Her charm bracelet jingled with her every movement. Cali never stopped, or slept, since the day she was born. “Probably.” She turned up an Ariana Grande song on her phone and sang along. Cali’s magical voice flooded the streets, harmonizing with even more skill than when she had performed in the church choir.

 “So you’re probably skipping our movie marathon then? It’s my turn to pick, so I chose ‘Into the Woods.’ But because you’re famous and all, I’ll let you choose.”

Kody dropped his gym bag on the pavement, sending a puff of dirt whirling in front of his face. “I need to see Christine and Avery. Wanna come with? I need to talk to you about something.”

Cali jumped around on one foot as if there were a hopscotch chalked onto the pavement. “Naw. Seniors don’t want me around.”

“Maybe I’ll come home early if you can convince Mom to make her cookies, and—”

Cali rolled her eyes. “What? Why me? You’re mom’s favorite!”

“No way. She’s always happy around you.”

Cali whispered, “Well, she might not be anymore.”

Kody leaned closer. “What’d you do now?”

Cali sighed. “I didn’t DO anything.” She paused. “I’m gonna tell her about Tasha.” She didn’t look at him, but sat on the curb, tucking both her hands under her thighs. She didn’t make any joke—for once.

He laid a hand on her shoulder. “Mom won’t mind.”

Cali looked at the stars speckling the sky. She grumbled unintelligible jargon, until he turned her chin toward him. A tear rolled down Cali’s cheek and she lowered down the music blasting from her phone.

A tingling sensation went up his spine at the sight of her upset.

Silence.

“But what if Mom does care?” Cali’s eyes widened after the words spilled out.

“Just be honest. But what I DO need to know is do I need to have a word or two with Tasha?”

Cali laughed, then punched his shoulder. “Stop it. I initiated it.”

He reached over and wiped a tear from her cheek, then glanced over. “Don’t ever be afraid to tell me something. Got it?” He wrapped his arm around her tight.

I’m deserting her when she needs me the most.

Kody’s hands grew clammy. “I’m always here for you. Even when I’m—away.”

Cali faced him. “I’m glad you’ll be local for the next four years. I can bother you in your dorm. Are you gonna pick Duke or Chapel Hill?”

Kody dropped his chin low. “Dad wants Duke,” he said casually.

Cali linked her arms to his on the way inside. “What do you want?”

He stopped, accidentally breaking their connection. He shuffled his feet.

“Um, that’s what I needed to talk to you about.”

Avery bounded out from behind a row of cars with a handful of concessions hot dogs. “Cali! Did you see my boy’s winning shot! I can’t even be jealous. It was just—” He mimed a chef’s kiss in the air. “Come on, Kody, where’ve you been?”

Maybe he’ll be okay with my choice.

Kody pulled out his phone to call Christine, but two messages were already waiting for him. One from her: ‘Be here in 15 minutes or maybe I’ll find someone else. Mr. Big shot doesn’t have time for his girlfriend.’

Kody sighed. Even if he left that very moment, he wouldn’t get to her on time. The second message was from his dad, just a map with his exact location.

This is downtown, not by dad’s office.

He looked up where the address led.

A hotel? What the?

“Yeah, I’m ready. Let’s go.” Kody snapped the car keys off Avery’s belt loop in one swift motion. “I’m driving. You eat.”

The engine growled to life. Kody sped through each yellow light straight to the address. Each click, click, click, click of the turning signal felt like a countdown to destruction.

Why is dad at a hotel?

Kody called his dad. It rang, then he was sent straight to voicemail before the message started.

He blocked my call.

Avery chewed, spilling crumbs onto the floor while rambling about the basketball game as the headlights reflected off a window of a hotel.

Avery glanced around. “Wait, this isn’t Opal South. You meeting Christine here?”

“No. Stay here. I’ll be back in ten.” Kody hopped out, leaving the keys in the ignition.

He spotted his dad’s 2015 Honda CRV and picked up the pace.

Is Dad okay?

Swiping open the front door, a little bell jangled above his head. Kody lowered his chin and addressed the front desk clerk. “Can I have a new key for Walsh. Mine doesn’t work anymore.”

The woman didn’t even lift her gaze from her phone. The bottom of a stool scratched against the hardwood floor as she scooted it out and rose slowly. “Right, Mr. Walsh left a spare key for his guest. But oh no, where’d it go? No problem. I’ll just scan you a new one. Room 111, sir.”

“Thank you.” Kody took it and slipped around the corner. The hallway smelled like burnt vacuum. He sprinted, his heart thundered in his chest.

Room 107.

109.

111.

He lifted his hand and hovered his knuckles over the thick door. Laughing came from within. Two voices.

No. Dad wouldn’t.

Kody knocked. A tightness formed in his chest as footsteps approached. He moved out of view from the peephole.

The lock unclicked. A sliver of light started growing as the door crept open slowly. His father’s laugh boomed, but he wasn’t facing forward, rather entranced by whatever—whoever was inside.

A woman giggled and asked, “Walter, did you order me room service? More wine?”

Kody’s heart stopped. He shoved the door open.

His father turned and met his gaze—in just his boxers. Walter’s eyes widened.

Kody lunged inside, scanned the woman laying under the covers and swiveled back on his heels. Not just any woman, his current calculus teacher, Ms. Brown, fresh out of college, only four years older than him.

She squealed and ducked under the covers.

Kody’s voice boomed. “What are you doing?”

Walter didn’t move a muscle.

“Is Mom meeting you here? She knows about this right?”

Walter’s jaw dropped and he looked down.

The room spun and Kody tripped over his own feet.

He pointed in Walter’s face. “How could you do this?”

Walter extended his palms out. “Son!”

Kody stepped back quick. Don’t ever call me son again.”

“Wait.” Walter clung onto his wrist.

Kody twisted away. “Don’t touch me!”

“Son!”

A whirl of beige paintings on the hallway’s walls flashed in Kody’s vision as he stumbled back to the parking lot. Dizziness overtook him. He leaned on the back of a bench and glanced in each direction. Avery’s car was gone. Kody’s fists clenched.

Damn it!

He growled into the wind and took a deep breath. Closing his eyes didn’t help anything. He could only picture Ms. Brown’s bare shoulder. If the blanket was just an inch lower…The smell of lavender would forever be toxic in his mind.

I can’t tell anyone my plans now.

His phone buzzed from Avery, ‘Sorry, man. Party can’t wait. I sent Christine to come get you. Her ETA 5 min.’

Kody slammed his phone to his forehead and paced in front of the hotel’s entrance.

Walter can probably see me from the window.

He moved to the side of the building.

What do I do?

Pushups.

Kody dropped to the ground. Tiny pebbles pushed into his palm as he rose up and down. A light post’s bulb flickered, casting dancing shadows on the pavement.

Kody mumbled to himself between heavy breaths. “Twenty-two fuckin years of marriage. TWENTY-TWO! Ms. Brown is twenty-two.”

His shoulders burned as he pushed himself up, down, up down. Sweat dropped from his temples.

Maybe mom knows and she’s okay with it. Maybe they’re in a different ‘lifestyle’ and mom was about to join?

He clenched his jaw and pushed up. Pausing at the top, headlights flashed into the lot and Christine’s car pulled in. Her long manicured pink nails tapped the outside of her car through the rolled down window. Kody jolted upright.

Her car door clasped shut just as the hoot of an owl echoed. Christine’s heels clicked and clacked quickly toward him; each step swung her hips left to right. Her blonde curls lost themselves in her cleavage and the black tank top left no imagination to how thin her waist was. Christine tilted her head and wrapped her hands behind his thick neck.

“I knew you’d surprise me!” She smiled. “I knew you wouldn’t just ignore my messages.”

Surprise? What surprise?

“I mean, I wish Avery wasn’t in on it.” Christine raised on her tip toes and kissed him. “A hotel room? That’s so romantic.”

No. No. No. I need to get home. I need to tell—what the hell am I going to tell them?

Kody stepped back, causing her hands to drop, when he said, “Actually, I need to go.”

She tilted her head to the side and said, “What? This doesn’t make any sense.”

“I just need a ride home,” he mumbled.

Christine shivered in the cold but forced a smile. “Kody! You’re State Champion! This should be the best night of your life. I’ll give you a massage. What room number did you get?”

“I didn’t—”

She put a claw-like finger in his face. “Kody Walsh, you listen to me. I told Becky and Susie and Kylie and Megan that you got me a fancy hotel room. You did get one, right? Don’t you love me?”

Kody opened his mouth and paused. “Of course, I got a room. I hope you’re surprised.” He pulled her in and wrapped his arm around her waist, kissing her forehead. “Just wait in the lobby and gimme five minutes to finish signing for it.”

I need to keep someone on my side.

At the counter, the clerk didn’t recognize Kody. He handed over cash from his job as a martial arts coach at a local gym, where they taught honor and teamwork above all else.

Am I setting a good example for the boys I teach?

She handed him his key card. Room 109.

No! Not next to Dad.

Kody interlaced his fingers between Christine’s and hustled to the room, raising his shoulder slightly to block his face in case his Dad came out.

“What’s wrong?” she asked as he stuck the key card in.

The heavy door creaked when he held it open for her to enter first. “Nothing.”

His ears were on overdrive, like a hawk, noticing any muffled sound on the other side of the wall, trying to depict the conversation. Kody moved closer and sat as close to the voices as possible, leaning toward the white walls. Ms. Brown laughed. An ‘Usher’ song started to play. Ms. Brown squealed.

No. No. Stop. Please, stop. This is a nightmare.

Kody placed both his hands over his ears and turned to face Christine, who was staring up at him with bright blue eyes—topless. His gaze dropped to those mounds and his body responded immediately, ready to go.

Christine licked her lips. “It’s my turn to be the Champion.” Her hands circled his pecs over his Cubs t-shirt then traveled to his zipper.

Kody’s heart drummed hard against his ribs as his body warmed, blood flowed to every inch of his body. Their skills only improved in quality each time together. He hovered his hand just over her dark round—

I can’t.

He looked away and took a deep breath. He stopped her wandering hands.

“Christine, how about we watch a movie. It was a long game. My body’s worn out.”

She shook her head and kneeled in front of him. “No. I’ll do all the work. You just have to keep it up. That’s never been a problem for you before.”

Her fingers slowly unzipped his pants. He gently lifted Christine up and zipped back up. Tossing Christine her shirt, he swallowed, then said, “Not tonight.”

Christine refused to put her shirt on. She flailed her arms, sending her breasts bouncing, “Then why did you get this room? Why are we here?”

He guided her to the bed and sat her down. “I have something important to tell you. About next year.” He slowly looped her shirt over her head, and stretched it down over her stomach.

She nodded and said, “Chapel Hill and Duke are both close to State. We will be fine.”

“No, Christine, I’m—”

Moans began from room 111. A loud bang thundered against the wall. And then another. And again, in a rhythmic pattern. Thud. Thud. Thud. The grunts grew louder—the sounds felt like a bullet wound, piercing into his heart.

Christine rolled her eyes. “At least someone’s having a good time.”

Kody couldn’t feel his lips, sensation drained out of him. “I need to go.”

“What? We just got here.”

He wouldn’t look at her and jumped toward the door. “I’ll explain later.”

Her eyes expanded. “You’re just gonna leave me here?”

I could call an Uber.

Thud. Thud. Thud. The bedframe on the other side slammed against the wall like a hammer in Kody’s head.

He stared at a painting of an endless sandy desert on the wall, losing all sense of reality. “Can you drive me home?”

She pouted, sticking out her pretty pink bottom lip.

His voice dropped to a begging whisper. “Please, this is important.”

Thud. Thud. Thud.

Christine’s voice turned harsh. “You owe me.” She handed over her keys. “Can you drive, though? I’m in heels.”

Ice carved a spot into his chest, freezing a part of him. Kody grabbed the dangling keys without a word and turned on his heels. She followed.

During the drive home, drizzle began to fall. Christine sat with her back angled toward him, staring at the drops trailing down the window. A thick blanket of fog in front of him made him squint the whole way home. By the time they pulled into his drive, his temples had pressure prickling deep that he wasn’t used to. Kody leaned over and kissed Christine.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said.

“I may not pick up.”

He sighed. “I understand. But I hope you do.”

Kody hopped out. The scent of his mom’s rose garden sent shivers of comfort that turned to goosebumps along his forearm. Their windchimes clinked in the breeze above the porch. In a daze, he walked past the neatly trimmed yard, the garage basketball hoop and his mom’s car.

His mom walked right in front of him. “Finally! You’re home.” His mom ran over and wrapped both arms around Kody, unable to clasp her hands together behind his back.

He jumped and clutched his heart. “Jeez!”

She laughed. “Wow! Remind me not to play paintball or lazer tag with you. We wouldn’t do too well with that response.”

“Congrats! State champion! That was an exciting game.” Her grin spread from ear to ear.

Kody took both her hands in his but froze for a beat. “Mom, I need to tell you something.”

Her dimples disappeared. “Soon. I need to show you something first. Inside.”

“No, this can’t wait.”

She pulled his wrist and swung open the door with so much force that it slammed against the kitchen wall.

“SURPRISE!”

Lights flashed on and dozens of red balloons floated toward the ceiling. Bodies popped up behind the countertops as if a dance was choreographed.

Cali.

Coop.

Avery.

His mom bustled around the kitchen, rattling pots and pans as she looked for something in a cabinet. “So, tell us all about it! What did it feel like to shoot the winning point?”

“Good.” Kody picked up one of her fresh cookies from the counter and jammed it into his mouth. It crumbled and fell apart into pieces as if it weren’t fully ready.

Cali became lost in another world, the bright rectangle of her screen reflected in her dark iris’ as she scrolled. Coop collapsed onto the couch. Avery clinked silverware together as he pulled out a fork from the drawer. The house layout was open concept with almost every room being visible from one corner. The white mantlepiece in the living room held photo frames of their family—a false image—a lie.

His mom turned on the stove. “Well, Kody, at least, give your dad a play by play when he gets home. He was stuck at the office all night and was broken hearted that he couldn’t make it.”

Kody cleared his throat and projected his voice. “I need to tell you all something, right now!”

Cali looked up from her phone.

Coop poked his nose over the back of the couch cushion.

His mom stopped clattering dishes.

Avery froze from raiding the fridge.

“I’m not going to Duke,” said Kody plainly.

His mom clapped her hands together. “So, you decided on Chapel Hill? That’s so exciting. They have so many good programs. I was thinking pre-med, but it’s your choice… I’ll just.” She zipped her lips.

Kody looked at each. His stomach twisted. “Is it really my choice?”

“Yes, dear. Always will be. Always has been.”

It’s now or never.

Kody pushed his shoulders back. “I’m joining the army.”           

Now they know. It’s done.

The plate his mom held onto slipped through her fingers and glass shattered across the floor. She placed one hand on her heart. “Oh!”

Kody bolted to her side.

Her eyebrows knitted together, then she looked up at him with a stern face. “Kody—I—” She placed one hand on the counter, steadying her swaying motion.

“Here, come sit.” Kody guided her to a kitchen chair at their wooden table. She lowered herself and took a deep breath.

“Engineering or desk job?” His mom asked.

“No. Infantry. I want to specialize in artillery.”

Cali lurched out of her stool, and kicked it down, letting the metal stool tumble to the ground, over the broken glass. “No!” She yelled. “You can’t be shot at! I won’t let you!”

Hid mom placed her hands on either side of his face. “Is this what you want?”

He nodded silently.

“Okay. I support you,” she said sweetly then kissed his nose. Her flowery perfume overtook his senses.

His heart stopped for a beat while searching his mom’s dark eyes. Her pupils grew and she didn’t blink once.

She’s terrified.

She nodded and let go of his face. “Let me get a broom.”

Kody crouched down and picked up the larger glass pieces, careful not to slice his skin. “I’ll be safe. I’ll be trained and professional. Plus, I probably won’t even be deployed. Things are good under Obama.”

“No!” Cali stomped.

“College isn’t for me—right now,” said Kody.  

Coop grasped his shoulders and spun him upright again. “What are you talking about? You have a 4.0. You already have college credits! If I had your brain—”

Kody stood taller. “I’ll take classes in between training.”

Coop’s shoulders dropped. “How long have you been considering this?”

“A year. But I’m not considering. I’ve already registered. I’ll have Boot Camp and AIT.”

Coop sighed and grinned. “You’re already using acronyms. That’ll get annoying fast. What’s AIT?”

“Advanced Individual Training.”

 “No!” Cali ran into Kody and started punching his gut, making no impact on his brick-like stature. “I won’t let you join the army!”

The door clattered open.

Walter’s calm voice quieted Cali’s protests. “I think it’s a great idea.”

His mom returned, broom in hand. “You do?”

Walter spoke slowly, his eyes hardened on Kody. “Yes, our son has always been responsible and honorable. He knows how to protect others. Kody knows what needs said and done, and what needs silenced.”

He wants me to keep it quiet.

Kody followed Walter’s movements like a panther stalks its prey.

I’ll tell them— but when?

Pre-Order Cassie Swindon’s novel, ‘Break the Stone’ kindle on amazon.

Break the Stone is Book One of the Golden Chains series

Launch date is May 10th, 2021.

www.CassieSwindon.com has bonus scenes and more information.

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