Ryder's Diaries

Ryder's Diaries (Caskets & Conspiracies)

As mentioned in the post entitled Ryder's Diaries, I wanted to include these perspective short stories to enhance my reader's experiences. There are multiple spoilers contained within this story. Please only read after you have finished reading Caskets & Conspiracies. I hope you enjoy Ryder's perspective as much as I have enjoyed writing it.


After the Johnny's by the Border

I met a girl tonight. Out at Johnny’s bar. She’s a little dodgy, and maybe I should forget about her, but you don’t find chemistry like that every day. It’s been a couple years since Mollie, and even that, I mean, that was just to please Charles, back when I still called him dad. This was…. volatile, but in the exciting way. Being next to her reminded me of when Ted Baker dared me to mix all three of Mr. Keyes chemistry bottles together when he wasn’t looking. Nothing happened, probably for the best if I’m being honest, but that feeling of watching Ted distract him, my heart pounding, both tubes shaking in my hands as I tipped them to the full beaker, that’s how it felt talking to her. As if something wonderful was about to happen.

I guess this is a little like Cinderella, or some other fairy tale. I don’t have a shoe exactly, but I have a clear picture of her in my mind and her number in my phone. Maybe I need to see if the ice queen will melt a little if I offer up some warmth.

I should call her, and maybe I’m chicken because I text her instead. I watch the words sit on the screen for five minutes before I give up and walk away. I should have called.


Day Dreams & Dust

I’ve texted her three more times, still no answer. But, she hasn’t blocked me yet. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I set aside the sheet metal I’m welding for a new piece and pull out a sketch pad and the box of charcoal mom gave me for my last birthday. I think it was her way of saying she approved of me walking away like I did. She was the reason I was brave enough to do it. Yeah, listening to Steve talk about how happy he was to be a doctor, that got to me, but if mom hadn’t walked away from everything shortly after, I never would have had the guts to do the same. We’ve been pleasing him, Charles, my father, ever since I can remember. It’s never been an option not to, not until last year, and now I’m trying to figure out how to live.

I take a deep breath and blow across the pad. Charcoal dust skitters and tumbles from the edge until all I can see is the mystery girl staring back at me. I can’t help but smile, there’s something about her I can’t forget, not yet. I carve the only name I have for her under her portrait.

“Huckleberry,” I read aloud as if her name will make her materialize. Meeting her is the first time I’ve gotten excited about anything in months. I’m not sure what I’ll do next, but for now it’s time to go to work at the docks. Fish won’t load themselves.


Dad and the Docks

“Yeah?” I ask as I answer my phone. The water is whipping off the bay tonight, catching in the air and darn near dripping from my face. I’m between loads, hanging out with Pedro and Miguel trying to catch a quick nap before the next boat docks.
“Ryder, it’s dad.”
The chill from the dew has nothing on what’s flowing through my veins at the sound of his voice.
Dad.
It might be the first time he’s ever called himself that, though I’ll be the first to admit that my childhood is hazy. I don’t have many memories, either it wasn’t good enough to want to remember, or I’ve blocked it out.
“I’m hanging up,” I say as I pull the phone away from my ear.
“Wait, no, hold on,” he says and there’s just enough desperation in his voice to keep me on the line. “Ryder, I need to talk to you.”
“It’s 3 am,” I tell him as if he doesn’t know. “What on earth do you need to talk to me about at 3 am? You haven’t spoken to me in months.”
Pedro kicks my boot with his and points to the bay. The boat is coming in, though it’s still a ways off.
“That’s it exactly. We haven’t talked in so long and,”  the sound of ice clinks against a glass through the receiver, “I miss you, son.”
He’s drunk. I should have known. My head falls forward into my chest. “Dad, I’m working.” I kick myself for falling back into old habits. He’s not my dad anymore, he’s Charles, the guy requiring me to pay off the debt of the medical school he forced me to attend.
“Yes, that’s why I’m calling. I put some cash in your account. I heard you were doing unsavory work, menial labor. It’s beneath you.”
“I didn’t ask for your help,” I say as I rise up to my feet.
“It’s a couple hundred dollars, Ryder. I drop that at lunch for heaven’s sake.”
“Take it out. I don’t want it.” His money comes with strings attached, though from the slur I’m hearing in his voice, I doubt he’s going to remember making this call, let alone giving me the money.
“No, I won’t,” he says.
“I have to go. Bye, Charles.”
I’m stewing over the call for the next hour, furious that I haven’t remembered to disconnect that last account from his. It’s just one more way he can hang on to me, keep his thumb on my head so to speak. The two hundred could help a lot, but that’s the thing, I don’t want his money, even if it’s the difference between living and starving. I’ll eat my oil paints before that happens.
But another thought occurs to me, an ironic use for the money, and a way to connect with my Huckleberry Girl.


Uncle Shane the Detective

“Yeah, I get that I need a name to file a missing persons report,” I tell the woman behind the desk. “But I thought you could make an exception.”
“Is she in danger?” the sergeant asks me.
“Ehhh,” I’m trying to flirt to get my way, but this lady ain’t buying my brand. That’s a first for me. “She's in danger of missing out on a date with me.”
“We don’t do missed connections at the Ferndale Police department. Take up an ad in the newspaper.”
The cop behind her laughs. “Can you imagine if we did?”
“Can I at least hang this reward sign?” I ask. I flip the copy of my drawing over with the mock missing ad and Huckleberry’s portrait. “I mean, it’s a small town, maybe someone has seen her.”
By the way they exchange looks, I’m pretty sure they both know her. The second cop is laughing to himself as he leaves the lobby. “I’ll get Shane. He’ll want to see this.”
I glance at the desk sergeant who’s got one of my posters in her hands. “You draw this?” she asks me.
“Yeah, why do you know her? $200 reward if you can get me a name and maybe a chance to talk with her again.”
It’s all a joke to them, one I don’t understand. “Oh honey,” she coos, “I think you oughta keep your money. There’s no hope with this one.”
The cop comes back with another officer, this one in plain clothes, likely a detective. “Here he is Shane.”
“Detective Robertson,” the officer says with his hand outstretched. “I heard you have a missing person’s case for me.”
This has gotten too real, too fast. Obviously I didn’t think this through.
“Not really, but I met this girl at a bar and I didn’t get her name. She’s not answering her phone and I thought…” I let it trail off because what? I thought the Ferndale police force could track down this crush of mine?
“Look, unless you think she’s in trouble or, if you have some reason to believe there was foul play—” The detective is shutting me down when the desk sergeant interrupts him.
“Just look at the picture, Shane.”
He pulls one of the flyers from my grasp, annoyed with all of us, but the second he sees her face it all fades into wicked delight.
“You met her at a bar?” Shane asks me as he taps the picture. “Was she drinking?”
“No,” I answer, unsure of why that matters or why that’s the first thing he asks me. “I mean we had soda, but she was sober, and no I have no reason to believe she’s in danger. But I’d like to talk to her again if you know who she is.”
He does. But he’s not going to tell me.
“Let me think on it,” Shane says. “I’ll call if the winds tip in your favor.”


If she were easy to forget, I would have had the chance because I don’t get that call for three days. I’m standing in the hardware store looking at pipes I need for my newest sculpture. Gene, the shop owner, lets me work by stacking boxes in back, and trades me store credit for paint, pipes and other supplies. Since he gives it to me  at cost, it’s worth not getting a paycheck.
I answer the call on the third ring and wince as the pipes clang against each other in the shuffle. Gene glares from the front and I raise a hand in apology as I put my phone to my ear. “Yeah? It’s Ryder.”
“I made up my mind,” I hear a man’s voice say. “Thought I’d let you know she’s gonna be down here at the station for a bit. You hurry you might run into her.”
The detective, Shane Robertson.
“You got a name for me?”
“No, I’m not suicidal, son. You get over here and get the name yourself. And bring that cash, I got something in mind for my lady.”
Maybe I should be nervous that everyone treats Huckleberry like she’s an armed bomb, but I’ve always loved a little adventure, and she could be my greatest one.
“I’m at the hardware store. It’ll take a minute before I can pull the cash out. You’re saying she’ll be there a little while?”
“Yes that’s right. But you better hurry.” His voice is guarded, and I wonder if she’s beside him now. My heart quickens a bit because this is like tag on the playground all over again. The pipes can wait, I've got a girl to catch.


That went nothing like I expected. I figured she’d be impressed by my romantic search for her, not annoyed. I swear I can see her cracking though. I’m tenacious. After she stormed out of the precinct, Shane suggested I stop by the memorial.He's her uncle, and I've got a feeling he wants to see Huckleberry settle down a bit.


Hardware Store Hassles

I’m staring at my phone as it rings. It’s Charles again. Likely noticed he transferred that money. Too bad, I spent it, and a lot of good that did. Not even an inch closer to Huckleberry, maybe further away. I shouldn’t answer. I never know what kind of mood he’s going to be in, or whether he’s sober or not. It’s Russian roulette for my emotions every time. As much as I want to hate him, he’s my dad. I swear there’s some hardwire in a child’s brain that short circuits when they try to hate their parents, granting the sorry good for nothings umpteen billion tries to screw up it again and again.
Against my better judgement, I click on the call. “It’s Ryder,” I say, just in case he didn’t mean to call me.
“Ryder, it’s your father.”
Sober.
Stone cold sober.
“What do you need Charles?”
“Payroll has a check for you. They said it was a bonus leftover from the work you did this last summer. Are you going to come in and pick it up, or should I put it in the mail?”
I know people have normal relationships with their parents, but I don’t, not even close.
“Just send it on to my school loans, that’s where it’s headed anyway.”
He catches the tone of my voice and bristles. I should know better, but being on the phone grants me some bravery I wouldn’t normally have.
“You made this choice, Ryder. I’m only enforcing your responsibility to that choice.”
“I made the choice to leave, Charles, but we both know I never chose to become a doctor.”
“Oh this again? You’re playing this card. As if your life was so difficult.”
He’s a professional when it comes to guilt. I’ve spent most of my life trying to claw out of the shame he piles on my head. I’m never good enough.
“I never said it was difficult, I’ve only said the choices weren’t my own.”
I shift the Tahoe as if I might pull out and drive this off, but I shift the stick back.
“Stop being dramatic. It’s a check, Ryder. Just take the money, and get a real job. My friends are talking about you and I am sick of hearing about my son the fish monger and bar bouncer.”
I laugh, but not because it’s funny. “Seriously? That’s what you’re worried about? I barely have the cash to eat and you’re worried about what your friends are saying?”
“You have a duty, Ryder. You were born into that responsibility—”
“Save it,” I snap the words out, “I’m not interested in your expectations as my father. I’ve never been a good enough son, and I’m tired of coming up just short of what you want.”
It’s silent and for a second. I’m reeling in the knowledge that I’ve slapped him back for once.
I should know better.
“Just short?” He finally replies. “You’ve never come close to what you should be. I won’t bother to reach out again. As far as I’m concerned, I have no son. You might as well be dead.”
I hang up the phone before he can spit another word of venom over the line. It’s a moment or two before I can even catch my breath. He’s my father, the man who brought me into the world and yet the contradiction is there and I can’t escape the reach of what he said.
Dead.
It’s not the first time he’s talked like that. I know it, I can’t remember it, but I know I’ve been down this road before. I click off the ignition and rest my head against the wheel. I’m stupid to care. Wasn’t I the one who didn’t want him in my life to begin with? But that’s all a farce, of course I want him in my life. I want both my parents in my life, but without the control and the strings attached. I want to be my own man and choose my own path. Is that too much to ask?
Tired of him and all the pain he puts me through, I pop open the door and start up the alley that runs between the hardware store and the shop next door. There’s a commotion as I step out to Main street. A couple lunks are running, tripping over themselves it looks like. Probably a bar fight that got moved outside for fear of damage. I have a brief moment of pity for whoever they’re chasing, it doesn’t look good for that guy. But it’s not my problem, I have enough on my own.
The bell jangles once as I shove it open. Gene’s head comes up from where he’s counting leather gloves. He gives a quick nod and returns to his work. I’m old news, especially since I’m not here to work. Tina give a little wave from behind the counter but I move to the back where they store the metal pipe. I had an idea for a sculpture this morning, the motion of a crashing wave, but build out of welded pipes. At least it’ll keep my hands busy. If I stop and think about everything I’ve given away, the panic sets in.
I shuffle the pipes aside, remembering for a second that last time I was doing this I got the call that my girl was up at the station. None of that panned out. Never met a girl who contradicts herself like this one does. Her eyes say she wants me, but her mouth speaks a different language, always pushing me away. That desk sergeant was right, likely not worth the trouble.
The front bell clangs and quick feet patter down the middle aisle before they drag across the floor and something clatters from the shelf. I can hear her breathing even before I turn around. Whoever she is, she’s scared, maybe even terrified.
I search her out, not willing to let her fight on her own if she’s needing protection, and I stop cold as I see her. Her eyes are closed tight, as if she thinks she can, poof, disappear if she tries hard enough. Muscles ripple at her jaw as she clenches her teeth at intervals. Her hands shake once to relieve the tension, but the tremble remains even after she’s done.
“Huckleberry?” I ask, because I’m not sure if I’m right or not. She’s not wearing makeup, not even a splash. The jeans and t-shirt are nondescript, and nothing like that dress she more to Milton’s memorial, the one that had me choking on words when I first saw her.
Her eyes flash open as she hears my voice. Regret closes them again, but it’s not regret at seeing me, it’s regret because she promised she’d never use me again. I have a feeling she needs me now more more than ever.
The bell rings again and her body goes tense like a deer in the forest. I hear the men I saw on the street and it doesn’t take much to figure out they’re after her. She’s moving around the endcap, keeping distance between her and the biggest of the bunch, the one who’s taunting her. I wait because I expect her to ask for help, but she moves away from me, not toward me.
I could walk away, pretend I never saw her. She’s used me more than once for her own schemes. I don’t owe her anything. But some part of me understands fear, and danger and I can’t walk away from her if she’s caught between those and I could do something to help.
“Hey Buddy, you seen a girl in here? Dark hair, attractive, about this tall?” The big galoot asks me.
“Sorry, just me back here,” I tell him, and it’s not a lie. Huckleberry is nowhere near me now.
“Naw, she’s in here,” he says as he turns and surveys the store again.
“What do you need her for?” I ask. It’s possible she’s a criminal and I have no right to protect her. Seems prudent to check on that sort of thing before I risk life and limb.
“Not much,” he answers with a sneer that makes my stomach churn. “I owe her something.”
I’m not sure it matters if she’s a criminal or not at this point. I won’t be able to sleep tonight if I let him put his hands on her. He takes the aisle where I think she’s hiding, but I don’t hear anything so she must have moved on. It’s hard to look inconspicuous as I’m searching for her as well. I pick up some gloves and drop them, duck my head down an aisle like I’m looking for something. Where’d she go? He’s just one aisle behind me and I can feel my heart against my ribs. I take a silent step forward, and she’s there, crouched and ready to run like a gazelle on the prairie, but she won’t make it, not with this guy’s friends at the front and him about to turn the corner.
I grab her arm and I’m surprised how easily I can maneuver her from the aisle and against my body. Six steps and we’re tucked against the paint display. “Stay small,” I whisper to her. I didn’t plan this out. I don’t think this guy can see her as long as I keep my back to him. There’s a cardboard ad blocking where he’d see her legs, but if he comes closer, we’re both sunk.
To help our alibi, I reach for a few paint cards on the top shelf. It increases my size as well, and the timing is perfect as the guy hunting her starts my way. He thinks better of it and backs away. My gazelle shifts like she’s going to make a break for it and my instincts tighten my grip on her. She looks up at me with questions in her eyes, as if she trying to tell me she didn’t mean for this to happen. If she’s expecting much rational thought with her pressed up against me, she’s crazy.
“Stay put,” I whisper.
I hear that idiot’s feet move toward us and she tightens against me. I’m shifting for other paint colors, trying to think of what I have at home and what I might need, anything to keep my mind off of her breath against my skin. He’s coming closer and I twist, but it just pushes her in closer and the fabric of my top shifts as she clenches down for balance. My mind is wandering, unconcerned with the rage-filled mad man creeping up behind me. Instead I’m devising plans, schemes, anything that will get this woman in my arms for real, because this hum that’s resonating through me, the fever pitch ringing in my brain, I need this all the time. I breathe in her scent, a mixture of fresh detergent and strawberry shampoo and I nearly melt. No, I didn’t think this through.
“You still haven’t seen her?” her stalker asks from where he’s still looking.
“Sorry man, I don’t think you’re going to find her,” I tell him as I slip a few cards back into the display.
“Well, if you ever run into a girl like that, take my advice, and run as fast as you can. She is nothing but trouble.”
Truer words have never been said. I don’t even have my arms around her yet and I’m rattled to the core.
“I think you are probably right,” I say as he’s walking away.
And he is. But the problem is I think it’s too late to run. I’m already in trouble.


It's not a date...

I must have told myself a hundred times on the way to her house that this was crazy.

Reckless.

Stupid.

Uncle James told me once that women make you do stupid things. Right now I gotta figure he was right. Because here I am, going out with a girl to commit a felony, for no reason other than to satisfy her curiosity, and to know that I didn’t let her get killed.
I knock twice and draw in a deep breath. It’s drained from my lung just as the door peels back.
And I forget how to take another breath in.
She's gorgeous in dresses.
The silver beading hugs her waist in a way I never could have imagined. She has curves that she keeps hidden away under baggy t-shirts and relaxed-fit jeans. But the dress, the dress turns her into a new person, and I can’t help but want to see how it would feel to slip my arm around her and pull her against me like in the hardware shop. I’d feel like an idiot staring at her this way, except she’s doing the same dance. I know I look good in a tux, years of social engagements have gotten it down to an art for me, but I think this is the first time I’ve cared what someone thought about it.
“I told you that you look good in dresses.” It falls out before I can think of how stupid it sounds, but it earns me a smile and my insides are melted butter.
“Just keep repeating it in your mind,” Lindy says.
I have to shut my mouth because it’s going dry from the way I’m gawking at her. “Repeating what?” I feel like she’s got me on a string, trailing after her, willing to do whatever it takes to get through her shell.
“Keep telling yourself, ‘This is not a date’.”
I laugh because that was my stipulation, not hers.
“I’ll do my best to remember, I promise.”
For the first time I wish I’d called Charles and begged the Porche off of him for the night. If I gave in to his demands a little, I could really wine and dine her, show her the perks of being with someone who knows how to spoil a lady. But, I climb into my busted Tahoe instead and hope my pride and dignity is just as attractive as fancy jewelry.
It’s quiet for the first hour. She’s trying to start up conversations, weather, local politics and I’m not giving her much to work with, but not because I don’t want to. Every thought in my head has to do with kissing her. From the front door until now, when I look at her it’s taking all my self control not to steal a quick kiss, or reach across the cab and take her hand. I can remember how soft her skin is, I felt it against my cheek that night in the bar. I know she smells like strawberries and roses and I’m humming just thinking about being that close to her again.


The Truth & The Lion's Den

I’m trying to think of a way around this. I want her to be lying, another manipulation or something because I don’t want it to be true.
Multiple Sclerosis.
It’s not cancer.
It’s not a death sentence, but it’s not easy either.
We're out of the Tahoe and moving toward the building. I don’t mean to walk faster than her, but maybe I'm hoping I can outrun what she told me. I know I’ve gone to steel because she’s quiet. After the last hour of interrogation from her side of the car, I wasn’t sure she would ever be quiet again, but she’s trying to respect my need to process what she just told me.
I want to tell her she’s crazy, it’s not that bad, no reason to shut down a whole branch of living just because… But it’s not that crazy. She’s right, she’s got some hard times ahead of her, and maybe she’s also right that I might not want to be a part of it. I just learned her real name. Diving into a relationship would require some commitment on my part and I’m not in a place to do that right now. I’m barely taking care of myself.
She’s looking over the check-in table with those eyes of hers. I don’t have a clue to what she’s searching for, but I wager it’s got something to do with any weapons she might be packing under her skirt. Her arm is tucked in mine as if we’re a couple and the irony is cutting at me. She says something about having fun and I growl back an answer between my clenched teeth.
Why am I mad? Am I even mad at her? No. I’m mad at myself. I never should have walked up to her at Johnny’s. Or searched her out. Or said yes to this crazy idea that could get us both killed, or thrown in jail, best case scenario. That meathead from the hardware store was right, I was better off running. Maybe I'm just mad at fate for bringing someone perfect into my life, only to have it all be for nothing.
The guard parts the curtain for us to step through and it falls closed behind us. Lindy’s arm slips free of mine as she notices the masks for the first time. She’s talking with the attendant and I should hang on to all the regret and frustration I was feeling, but that same desire is back again. I can't escape it. I want to kiss her.
There’s a curl in the ends of her hair and I can’t help but wondering if they’re soft. I step closer and realize once more that it’s her shampoo I’ve been smelling all night. I don’t know why that strikes me, but it does. She’s not the type to wear perfume, just like she’s not the type to wear makeup or dresses, and yet, I’m attracted to her without all that because she’s more than her looks. She’s a force of nature, refusing to conform. Seeing her now, transfixed by the masks, a little girl playing dress up, I need to know who she is under the armor. The MS doesn’t scare me, not really. I’ve seen worse. Better to have a failing body than a black heart. Her heart is steel, but only on the outside. There's more to her, and I'm dying to find out what mysteries she holds. She doesn’t know it yet, but she needs me, just as badly as I need her.
“I could never decide,” I hear her tell the attendant. This isn’t an act, this is her. I’m getting a glimpse of what’s behind her walls. She's bashful, polite, out of her element in a place drenched in wealth and luxury. It speaks to the protective parts of me that want to guard her and keep her safe. The man pulls a small mask from the display, lace, delicate. It’ll look amazing on her, but she needs a shield.
“If you don’t mind, I have another one in mind,” I say as I step in behind her and move to the masks. Lace will give her the softness I’m craving, but I need her face to be hidden so they won't know her. My fingers catch a mask with a metal butterfly. I couldn’t have thought of a more fitting metaphor for Lindy, delicate but unbreakable. To keep it in place, I hold it over her eyes. I expect her to look away, uncomfortable because of how close we’re standing, but she doesn’t drop her gaze. She meets me full force and lets it burn.
“Exquisite,” I whisper as the mask ribbons are tightened. If I look at her lips now, there’ll be no stopping me, so I stay fixed on her eyes.
She breaks contact first, looking for a mask for me. Returning my favor, she holds the mask in place, her satin glove against my hot skin. My hand slips over hers, flattening her palm so that part of it rests on my cheek. Six inches, that’s all I’d have to cover to kiss her, but that’s not why we’re here, and it’s getting harder to remember that.
“Are you ready for this?” I ask as I feel the attendant back away. Is it crazy for me to hope she says no? There’s a safety in this booth, closed off from the rest of the room and I don’t want to leave it. Her walls are down and I can see it, for the first time I can see she wants me just as bad as I want her. I inch closer until I  feel her breath. I smile as she cracks a little more.
“Into the lion’s den,” she says, and it might as well be an invitation for all my unspoken curiosities.


Ryder's Diaries (Saddles & Sabotage)



As mentioned in the post entitled Ryder's Diaries, I wanted to include these perspective short stories to enhance my reader's experiences. There are multiple spoilers contained within this story. Please only read after you have finished reading Saddles & Sabotage. I hope you enjoy Ryder's perspective as much as I have enjoyed writing it.



Date Night

I’m bouncing out of my skin. I think I’ve only ever been this excited once before. Mom took me to the Modern Museum of Art when I was 12. Charles thought we were touring military academies, but mom said she’d never let him send me. We spent the entire day there. I met three professional artists. I picked their brains for what I needed to do to get where they were. We ate pizza, and had ice cream at Ghirardelli square. I rode on that subway they have, BART, I think. My father was absent, and for once we could both be ourselves. We were happy.

That’s where I am now. Singing along with every cheesy song on the radio, checking my reflection at the light, hoping I chose the right cologne because I have one shot with her, and it this has to be perfect. I turn in at Skyline Grill, park and take a deep breath. This is it. The start of something amazing.


Waiting on a girl

They let me have the table I wanted. I called ahead a couple days ago. I know the restaurant because I’ve done deliveries here from the fish market. There’s one table tucked back in a corner, candlelight is just about the only lighting left back here. It’s what I thought of the first time she knocked on my door and said she wanted a date.

Me, Huckleberry, and a couple candles.

I’m watching the door, desperate for her to come. She’ll wear a dress, I’m positive about that. It’s out of character for her, but tears me down to my last shred of self-control when she does it. Maybe it’s the feminine appeal on someone so self-assured. Maybe it’s the way the fabric clings to her figure. Those jeans and t-shirts hide away too much of what she’s worked for. The masquerade was my first glimpse at her real shape, and kickboxing has served her well.

The candles are shaking, and I realize my leg is bouncing hard. She’s a few minutes late, but nothing to be worried about. Seattle traffic is tough. I should’ve picked her up. We could’ve had all that time to talk along the way. But I was busy meeting with lawyers downtown.

I still can’t wrap my brain around the numbers they told me. Mom won’t touch any of it. Even when I told her we could use it to pay the mortgage on the ranch. I paid off my student loans. It only took twenty minutes. Since I accrued that debt because of Charles, it only seemed fair that he should pay it off.

But the rest?

I don’t even know where to start.

“Hi,” a feminine voice says from my right. “My name is Vanessa. I’ll be your server tonight.”

She gains my attention, but only long enough to catch a quick glimpse. Sure, she’s gorgeous, like supermodel grade beautiful, but I’m waiting on what I suspect could be the rest of my life to walk through that door, so I don’t pay her much mind.

“I know you’re waiting on someone, but can I get your something to drink? Maybe a starter?”

“Two cokes,” I say, because that’s what Lindy drinks when she’s feeling fancy. The thought alone brings a smile to my lips. “And some kind of bread, surprise me.”

Lindy can pack away carbs like she’s going into hibernation. I love that she eats in front of me. In the hospital she was constantly stealing my pudding cups and cornbread, and I let her. I’d give her anything if it meant she’d stick around a little longer.

“Okay,” Vanessa says, “I’ll get right on that.”


The bread is mostly gone. Just a heel and a slice of bread. Her drink is untouched, ice melted and water separating from the soda. Mine has been refilled at least three times.

“Just call me when you get this, okay?” I say into my phone. It’s the third message I’ve left her. I should leave, go see if she’s back at her place, but I keep wondering if she’s on her way here.

I called the hospital. Madison is answering phones tonight, and she knows me. Said she’d call if someone matching Lindy’s description comes in. My leg is still shaking, but now it has more to do with the fact that I’m losing my mind.

“Nothing yet?” Vanessa asks as she pulls my glass from the table. She doesn’t wait for the answer she knows. “I’m sure she’s caught up in traffic. She’ll walk through those doors any second. A guy like you doesn’t get stood up.”

She’s hitting on me, but I can’t peel my eyes away from the doorway. Any other date, I’d agree with her. But Lindy isn’t any other date.

She could’ve been kidnapped.

She could’ve gotten in an accident.

She might be stuck on the pier searching for her car after pulling surveillance.

Or the worst.

She might’ve run.

Vanessa leaves the table and I stare at my phone. It’s not going straight to voicemail; maybe I’d be calmer if it were. That would mean she was working a case.

I look back to the doorway. I told her this was it.

Maybe that was my mistake.

I put too much pressure on the night. She freaked out and figured she blew the one shot she had. It’s stupid because it was an empty threat. If the phone would ring and she was on the other side telling me that she needs more time, I’d give it in a heartbeat.

Lindy is the kind of woman I’ve been waiting for my whole life. Smart, pretty, a quick wit, and strong in every way possible. That kiss on the bluff, that’s not the kind of kiss you just move on from. It’s the kind of kiss that will haunt me if this all goes wrong.

I’m fixed on the doorway, willing my circumstances to change and for her to stumble in, maybe dressed in her recon blacks from head to toe because she just exposed a drug lord on the docks and didn’t have time to change.

But the doorway remains empty.


It’s been three hours. She’s not coming. I can’t help the ache in my heart. Either she’s left forever, or she’s in trouble. Either way, it’s not good. I flag my server, Vanessa, and pull a card from my wallet. She slips it in the black case and walks away biting her lip, likely because she can see I’m close to falling apart. I can’t let Lindy do this to me. We’ve done back and forth tug of war on my heart, and I have to protect myself, don’t I?

Still, what if she’s hurt? What if someone broke in to her place, and I’ve been sitting here playing mooney eyed school boy? I need to go by her cottage. Maybe I’ll find some answers there.

“Here you go,” Vanessa says as she hands me the black folder. I take it, but she doesn’t back away. Cracking it open I see her number scrawled on the receipt.

“I’m flattered,” I start to explain to her that I’m involved with someone else, but it sounds insane since I’ve spent the last three hours falling apart in the corner booth with the melted candles.

“I just thought, if you wanted to talk, or if you needed someone who would show up. I’d never miss a chance with you.”

I should probably crumple the receipt in front of her, just so she knows it isn’t possible, but I tuck it in with my card back in my wallet, smile and leave for my Tahoe.


She's Gone

Her place is dark. I hate that I’m hoping for a busted door, or a window smashed in. I need something to explain why she wasn’t there, but there’s nothing. Gravel crunches under my feet as I take on the driveway. The porch echoes as I step around the side, peering in windows as I move. Every footfall radiates from impact, like a drop in a pond making a ripple. Only it’s sound, and I’m sure she likes it because no one can sneak up on her.

I circle back once I get to her punching bag and head for the front door. I can’t see the interior in the dark. There’s a flashlight in my trunk. If she’s hurt inside, if she needs me…

That’s a stretch.

I don’t think she ever needs anyone.

Before I go for the Tahoe, I set my hand to the front door. The knob turns, and the door glides open. My breath stills.

I might not be that far off thinking she's in trouble.

“Huckleberry?” I call. “Lindy, you in here?”

I flip on a lamp from where I remember it. Her place is tiny, but perfect for her. Nothing is out of place, no signs of struggle. Determined to figure it out, I move back toward her bedroom. The air smells like her. I’ve noticed a perfume she wears, only started when I was in the hospital, and a couple times since then. She told me Stella gave it to her. It felt like a good sign that I gave her a reason to start wearing it.

The light in the bathroom flickers and then brightens. Makeup is scattered over the small counter top. The curling iron is still on. I click the switch and watch the red light go out. The counter beneath it is hot. She left in a hurry if someone as careful as Lindy forgot to turn off her curling iron. I flip the light off and dial the number I have for her Uncle Shane.

“Yeah?” he answers on the second ring. It’s late, but that doesn’t mean he’s not working.

“It’s Ryder,” I say, “Ryder Billings, I know your niece.”

I’m realizing how dumb this is since we’ve barely met.

“I know who you are,” Shane says. It’s not terse, just a statement so I’ll move on. “Lindy said you were taking her out tonight. Did she finally take up drinking? I always said that girl would go down after one shot if she ever started.”

“She never showed up,” I tell him. There should have been more of a lead up, but I don’t know what to make of this. He’s a cop, maybe he can figure it out.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I waited for three hours and she never came. I’ve called, I’ve texted, but she’s not answering. I’m at her place, and she’s not here, and I’m guessing she’s not hiding out with you either.”

There’s a pause in his words because he’s running through the scenarios as well. “She’s not with me,” is what he finally gives me. And it’s not enough.

“Is she working a case right now?” I ask him.

Her bed is made. It’s a scarlet comforter pulled back tight. White filigree is woven into the pattern, but no flowers. She’s not the type.

“Not that I know of,” Shane says. “She might have taken something on and not told me though. It’s not like Lindy shares every part of her life with me.”

Their relationship has been strained since Shane lost his wife. Lindy told me it was getting better, but I can hear the wedge in her uncle’s voice.

“Is it me?” I ask. “Is it possible she ran because of me?”

His breathing clouds up the phone as he considers his answer, but his hesitation is telling me everything I need to know.

“Lindy isn’t good with relationships, romantic or otherwise, but even then, I’d put money on a case before I thought she ran away.”

He’s pretty sure of himself, but I’d never take that bet. She’s been skittish the whole time. Chances are I pushed her a little too far.

“I’ll put an APB out in the morning. I’ll say it’s been 24 hours even though it hasn’t. I mean, I haven’t seen her in 24 hours, so it works.”

“Yeah,” is all I can manage to say. I’m glancing around her room, searching for any clue of what might have happened, but all I see is evidence that she left in a hurry. Shane could be right, I shouldn’t give up.


It’s been three days. Her phone goes straight to voicemail. She’s dead in a ditch for all I know.

But no, she’s stronger than that. She just took off, like a gypsy in the wind. I mean she left everything she owns, but I can’t figure a girl like Lindy is real worried about material possessions. Meanwhile, my heart is aching from the disappointment of what will never be.


Keeping Promises & Moving On

I waited three days before I called Vanessa.

No voicemail.

She picked up.

Go figure.

We met for dinner that night.

She showed up.

It’s day four and I’m seeing Vanessa again tonight. I still wish she was Lindy. I saw Shane when I took Vanessa to breakfast this morning. My arm was around Vanessa’s waist, and those cop eyes of his saw it and took note. I thought about pulling back, just in case he finds my Huckleberry, but what’s the point? She’s  going to run every time I get close.


Jane Doe    

 "Ryder?” Shane’s voice comes through my phone. “Ryder, I have a possible match on Lindy.”

      “What?” I ask, ducking out of the bar and away from the noise. “Are you serious? Where is she?”

      “Bozeman, Montana,” Shane says. Before I can ask, he says, “I don’t know why she’s there. I’m not even sure it’s her. I thought you might want an update, considering how things were progressing with you two.”

    Guilt claws at my heart as I look over my shoulder into the bar. Vanessa is in a tiny tank top and skin tight jeans. She’s doing shots with Johnny, and a crowd has gathered to watch the show. I’ve been doing my best to forget Lindy, but even six days in, she can pull me back in a heartbeat.

   “Look, she didn’t show up, and no matter the reason, she should have called me,” I say. I have to protect myself.

     “And if this was a case she was working?”

“Then she still should have called,” I say. “It’s the decent thing to do, wouldn’t you think?”

    His silence tells me he doesn’t agree. But they both share the mindset that the case comes before all else. Vanessa catches my eye, shoots another mouthful of alcohol, and waves me back in with a smile.

        “You don’t have to update me anymore, Shane,” I tell him. “I’m glad she’s not dead, but I’m moving on.”

     The line falls silent and cuts away. Whether he’s a cop with no social protocol, or an uncle who’s protecting his niece, I’ll likely never know. But there’s a girl at the bar waving me back, and I’d be crazy not to join in her shenanigans.

     “I’ve got Johnny on the ropes,” she says as I step in close. “Two more and he’s wasted, and we’ve got free drinks the rest of the night.”

      Johnny’s eyes are red, but he’s miles from wasted. Still, he’s happy to see so many interested, and he knows how to make a bar a good time.

     “Tell you what, gorgeous,” he says to Vanessa, “you keep down one more shot of vodka, and I’ll put the next round on the house for everyone.”

     Cheers flood up around us as she nods. Johnny spills about as much as he pours. I think I’m the only sober one left in the place. Vanessa takes the shot glass between her fingers, draws in a breath through her nose and shoots the whole thing in a single jerk. The glass lands hollow and hard against the counter as she slams it down. Her fan club goes wild, and her arms wrap around my neck. My hands are on skin as I press her close.

    She’s not Lindy. Lindy would never let this much skin show. I have no idea if it’s as soft as Vanessa’s. Lindy would pick a back corner before she ever became a side show attraction at the bar. Lindy doesn't drink, and even if she did I know she'd never act like this. Vanessa hangs off me, and her wandering hands have my heart slamming against my chest. Lindy keeps everything between us private, careful not to make anyone else uncomfortable.

She’s not Lindy, but is it bad that she’s not?

Vanessa is thinner, prettier, emotionally available, but I can’t stop thinking about Lindy just the same.  

I should have asked Shane more questions. Was she working a case in Bozeman? Had she assumed a new identity? He said someone matching her description had come up, but does that mean she’s in police custody? My mind is whirling with questions I need answers for, but as usual she’s not around to give me what I need.

    “What can I get you, Ryder?” Johnny asks. “Whiskey? Tequila? What’s the poison tonight?”

    “Coke,” I say without thinking. Vanessa shoots me a strange look. I don’t want to explain my real reasons, or my loyalty to someone like Lindy, so I give her something close to the truth. “I’m driving. You have a good time though.”

  "Three more shots,” she tells Johnny, and I have to wonder if I’ll be pouring her into my Tahoe later. The girl likes a party.

  “Your girlfriend can hold her liquor,” Johnny says to me.

  The title sticks on me like a thorn.

   Girlfriend.

  Is that what Vanessa is? We’ve been seeing each other nearly every minute for the last week. She’s watching me with those dark eyes of hers, waiting to see if I’ll correct him. I wanted that to be Lindy’s place. I can still feel her shape and the way she molded next to me in bed. It sounds like so much more than it was. Looking back now, I doubt I was much more than a warm body to remind her she wasn’t in a coffin any longer. Maybe she doesn’t even remember it.

But I can’t forget. Her body had a way of wrapping around me, face against my skin, starting fires I’ve never felt before. It was all clear back then, her need for me to protect her, shield her, comfort her, and now I’m standing here with empty arms because she ran two states over to get away from me.

  “Yeah, my girlfriend is a little wild,” I say to Johnny. Vanessa’s hand squeezes mine to show her approval. Maybe that’s all Lindy was, a catalyst to get me with the one I was supposed to find in the first place. Granted, I’ve never put much weight in fate or destiny. Too much of life is random.        

   While Johnny is pouring her drinks, Vanessa’s free hand slips over my chest and wraps around my neck. Her teeth are pressed against her lip, making it fuller than it is, like a peach at picking time. “Girlfriend, huh?”

   “You don’t look like you mind the title,” I say to her. She’s nowhere near sober, and the alcohol has her feeling handsy.

      “Mmm-mmm,” she makes the sound as she shakes her head. “I was wondering what was taking you so long.”

    Her eyes are on my lips. I know what she wants, but kissing her means erasing Lindy. Tingles run over my skin at just the thought of our time on the bluffs.

  I pushed her there too. I shoved against every emotional wall Lindy threw up at me, because I knew they were just knee jerk reactions to keep her safe.

But that’s what Lindy never seemed to understand. She’s always safe with me. And when our lips finally met, when all that waiting finally paid off, I got to be there to witness something so near perfection, it stole my breath right from my body. Nothing has ever come close to what I felt with her that day.

Walls down, she’s like a forbidden city, untouched, perfection, full of emotion and passion like I’ve never experienced before. Where I thought I’d lead, I was lucky to catch up. We were lost in it, trapped by each other, and not caring what happened beyond that crest in the bluffs. Nothing mattered when she was mine. I could see our future in that kiss, splayed out like a road map in front of us. The simple perfection of finding my true soul mate.

   Vanessa’s eyes close and she’s a breath away from my lips. Lindy is gone. I need to understand that. There’s nothing that can change the fact that she ran.

She didn’t call.

She didn’t stop for one second to explain.

I can’t keep clinging to her when she’s constantly pulling away.

There are no soul mates, the world couldn’t make sense if there were.

I bend and Vanessa closes the gap between us.

There are no fireworks, no revelations of deeper meaning. It’s a kiss. A good kiss from a beautiful woman.

  And my heart pulls for Bozeman, Montana.


Rescue Me

It’s been three weeks and I haven’t heard another word from Shane. I guess I thought he might call, or at least send a text to confirm if his Jane Doe was Lindy or not, but I told him not to, and he’s respecting my wishes.

I’m headed for Seattle from the manor. Vanessa wants to go hiking today, and I know about a waterfall and a secret cave. Candles and a picnic are packed. I plan to push things a bit further in our relationship. I’ve been the one dragging my feet, not her. She’s been hinting at this since the second date. The flame I’m carrying for Lindy is dwindling. I guess it’s natural, and expected.

Unattended fires go out. It’s the way of the world.

My phone buzzes from the seat, and I press the Bluetooth button on my wheel. “Yeah? It’s Ryder,” I say.

“Shane,” comes his reply. “Look, I know you said not to call, but I need a favor.”

I’m looking for a place to pull over because none of this sounds good. “What’s going on? Is she okay?”

It’s funny how quickly a fire can gain steam with even a scrap of kindling.

“She’s—” Shane doesn’t want to answer that question. “I mean she’s—”

I slide into a parking lot and jerk the Tahoe to a stop. “Is she alive?”

My breath locks up in my chest as I wait on his answer. Hospitals are the other place that cops search when someone goes missing. It didn’t occur to me until now that she could be hurt.

“She’s alive,” Shane says. “She had some complications in— well, she’s at the center in Bellingham getting an MRI, but the tight space got to her.”

“Because of the casket,” I say, more to myself than him. “She’s claustrophobic now.”

“Yeah,” Shane says. “They called me because I’m her emergency contact. She can’t drive home because of the sedation, and I’m on a stake out. If Stella were still alive, obviously she would go, but there’s no one else.”

My hands tighten on the wheel. “How long has she been back?”

Once more he doesn’t want to tell me.

“Two weeks now, maybe a little more.”

I draw in a deep breath. For once the heartache is drowned out by my anger. Two weeks and she hasn’t bothered to say a word?

“There’s no one else,” Shane says again. “I know it’s not ideal, but it’s just a drive home. It might give her a chance to explain what happened. I think you’d be interested to know why she—”

“I’ll do it,” I say, and I end the phone call before I can say anything else.

Two weeks. She’s been sharing my air for two weeks and nothing? Yes, answers are what I want. Answers so I can have my closure and move on with the woman who actually shows up.


Old Habits & New Reality

Vanessa drops me off at the entrance. She has errands to run before our hike and she’s being gracious about this whole mess. It helps that Lindy has a chronic disease that my girlfriend doesn’t understand.

Pity is a good motivator.

Lindy would hate hearing it, but it’s true.

I check in at reception and a nurse escorts me down to the basement. There I’m traded off to a technician who shows me down a hallway and through an open door. There on the gurney I see her for the first time in almost a month.

Her dark hair is pulled into a braid on the side. Freckles splatter across her nose. I take a step toward her and feel the ache of what could have been. I can’t help flashing back to the casket, looking in at her much like this, hands clasped at her waist. The only difference now is the hospital gown. That night broke me, seeing her there with dirt scattered around her as if I’d unearthed the dead. It makes me want to pull her up again, check her respiration rate, hold her close, and never let go.

“She’s going to be a little loopy for a bit, but give her five minutes and she’ll be coherent enough to get dressed,” the tech tells me like I’m her husband, and I have some right to stay in this room while she changes from the gown.

My hand is on hers, familiar in more ways than just physical. I pull back because it hurts to touch her. It’s painful to be this close to her again.

“I’ll wait in the hall.” I leave before he can tell me otherwise. I don’t take a breath until the tech shuts the door, and even then all I can feel is the emotion building like an eruption. Moments later sounds of movement filter through the door. A sharp cry of pain follows what sounds like a fall. I nearly shove open the door to help her, but it’s not my place, not any more. Maybe not ever. What I have with Vanessa is already deeper than anything I shared with Lindy. So why can’t I let her go?

The door clicks open, and she steps out. Her eyes meet mine and go wide. I’m the last person she expected to be here.

“Hey there, Huckleberry,” I say and the anger is gone, at least for a minute. She’s alive, and I’m happy for that.

“Hello, Ryder,” she says. I watch her teeth capture her bottom lip. She does it when she’s nervous, when she’s not sure what comes next. She takes a step, but her balance shifts like the floor went out beneath her. Without a real thought, my arms capture her waist. She smashes against the door frame, but I take her weight before she collapses. I shouldn’t be touching her like this, not while Vanessa is waiting on my call to get our day started. Brushing the hair from Lindy’s eyes and pressing my lips against hers shouldn’t be on my mind when I have candles and a picnic in the backseat of Vanessa’s convertible. Rattled, I step back once she’s steady and try to put space between us.

“Uncle Shane was supposed to come,” she says. I can hear how sorry she is that she’s interrupted my life. I want to scream at her because she should have interrupted my life over a month ago, then we wouldn’t be here, awkwardly trying to figure out how to walk down a hall without her hand in mine.

“He was working, so he asked if I could get you,” I tell her.

“I’m sorry if I had known—“

“You had a panic attack,” I stop her because I need this to stay logical. Friends drive friends home from the hospital without any romance. That’s where I need to be right now. “I know tight spaces bother you.” I step quicker to press the button before she can make it to the elevator. The doors slide open, and we’re that much closer to surviving this ordeal.

I step on first and go to offer my arm, but it falls to my side as I remember we’re not in that place any longer. Her eyes hit the ground, and it’s then that I know she’s not in the dark about Vanessa.

Shane.

He saw us that day at the cafe, and he likely told Lindy. Add to it that conversation we had over the phone, and she’s just as awkward as I am trying to find footing in this shifting world.

The doors slide shut. I try not to notice the way her vertigo grips her, or the way her hands tighten on the rail to white knuckles. I wanted to be there for her. In my mind, I was going to be this guy, with her at every appointment, holding her hand through therapies, whatever it took, but she didn’t want that. She wants to be alone, and this is where that choice takes her.

The doors open and I feel her rush of relief to be free of me. Her gait is off. I can’t help but notice it. Likely from the sedation, but it’s worse on her right side, like her foot is dragging a half-beat behind her.

“Where’d you park?” she asks me as we leave the building and start toward the parking lot.

“I didn’t. Vanessa dropped me off.”

Yeah, I should have buffered that a bit, but I needed to know if she knew. She does. I can see it in the way she clenches her jaw and four wrinkles carve between her eyebrows. I’m a terrible person because the fact that it hurts her, makes me a little happy.

I go to get her door on her run down sedan, but she beats me to it and jerks it open just a second after the lock releases. Lindy all but falls into the passenger seat. She collapses forward into her hands to stop the swaying. I should feel bad for her but I can’t believe she hasn’t questioned Vanessa’s name.

“Nothing?” I ask. “You have nothing to say to that?”

Her deep breath fills the car with sound before she says, “I’m not quite coherent, Ryder. Give me a second to adjust.”

It’s not like I don’t notice the way she’s stumbling over her words, or that I don’t see how pale her skin is, it’s that I’m too frustrated to give it much clout. I jam the keys in the ignition and twist it before I shift to reverse, then drive and punch the gas. It’s a bad habit of mine that I tend to drive off my anger. A coping mechanism from my youth and sports cars at my ready disposal.

“Where did you meet?” she asks as I’m headed for the freeway. I know it’s her attempt at conversation, but maybe I wanted her to look more upset, rage about how I’ve forgotten her, so I can scream right back at her for the way she abandoned me.

“She was the waitress the night you stood me up,” I answer without pulling the passive aggressive tone from my voice.

Let her hear it.

She earned it.

Her mouth falls open like she’s trying to speak, but nothing comes out. Frustration rises in her expression. I turn my attention back to the road to avoid the guilt I might feel for her pain.

“The waitress?” she finally asks, and it’s there, the anger I’ve been wanting all along. Under the sedation she’s seething over what I’ve done.

“I waited for three hours,” I tell her. I twist my hands against the steering wheel and my skin catches on the vinyl material. “Vanessa was kind to me. She kept saying you’d be coming, probably stuck in traffic, things like that. I called you at least twenty times.”

“I know.”

It’s too short a phrase and my foot hits the gas to expend some of the anger that floods my veins.

“I know? That’s it? That’s all I get?”

I’m not regretting anything at this point. She ran off, for whatever reason, and nothing has changed. She’s the same selfish person I knew she was, and I’m lucky to have a girl like Vanessa.

“I can’t,” her tone catches my attention, weak and exhausted. “do this,” she’s still struggling, “right now.”

“You left with no warning, and now you’re back out of nowhere. I have a million questions and you’re not ready?” I’m nearly shouting the words, and her tiny car is amplifying everything I say.

Out of the corner of my eye I see her head drop forward like she can’t hold it up another second. My foot eases off the accelerator.

This is more than sedation.

I feel her gaze, and I can’t deny her my attention.

“I know you need answers,” she says in a voice barely above a whisper. There’s a tremble in her hands like she’s falling apart next to me. “And I’ll give them to you,” Her head falls forward again, and I can see just how broken she is. “But not right now.”

She’s stolen my anger. Not because of an apology ,or because I still have feelings for her, but because I’ve put it all together now.

The jilted walk.

The MRI.

Her jumbled words.

I should have seen it.

“You relapsed, didn’t you?”

She waits through the silence for a moment before she says, “Among other things, yes.”

I let her rest with her head against the window. It’s not right to interrogate her when she’s this weak. Closure isn’t worth pushing her to her brink. My phone lights up with a text from my girlfriend. Vanessa is just three minutes behind us. I’m almost finished with this errand.

Her head pops up when she hears her gravel driveway under the tires. Her fingers are looped through the door latch like she’s not wanting to wait for the car to stop. I turn off the ignition, and she’s already struggling to get free. Despite the fact that I jog to get to her side, she’s determined to get it done without me. My hand goes to her hip, and my other to her elbow to steady her. She’s lost weight. Where was she? Every scenario is billowing up in my mind with worry.

In one sweep of my arms I could have her against me to carry her into the house and kick the door shut.

Can’t she see that I’d be good for her?

This disease will tear her apart without someone there to protect her.

“I have to walk,” she shoves me back, and I grimace but not from physical pain. “or I’ll never get stronger.”  

“Let me help you,” I say, trailing her side in case she stumbles.

She pauses on her front step like she might let me, but I hear a car and her walls go back up.

“Your girlfriend is here,” Lindy says.

Knowing the sound of the engine, I turn to wave to Vanessa. When I turn back, Lindy is on the other side of her door. It shuts, and I’m forgotten once more. When will I ever learn not to try with her? I jog down the steps,  as my girlfriend steps out of her car. She’s wearing the hiking boots I bought her last week. Her stomach shows at the waistband, and I feel that surge of excitement that I get every time I see her. Long arms loop around my neck as she pulls me close to kiss me hello.

“Is she okay? Do you need to help her?” Vanessa asks as she looks over my shoulder to the house.

If I want to move on, I can’t look back. I ease my arms around her waist and tighten up the space between us, bringing a smile to Vanessa’s full lips. “She’s fine. She doesn’t need me.”

She never needs anyone.


The Consequence of Stolen Hearts

It’s not fair.

Life.

Choices.

Lindy.

None of it is fair.

I glance across the cab of my Tahoe at Vanessa. She’s styled to perfection, anxious about meeting my family. We were supposed to be spending the weekend in Seattle at a high rise and drowning in romance, a weekend meant to consummate this relationship, but I couldn’t shake that phone call from Lindy. I acted like a jerk when she came looking for solace. It was genuine fear I heard in her voice and I shoved her away. Now I’m here, bringing Vanessa ‘home’ to meet my mom, and I can’t help feeling like it’s a mistake.

Lindy’s a thorn, or maybe more like a splinter, because no matter how hard I dig, I can’t get her out of my system. I’ve never heard her weak like that. I should have handled it differently. I was bitter over the guy in her room so late at night, the one who was ‘working on something’. She’s not mine, not by a long shot, and I can pretend all I want that I was mad she wasn’t doing the job that I’m paying her for, but it’s more than that. I figured that if she didn’t want me, then she didn’t want anyone. To hear that she’s with someone new, it’s like opening these wounds up all fresh.

It’s possible that it’s all her cover. Cass is a flirt, it makes sense that Lindy would take on some of that as well. I just never thought she had that in her. That’s where I suspected she’d struggle, and now I’m worried she’s thriving.

“Ryder!” Vanessa’s excitement is bleeding into her voice. “It’s so quaint, it looks like a real ranch and everything.”

We pass under the arch and turn to the dirt lot behind a bus kicking up dust. I grip the wheel and try breathe out the anxiety. Vanessa’s tender touch glides over my back.

“Baby, you okay?” she asks me. I pull the car to a stop under a tree and take inventory of the truth.

No, is what I should say. No, because you’re the last person I’d ever bring home to meet my mom. No, because I have to pretend not to have feelings for the girl who is pretending to be my cousin. No, because nothing about this is right.

“Yeah, just a long drive,” I tell her before I pop my door open.

I hear my mom shriek her excitement. I’m glad because it gives me a split second before she slams against me and tries to squeeze the life out of me. She’s been different since Charles died, like she’s finally free to love me. I sink into that love and clutch her just as tight. There’s something I can hang on to. It’s good to see her. Nothing can replace a mother’s love.

“Ryder,” I hear Tate just a couple seconds before his palm catches me square between my shoulder blades. I stumble, and fear flashes in my chest, though I don’t know why. I hate being jerked around, always have. But Tate means nothing by it and I recover quickly. “Great to have you. Didn’t know you were coming.”

“Yeah, we decided to surprise you and come for this big bonfire thing.”

Vanessa’s boots grind against the rocks embedded in the dirt. I reach out to bring her over. “Mom, this is Vanessa, my girlfriend.”

My mom doesn’t waste a second wrapping her up in her arms, and it takes me by surprise. Mom isn’t a hugger, but she looks like she approves for sure.

I’m about to introduce Vanessa to my uncle when Tate interrupts me.

“Your cousin Cassidy has been working real hard on this event. I think ranch life suits her.”

His pointing finger leads me to her without any trouble at all. My gut drops out and I swallow my heart. After all this time it’s shocking the way my lips burn for her. The breeze catches her blonde hair and blows it back across her face, off her shoulder. We’re caught in a stare, and the rest of the ranch is fading. I could run to her right now and wrap my arms around her, carry her off and never look back. It’s all waiting for me, every emotion and feeling I’ve ever tied to this woman.

An arm cuts across her collarbone and another captures her waist. He’s lean, but athletic. I know I’m thicker with muscles, but I’ve got no doubt in my mind that he’s strong. Probably faster than me as well. Must be him, the guy from the phone, the cowboy my mom called Dallas when she said she thought Lindy was distracted. He’s not that attractive, not that I’m a great judge, but if we’re comparing our significant others,  I know I’d win with the girl to my left. But it’s the way she sinks back into him, the way Lindy doesn’t weasel out of his grasp, that creates this churning in my gut. He’s got her in ways I’ve only imagined.

Her hand comes up, a little wave, a betrayal of her cover, but I doubt anyone can see that crack in the façade but me. For a second I can see her, the girl I had if even for a split second. I thought I could forget her, thought I could move on and find happiness, but that was stupid. I need her in my life, no matter the cost. I’ll never get over her.


Scorched Hearts

Lindy’s not happy I was arguing with him. I can see it in her eyes when she glares at me. We’re having full conversations every time our eyes meet without speaking at all. Will there ever be a time when I’m not mad at her? Dallas is hanging off her like cheap flypaper, and I’m dying. If she notices, she doesn’t care.

“Do you wanna dance?” I hear the cowboy ask her.

I’m nearly elated in my foreknowledge and blurt out, “Cassidy doesn’t dance.” But that excitement of knowing some part of her that he doesn’t is cut short.

“Unless the circumstances are right,” she corrects with a sharp glare in my direction.

“And are they?” Dallas asks her.

The smile she gives him slices me down the center. “Absolutely.”

He’s leading her away from me and my right hand has curled into a tight fist. It was a nod back at our first night, back before I knew her name, before we were anything all, back when we were raw attraction, because whether she was using me or not, I know the spark was real. To hear her turn it around on me, to give up that space to him and never to me… This is unbearable.

“They’re cute together,” Vanessa says as she watches Dallas try to teach Lindy a two step rhythm.

“Adorable,” I say, but it has zero warmth.

Vanessa snaps away from me as if this is the last straw. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she shakes her head, “you’re still hung up on her?”

I don’t give her an answer. I don’t have one to give.

“Is this why you changed our plans? So you could see her?”

I wish she’d drop the volume. I hate being a spectacle. Too many years of knowing Charles wouldn’t approve. My hand clenches then releases again. Lindy’s laughing, not just a quiet laugh, but deep from her belly as she stumbles through where he’s leading her.

I’ve never heard her laugh.

It’s an awful truth as it dawns on me, but I’ve never heard her laugh, not once, not a real carefree, unburdened by sarcasm or stress, laugh. Like music it rolls on the air and cradles me before it dissipates.  

“You’re not going to say anything?” Vanessa asks.

We haven’t been on the same page for a long time. She’s talking rings, and saying that she loves me, and I’m just trying to keep my head above water. But here watching Lindy, I’m drowning.

“I’m leaving,” Vanessa snaps. She turns on a heel, and I only watch long enough to know if she’s going to the car or the cabin.

I’m using her. Maybe I’m just like Lindy. She used me back in the beginning. The bar, the funeral, the hardware store, the masquerade, time and time again I signed up for her abuse and to any sane person I looked like a punching bag. I felt like I was waiting around for her to let her guard down, let me in, but the music has changed and he’s got her in his arms. Lindy goes on tip toe and presses her lips to his.

I can’t breathe.

I’m dying.

How can she do this when she knows I’m right here?

A whoop goes up from the crowd of workers by the fire. It’s obvious they’ve had a romance because people are pulling for them to work it out. I blink back the emotion that’s burning me. Their swaying has brought her around to where our eyes  meet again. She can see it in my face, she never misses anything. For a second I can see her compassion, but then it’s gone. I spin and walk away before I crumble right here.

“Ryder,” my mom calls from the path. “Ryder where are you going? Vanessa said you’re leaving—”

“We’re not,” I assure her by setting my hands to either shoulder, “but I do think we should talk, all of us. We need everyone on the same page.”

“She’s keeping things to herself,” mom says with a tilt of her head in Lindy’s direction. “I don’t like it.”

“Yeah, she’s secretive that way,” I agree. “Get her, alone, and meet me in the cabin.”

She nods and starts off to fetch Lindy. I walk down the hill that leads to the cabin. If Lindy wants to play it like we never were anything, then I can do that. Boss, employer, that’s a relationship I can handle right now. Years of living with Charles taught me to bury emotion. Piece by piece I’m trying to shove everything I feel for her under every rock I can find. People can’t hurt you if you don’t care anymore.


The Weight of Our Decisions

"I need to talk to Ryder alone,” I hear her tell Uncle Tate. My heart sinks. She’s accused just about everyone else of being a murderer, maybe it’s my turn. That would be better than what I suspect is coming. For years I’ve been able to keep my thoughts to myself. No one ever cared enough to try to pull them from me, but Lindy, she doesn’t pull them, she surgically removes them with a pry bar. When I think of all the secrets I’ve been keeping, nothing about this conversation is going to go my way.

  “What’s going on with you, Ryder?” she asks me.

  I turn away so she can’t see how the sound of her voice stabs me in the gut. Did she feel this way when she saw me with Vanesssa the first time? I’d never wish this pain on anyone.

Maybe Dallas.

I hate him.

I don’t know him, but I hate him.

  I stare out at the night. Lindy doesn’t know it, but this is all I could do the nights Charles used to come in and lay into me for whatever he felt I did wrong that day. He’d scream, and I’d stare out my windows trying to block out the acidic words he hurled at me. Once or twice he figured out that I wasn’t listening and shoved me as hard he could to get my attention. Even as a teenager, I cowered around him. Most nights it worked though, a couple nods to agree with him that I was worthless, and before I knew it the barrage of insults had ended, and I’d survived another day being his son. Suppressing my words became a survival tactic and she doesn’t understand how hard it is for me to explain what’s going on in my head.

 We argue, that’s all we do since she got back, argue. We’re arguing about who said what and who didn’t follow protocol, and how I’ve screwed up again. That’s what it boils down to every time.

 It’s me.

It’s my fault, just like Charles told me every day of my life.  

“I’ve been struggling since you left,” I say. It’s a semblance of the truth at least. Struggling doesn’t begin to cover it. Two nights ago I uncovered paperwork showing experiments Charles conducted on me as a child. He poisoned me intentionally and let me fade so that he could study the effects on a toddler. It was only after he gathered all the information he needed that he wrote in the margin, Gave the subject the antidote. Subject should recover. If not, we can make another.  

 Struggling feels like an understatement at this point.

 Lindy wants to know why and it warms me up that she cares. Vanessa will listen, but the second her phone chimes, she’s on it, and I’m pushed to the back burner. I tell Lindy what I can. It hurts too much to admit out loud what I know. It can’t be real.

  “It must be difficult keeping all these secrets from her,” Lindy says as I finish. It pricks my pride and I feel the need to lash out.  

 “She knows everything. I’ve been very upfront with her.”

 It’s not exactly the truth. Vanessa doesn’t know I’ve been talking with Estate lawyers and looking into my options. She knows about the files I’ve found, but I doubt she remembers any of it. Still, it feels wickedly satisfying to see that I’ve hurt Lindy like she’s hurt me. And then in the next instant I feel the guilt. Her innocent blue eyes are full of pain for what I’m going through. Say what you want about our romance, but our friendship has never faltered.

 “But I worry that she likes having a rich boyfriend.” I list off all the benefits Vanessa enjoys from Charles’ money and glance into to those pools of crystal blue. She’s hanging off every word, and I’ve acted like a jerk since I got here. “It’s not something I ever had to worry about with you.”

 It strikes a nerve because she breaks her stare and looks away. “You’ll figure it out, Ryder. You’re smart, and you make good decisions.”

  I can’t stop the words before they fall out.

“Do I?”

  It’s that decision I made, the decision to take Vanessa’s number when I left the restaurant. I gave up on Lindy right then. As much as I want to say that I waited a respectable three days, I didn’t. I made a choice the second Vanessa handed me her number, and I let Lindy go. Doesn’t sound like a good decision to me.

  She turns away from me, but I hear the pain. “Don’t do this.”

 “Do what?” I ask, though I know what she’s talking about. I close the space between us.

 “You know what.”

 My heart is hammering in my chest. I’m burning to touch her again. “You asked a lot of questions, Lindy. I think it’s my turn.” She won’t look at me, but I ask her anyway. “Why him?”

I have to know. None of it makes sense.

“Why’d you pick him? Why does he get what I could never have with you?"

  The memory of her laughter is twinkling around my mind, haunting me with its music. “He’s not better looking than me. It sounds conceited, but it’s true. What does he have that I didn’t? Give me an answer, Huckleberry. I think I deserve that.”

  I shouldn’t have called her that. When she faces me, she’s captured the fire I lit in the hearth earlier, and it’s raging in her eyes. “You don’t get to call me that, not while she’s waiting upstairs for you. It’s not fair to keep pulling me back to be your lady in waiting. Dallas is here, and he’s good to me. It’s not serious, not like you two.”

  That’s the sad part, this won’t even be my last fight tonight. She’s talking about what’s waiting for me upstairs. All that’s waiting is another round of female rage. Vanessa is furious over what she saw, and I know I’ll pay for it. For whatever reason, I don’t care. I half hope I can work this out with Lindy and dump Vanessa two beats later, but the look on her face tells me I’m dreaming.

  “I don’t know where I’m at with Vanessa, but when I saw you with him tonight it hurt, because I never got that from you, not ever.”

  “Got what?” She hurls the words at me.

  “That look you gave him. I tried to pull it out of you, but I never got close.”

   “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Ryder.”

 “Happiness,” I say and it lands like brick on glass. “He’s managed to find this carefree attitude inside of you and it’s not your cover. I want to know. Why him? Why did he find that and I couldn’t?”

  She starts talking about her health of all things. It’s the last answer I expected. Amazing kisser, sure. She’s got a cowboy fetish, yeah, I could see that, but health?

“I forget injections because I forget that I’m sick.”

 Her words catch a flag in my mind. Fresh off a relapse, she can’t skip injections. She’s begging for another relapse, a bigger one. She’s being reckless.

“You shouldn’t forget your medication, no matter how good you feel. Relapse can happen even when you feel—”

  Her frustrated shriek splits my sentence in half. “That Ryder, that’s why.”

  We’re arguing again, going back and forth about her cover and where to draw the line. I’m going to say something I regret, I know I will. I clamp my mouth closed and watch her fury soar to new heights.

  “No, Ryder, if you have something to say, say it.” She’s still ranting as she fishes around on the top of my mom’s desk. Her fingers lock on a silver tin before she hurls it at me.

  Mom’s lemon drops.

  It’s dumb, and I’m angry, but it means something to me that Lindy understands that they might help me. I slam them down, determined to get through to her.

  "Fine, you want to know what I think, Huckleberry? I think this is just another version of you running away. You’re sinking into Cassidy’s life because it’s easier than yours. He’s bad for you, I can see it. Pick someone, but not him.”

  There’s a pause where I think she’s heard me. I want to tack on, “Pick me, Huckleberry,” but I’m afraid of what she might say and how much it’ll hurt.

  “Did you just drag me back here so you could yell at me?” she fires back.

  “No I brought you back here so I could yell at you with your real name!”

   Decisions.

  They’re a funny thing. As much as I regret slipping that number into my wallet, I have to wonder if she regrets that choice she made to leave me waiting at dinner. I could go back further, erase what I said about having only one chance. Tell her she has many chances as she needs, because I know that’s why she wasn’t honest with me about leaving.

  I close the gap between us. This fury isn’t far from passion and it’ll translate, I’m sure of it. My arm slips around her waist and I bring her against my body. With my hand in her hair, I press my lips to hers and let her know how desperately I’ve missed her, every day, every hour, every second. I’m falling for her, and she’s not even mine.

  I take her weight and lift her up on the edge of mom’s desk, never leaving her lips. She’s starving for me, kissing me back and clinging to me the same as she did on that bluff. My name rolls off her lips every time we break for breath. But she’s insatiable. She’s wanted me just as bad I as I wanted her. It’s timing and sometimes you have to force the timing to sync, or you’ll never get ahead.

  I whisper my apologies against her cheek, chuckle at her blonde hair and consider buying her a box of color to fix it back to the Huckleberry I know. It’s freaking me out to kiss my cousin. She laughs and it’s real, and it’s mine. There’s nothing special about him. It was all in my head. Lindy’s changed, and I didn’t think it was possible.

  I could assign it to him, but it’s not, it’s the choices that have changed her, our hard times and the struggle, and I’m not going anywhere. I’ll stay here. I’ll sign the Tahoe over to Vanessa if that’s what it takes to make her leave, but don’t make me stop kissing my Huckleberry girl to do it. She’s everything I’ve ever wanted and I can’t live without her.

  Decisions.

That’s what I should have done, but I missed my chance.

In the split second I took to consider the choice, she made her own.

“Why him? This is why, Ryder, this is exactly why.”

My mouth falls open, but her name won’t tumble out. I stand there watching her fade while I die in this place where I could have had her.

Decisions.

Destroyed by decisions.



Daisies & Dust

This is it. I’m gonna tell her. I’ve been thinking about it since the last time I was here at the ranch. I messed up. Where I should have been honest, all I did was yell and chase her back into his arms again. That’s on me, but if I let her slip through my fingers again, I don’t know how I’ll live with myself.

Vanessa is gone visiting her mom on the East coast, so this is the perfect opportunity. I park near the main cabin, but secretly hope my mom won’t see me, at least not yet. Begging Lindy to come home with me, explaining all these feelings I can’t seem to shake, I need to get it done before I see my mom. The case is over. She can blow her cover and run away with me for once. There’s a few thousand dollars on the front seat for her payment. But I don’t want her looking at me like a boss ever again. There’s only one way I want her to look at me. I debate what to do until I smash the envelope into my back pocket and start for the tack shed.

She’ll be there, playing her part of Cassidy. I’m choking on my nerves.

This is reckless.

But I can’t sleep.

I can’t eat.

I need her back.

I have to have her back.

Even if I have to get on my knees and-

Laughter catches the air and stops me dead in my tracks. My grip turns sweaty on the single daisy I’m carrying. My breath dries out my mouth as I stare after the sound. It’s her. He’s got his arms around her waist. She’s struggling, but not because she’s in danger, but because it’s a game. His hat is in her hands and his fingers are dug into her rib cage.

I never knew she was ticklish.

“Gimme that back!” I hear Dallas’ voice from across the ranch.

“What are you gonna do if I don’t?” Lindy asks as she holds the hat out of his reach.

Her body whips up against him as he lifts her with ease. Legs dangle without touching the ground because she’s his and he has her tight in his arms. The hat is on her head and my heart is in the dirt.

“I bet I’ll think of somethin’.” I  barely hear Dallas before he presses his lips against her lips. I watch her melt against him, and wrap her arms around his neck as he scoops her up into his grasp. Weakness pours into every one of my joints as he carries her up to the sea of cabins. The daisy snaps and tumbles to the earth.

I can’t breathe.

She’s falling in love with him.

I’d be an idiot not to see that.

I’ve been stabbed, that’s the only way to explain the pain gutting me right now. I stagger back a step and struggle to erase what I saw from my mind.

I never made her smile like that, not once. She’s laughed, but it’s always been careful, guarded, like her happiness is a treasure, and I never found the map. It was stupid to come, to think I could be something for her. No, I led her into the arms of love on the lure of a paycheck and a mystery. This is my doing.

And now she’s gone.


It’s been almost two weeks since the ranch. I turned in the money, dodged my mom’s questions about why I was so upset, and made the trek back, passenger side empty. Vanessa knows something is up, but I’m not talking.

How can I? How do I explain that I never thought I’d lose my huckleberry? It was stupid to think that she’d be waiting for me when I got done punishing her for leaving. I can’t blame her for leaving either. Or for not thinking straight when that call about her sister came in. In hindsight it looks easy to say she should have called me back, but in the moment it’s not like she understood what was going on. All she knew was her sister was alive, and she could find her.

A time machine is my only hope now. I’m smart, but not that kind of smart, so I forge ahead with Vanessa. Second place is still good, right? Athletes are happy with a silver medal.

But I have to wonder if they all sit around wondering what the gold one would feel like.


Bad News at Johnny's

“Yeah I’ll be there later,” I say to Vanessa through the phone. “Johnny asked me to stop by and help him with some heavy cases. His delivery guy quit.”

“Baby,” she says, “you don’t have to do that stuff anymore. You’re rich. You don’t need side jobs.”

I haven’t told her my plans, about giving the money away and turning the manor into a shelter for battered women and their children. She’s not going to like it, but I don’t particularly care. The money is tainted and nothing gives me more joy than knowing Charles Harrison is going to be rolling in his grave for eternity over the way I’ve spent every dime.

“He’s my friend,” is all I tell her. I shouldn’t have to explain myself to her. I miss the work anyway. Rich playboy has never fit me well. I miss the smell of the docks at 4 am, catching fish and tossing them. Keeps me in shape. I picked up a night shift unloading boxes at the hardware store in town, the one where I had Lindy pressed against me for the first time. I avoid going inside for the most part. When I look at the paint display, I swear I can feel her breath on my collarbone.

Mom said she asked to stay on, says she likes the work on the ranch. I didn’t believe it and I drove by her place last night. It’s still dark. I called her Uncle Shane and he confirmed it. Last he heard, Lindy is finishing the season before she comes home.

I banish the thoughts because the next ones will be heavy with thoughts of him, the guy who has his hands on my girl. Jokes on him, won’t be long before he’s in the wind and she’s back home. That’s my only hope. If she can remember who she was before him, then she might remember me and we can give this another go.

One week left in the season.

I can wait.

“Back here, Ryder!” Johnny’s voice carries over the boxes of liquor. My fingers lock in around the handles of a case as I heft it from the stack and follow him inside. The bar is closed for the night for inventory and everything we gotta get done. Johnny made a joke about Vanessa drinking him dry, and I’m a little worried I might not get paid for this because of it.

“You look like crap,” Johnny says as he passes me. “You sleeping at all? I swear you’ve dropped ten more pounds.”

“I’m fine,” I say as I shift the crate of tequila. “Just burning at both ends, that’s all.”

There’s more he wants to say. But thankfully he doesn’t, and I’m left to the crates and boxes. Three hours later I can still feel him wanting to ask more. The crates are inside, but he’s been stacking the bottles, and I’m making notes of the inventory while my arms recover.

Gotta get to the gym to rebuild this. I almost laugh because in about two weeks time I won’t be able to afford the gym anymore. Or nights out. Or drinks at Johnny’s. Or much more than canned soup. I sigh instead.

“Weight of the world in that sigh,” Johnny comments from beneath the bar. “Sure you don’t want to talk about it? I’m a barkeep, we’re a poor man’s therapist.”

“Not much to talk about. Just thinking about where my choices have landed me.”

His head pops up behind the bar like a gopher from a hole. “You have a smoking hot girlfriend and more money than Buffet. I don’t think you have anything to be upset about. I know at least ten guys, myself included, who would sell their souls to trade places with you.”

Funny how life looks different from the outside in. I mark three more cases worth before I feel my phone buzz from my back pocket. Knowing it has to be Vanessa whining about how long I’m taking, I pull it free to silence the distraction. But her name is written at the top of the text.

Lindy.

My mouth goes dry as I suck in a sharp breath. I can’t even still my thoughts long enough to read the words at first. It’s been months since her last text. I sent her an apology for how I acted, but never got a reply. I didn’t think it was possible at the ranch. She’s coming home. She’s reaching out because she’s on her way back to me.

If only reality could suspend because my mind settles and I read what she wrote.

You wanted me to be happy, and I am. I’m leaving with Dallas. I don’t know if I’ll ever come back. Wiley Fox is a murderer. His knife is between his mattresses. I can’t find your mother, and I’m starting to worry. Send help if you can. I can’t trust Tate.

I read it and then read it again. I stare at my phone. My lungs are burning for oxygen, but I refuse to live in this world she’s sent me to.

“Ryder,” I hear Johnny call my name. “Ryder, what’s going on?”

“I have to call my mom,” I say, but the words are disjointed from my body. My fingers run over the list in my phone until it’s ringing. I can’t deal with what she said about leaving.

This is triage. Deal with the emergency piece by piece.

Mom.

Then Tate.

Get the news to the cops.

And I’ll have to stop because I can’t deal with her leaving me, not for good.

“Hello?” My mother answers the phone and I know she’s not in danger because it’s the same voice she always has.

“Mom, are you okay? Are you hurt?”

“No,” she says, but I can hear the rising alarm in her voice. “What’s wrong sweetheart?”

“Lindy sent me a text,” the pain of what she said goes sharp again, and I press it back. “She found a knife in Wiley Fox’s cabin. He’s the guy. She mentioned something about Tate.”

Mom is talking to someone else. I can only hope it’s the cop she’s been friendly with. I’m not keen on her dating, but at the same time at least she’s safe.

“Dayton and I are out of town. Where’s Lindy, son?”

“I— She—” The words won’t come for me. “She’s leaving me, mom.” I don’t even try to pretend to act like I don’t have feelings for Lindy. “She’s going off with Dallas.”

My mom’s exhale filters over the line. “Sweetheart, she told me she was going to. They’re gone now. I know I should have—”

“Are you kidding me?” My words slam against hers. “You knew and you didn’t say anything?”

“You have a girlfriend, Ryder, I didn’t think you’d care. You’ve moved on, she’s moved on. It felt as though we could let the whole thing die. I mean, you’ve seen them together. She’s happy.”

I feel sick. The bench smacks against my hip as I collapse. Only my white knuckle grip on the table keeps me from falling the rest of the way to the floor.

“I’ll make sure Spencer checks into what she said though. I knew Tim had nothing to do with it…”

Her voice is still going, chirping along like the atmosphere hasn’t shattered. My phone clatters against the floor and I can feel Johnny watching me.

“Ryder, you okay?” he asks. He’s come from behind the bar. He’s saying words but it’s underwater and I don’t understand a single syllable. A cold glass wraps into my hand and he guides it to my mouth. I swallow only because he’s pouring it and my other option is to choke.

Fire streams down my throat. I cough and blink back the tears that pinch my eyes.

She’s gone.

Johnny pours another double and I shoot it without pausing. The glass clatters against the table top. I jam the heels of my hands against my eyes. The burn is everywhere, as if I poured the liquid over me and set the flame.

“Ryder,” Johnny’s voice slams against my fuzzing consciousness. “Ryder, what’s going on? Is your mom okay?”

I nod but only on reflex. It’s too hard to say it out loud. It makes it real.

“She left me. She’s gone, man. She left with Dallas. I blew it.”

“Vanessa?” Johnny asks.

“Lindy,” I answer as I pour a triple. “She’s gone.”

Johnny falls back a step. “Lindy Johnson? The same chick I know? The P.I.?”

“Yeah,” I take a breath and swallow the whiskey in a gulp. “I’m crazy about her, and she’s fallen for someone else.” It’s the first time I’ve admitted my feelings out loud and the irony slices into me.

“But you have Vanessa,” he says it like I should understand how lucky I am. But I never will, not when I know what I’m missing.


I don’t remember inventory, but I know we got it done. Johnny left me there to sleep off the liquor. Maybe he thought I’d stay asleep, but somewhere around three I have a vague memory of starting up again, taking shots of vodka on the barstool where we talked for the first time. I played every sad song on the jukebox. I ran through our first conversation from memory and pretended as though she decided to dance with me. I imagined what it would have been like if she’d told me her first name that night. I pretended I took her home, but all I had was a bottle of brandy in the janitor’s closet. I only know that, because that’s what I end up cradling in my arms the next morning instead of Lindy like I thought.

When the light streams in, Johnny’s voice hits me like a jackhammer to my temples. “Ryder, are you dead?”

“Yeah,” I say as I wipe the drool from my chin, “I must be, or I will be soon.”

I’m about to say more, but the vomit is faster. Thankfully, I dunk my head into a trash bag. Every muscle and bone hurts, but nothing hurts like the knowledge that she’s really gone.


Reality is Worse

It’s over a week later when mom’s call comes in. I’m painting, that’s all I do right now. Vanessa came over yesterday and complained that I’m depressed. She doesn’t know why, and I don’t intend to tell her. Every time I look at her I see my mistakes.

Nights I stare at the portrait of Lindy. It’s hidden on my third floor, against the back wall. I touch her face, count the freckles on her nose, stare at the charcoal transferred to my fingertips because it’s the closest I’ll ever get to her now.

We’re as good as ash.

Blue arcs over the white canvas. I allow the paint to drip down and create paths in the clean space. My fingers lock around a second brush loaded with a deep purple, and I slice through the blue paint. Purple mixes with blue, paths carve new channels and birth explosions of color as they slide under gravity’s weight.

I don’t feel the buzz at first. I keep my phone in a side pocket when I paint, set to vibrate so it won’t distract me, but I can’t ignore it once it does.

Expecting Vanessa, I’m surprised to see mom written over the screen. I click the call through and say, “Hello?”

“Ryder,” her voice sets me on edge because of all her tones, I know fear the best. “Ryder, sit down.”

“Mom are you okay? Are you hurt?”

“I’m safe dear, but Lindy, she’s—” She doesn’t finish it and my brain starts the chain of horrible ideas.

Hurt.

Been in an accident.

Lost.

Dead.

“You said she went to Colorado. What’s going on?”

Her tears are filling the phone. Whatever it is, I’m losing hope.

“That’s just it,” she says. “Dallas was the one killing people. They never left, Ryder. He’s had her in the old cabins this whole time.”

“What?” My question is breathy because I’ve stopped drawing oxygen in. “Mom, is she alive?”

“Yes,” she says, and my body collapses forward. Tears flow over my cheeks as the relief sears my skin.

“She killed Dallas. We found his body by the haystack. She must have fought for her life. But she’s hurt. They’re loading her in the ambulance now. I don’t know who to call in her family. I don’t know what to do, Ryder. She’s not talking. She’s barely moving. Her eyes are open. She can see me. She knows who I am, but something is wrong, terribly wrong.”

“Where are they taking her?”

“She’s lost a lot of blood. There are so many cuts. I’ve never seen someone so pale, Ryder.”

“Where?!” The demand is unfair, but I have to know.

“Twin Falls doesn’t have what she needs, I heard them talking to the hospital on the radio. I think they’re taking her to Boise. Spencer is on the phone with the hospital right now.”

I can hear voices talking to her, hurrying her along.

“Ryder, call someone. I can’t make the kind of decisions she’s going to need.”

The line goes dead, and I’m staring at the phone. The kind of decisions… She means whether to leave Lindy on life support. She means intensive care. Ventilators and life support, mom doesn’t want to be the one to pull her plug. The pain I feel in my heart is excruciating. I need to be there with her.

I take the stairs two or three at a time until I’m on the third floor. I tear a bag from the closet and start stuffing clothes inside while my phone is dialing Shane with the speaker on.

“Yeah?” he answers.

I know he’s not my biggest fan, not since everything went down with his niece, but he’s the only shot I’ve got.

“It’s Ryder Billings.” I don’t wait to lessen the blow, we don’t have time for that. “Lindy’s hurt, real bad. That guy, Dallas, he was the real killer. He’s had her in a cabin for,” I do the math in my head and my voice cracks under the knowledge, “eight days. She’s on her way in an ambulance to Boise Hospital. I’m headed there if you want to come with me.”

The line is silent, so quiet that I stop packing to check the screen.

We’re still connected.

“Shane?”

“I’m here,” he says, but I can hear the emotion in his voice. “Is there a chance she relapsed?”

“What?” I stare at the phone like he can see that I think he’s lost his mind. That’s the last worry I have right now.

“In your medical opinion, is there a chance that she’s relapsed?”

I’m about to tell him off for getting stuck on something like this, but I remember what my mom said about something being horribly wrong. Not moving, not talking, the vacant stare.

“Yeah, I think it’s likely,” I tell him.

“Then she needs to come home.”

“She won’t make it,” I start to tell him every reason that he’s out of his mind.

“Even if they save her from her injuries, it won’t do a squat of good if they ignore the MS. She needs to come home to her doctor. He’s the one she trusts. He’s the one who knows her.”

“I get that,” I say, because he’s right. There’s no way of knowing who the neurologist on call will be in Boise, or what they’ll choose to do. “But they won’t do it. The drivers are instructed to take her to the nearest facility that can save her life.”

“Can we life flight her?” he asks. Shane is running through a dozen scenarios, but I’ve stopped listening because I have a plan forming in my mind.

“I’ll call you back,” I say before I hang up the phone.

Names blur as I scroll through my contacts, one after the other until I land on Colin Teasom. I press call before I can think twice about what I’m doing.

Three rings feel like an eternity, but Colin picks up.

“Ryder? Is that seriously you?”

“It’s me, Colin. I’m cashing in my IOU.”

The line is silent for a moment.

“What do you need?”

“You have your service still right? I need you to pick someone up.”

Colin started a private ambulance service with another paramedic three years ago in Boise, Idaho. He swears there’s a load more money in working outside the system. He sets his own hours, has time for his family, and goes where the money calls. That’s what I’m counting on.

“You don’t need a favor for that, it’s my job. Where is the pick up?”

“Near you in Boise. I need you to pick her up and bring her here. I’ll pay you eight thousand dollars.”

“You’ve got to be joking. I’m not a taxi service, Ryder. Put your girl on a plane if you want to see her this bad. I transport medically fragile people.”

“Trust me, she is, and if I knew someone with a plane or a helicopter, I’d be cashing in on them too. But you’re the one with a life debt, so you’re the one I’m talking to.”

He’s not going to argue that. Back in medical school we took a hike in the back country to blow off steam. Colin took a nasty fall down a cliff, ended up with a tree branch through his left kidney. I’m the only reason he’s still alive today. and he knows it.

“Yeah man, I’ll be there,” he says.


      I’m staring at my phone for the next hour. Shane knows the plan. Dayton used his influence to get the drivers to carry on for Boise. Colin texted ten minutes ago to say that he has her. But that was all he said, and I’m vibrating out of my skin waiting on news.

I should have told them to admit her in Boise.

I can’t help feeling like Shane was wrong and this could cost her life.


   My phone rings two hours later. Colin’s name splashes across the screen. I fumble the phone twice before my shaking fingers can press the accept button.

“Is she okay?”

“She’s still alive.” I hear the concern in his voice. “Are you sure this is the best idea? She’s in bad shape. I’m dumping blood into her, but her color isn’t coming back. What happened to her?”

I wish I knew, and yet I’m glad I don’t.

“She was held captive by a lunatic.” It’s the best answer I’ve got.

“I’ve done the best with her wounds that I can, Ryder. I mean, you’re lucky I’m a med school dropout. None of this would have worked if—”

“I know,” I say before he can finish. I can’t acknowledge a world where Lindy could die. “We’re square. Just get her here.”

“We’re two hours out at the rate we’re going. Mountains are going to slow us down, but I’ve phoned ahead and there’s a team waiting in Seattle for her. I haven’t finished cleaning the wounds yet. That’ll take more time.”

“Is she conscious?”

“Not really. I’m keeping her sedated. She woke up in the transfer and went 5150 on me. Not taking that chance again. I’ve got antibiotics running at the same time, per her docs orders from Seattle.” He pauses before he starts up again. “Whatever she’s been through, she’s never going to be the same, Ryder.”

“I know. I can’t imagine the cuts and—”

“No,” Colin says, “those cuts will heal, at least most of them. What I saw in her eyes, that’ll scar me, bro. There’s no way I’ll forget that. Your girl sat on the brink of death from what I can tell, and clawed herself out by her fingernails. She’s never going to be the same.”

Those are the words he leaves me with. Those are the words that eat at me until I’m starting to feel like her wounds are mine. But it doesn’t matter. I have to get her here, back to her family, back to her doctors, and back to me.

If she’ll have me.


Ryder's Diaries ( Sparrows & Sacrifice)


As mentioned in the post entitled Ryder's Diaries, I wanted to include these perspective short stories to enhance my reader's experiences. There are multiple spoilers contained within this story. Please only read after you have finished reading Sparrows & Sacrifice. I hope you enjoy Ryder's perspective as much as I have enjoyed writing it.


But I do

I don’t.

For two words, it’s impossible to escape their reach. I lay my head against her hand. She didn’t mean it. She sacrifices herself all the time to keep people around her safe. Always willing to take the risk on herself rather than make someone else face it.

That’s what it had to be.

Why didn’t I see it? Why did I blabber on like that when she was dying in my arms? A full day’s worth of worry spilled out of me when I should have been thinking more like a doctor.

I fail her.

Constantly.

I can’t ignore the wounds. Even wrapped in gauze I can still see them. That could be the reason she said ‘I don’t’ too. I saw them together, her and Dallas. That kind of betrayal might be enough to jade her against love. Her hand is limp as I press it to my cheek and kiss the inside of her wrist.

“But I love you, Huckleberry,” I whisper. “And I won’t ever hurt you.”

But she can’t hear me. My voice is drowned out by the machines keeping her alive.


Night Shift

     “Ryder,” Shane’s voice catches my attention at the same time his hand shakes my shoulder.  “Ryder get up.”

     Waking up from sleeping with my head on her hospital bed is worse than any hangover I’ve ever felt. Fuzzy thoughts won’t congeal and I’m shaking to clear the garbage from dreams I wish I’d never had.

     “What’s going on?” I ask. My eyes snap to Lindy, but her vitals are strong. Her eyes are closed. She’s not in trouble.

     “You slept late. Pam’s here,” Shane says. “I ditched her at the car, made an excuse about needing the bathroom, but you better clear out before she sees you.”

   I nod and push to my feet, but not before I kiss the back of Huckleberry’s hand, the one with the fewest injuries.

    “Any news from her doctors?” I walk with him for the door.

      No.” he glances into the hallway and takes a shaky breath in. “They’re worried about brain damage, not to mention organ damage. The infection is finally gone, but it was rampant for way too long.”

  I’m the one with the medical degree. I know how bad this is, but what Colin said about the mental scarring is what scares me. “They’re keeping her sedated?”

    “For another week, maybe two,” Shane says. The elevator dings, and he curses under his breath. “Should have shoved you out the door sooner.”

     "I’ll keep my head down.” I pull on the cap I keep in my back pocket for moments like this. Yanking it over my eyes, I duck into a crowd of nurses headed for rounds. Pam Johnson steps off the elevator. I step on. Our eyes meet for a split second as the doors close, and I hear her shout Shane’s name like I’m some kind of criminal.

    I’m not supposed to go in. She had me banned from the room right from the start. I guess she waited for Lindy to be in surgery first. Pam blames me for Lindy being hurt. In a way she’s right. If I hadn’t sent Lindy off to help mom, none of this would have happened. If I hadn’t called Colin and cashed in that favor, she would’ve gotten help a lot sooner. I don’t know what lies Pam Johnson told hospital admin to make it happen, but I’m not supposed to be in her room.

    Right or not, I can’t stay away, not when she’s perched on the edge of survival. Charles used to work here, and I’ve done my fair share of time getting to know everyone over the years. As much as it pains me to use any contacts related to my life as his son, it’s worth it for her. The night shift lets me sneak in. Admin is never around. But I have to clear out by morning when Pam comes back. None of the staff want to do me favors if they could lose their job.

     Every day is the same. Waiting for night to come so I can sneak back in to hold her hand and help the night nurse clean her wounds. Vanessa dumped me when I wouldn’t leave the ICU. I wish I cared. Maybe I should. But I don’t. All I care about is back in that room. I want one more chance to tell her how deeply in love I am, and how I’ll wait, no matter how long it takes.


An App For That

   “You really use this to keep track of her?” I stare at my new account on PI Net, the app Lindy uses to find work.

    “Of course,” Shane says. “It’s not like she tells me anything. I’m not one to try to pull it out of her. At least this way I can see that she’s busy on safe work, and I can relax a little. Also helps me to know when she’s not busy and will come over for dinner more often. You’d be amazed at how much she can eat. I have to be prepared with at least three gallons of ice cream.”

     “What’s her favorite?” Curiosity begs me to ask. It’s not like we’ve ever had a chance to talk about the mundane. She knows more about my family than any girl I’ve ever dated, but I can’t guess her favorite color.

     “White chocolate raspberry, from Edaleen’s in Lyndon.” He’s got his feet kicked up on the end of her bed. He stops by on the nights he’s working late, and I’m always here with her. He’s gotten used to the fact that I won’t drop her hand. I think he’s even come to approve of it.

    "Word of warning though about that app,” Shane sobers up, “don’t talk with her. Keep your head down. She’s too good. She’ll figure out who you are if you start chatting with her, and she’ll make you pay for it.” His boots drop to the floor, and he slaps his leg. “Coming over for the game on Sunday?”

    “Yeah.” Lindy’s mom is here all day, and usually into the night on the weekends. Shane’s been nice enough to let me watch some football at his place to pass my time. He knows plenty about heartbreak and loss. I think he’s part of the reason I haven’t lost my mind.

     “See ya then,” Shane says before he ducks out of the room.

    I nod and stare at the screen. Sleuth28. At least when she’s up and running again I’ll have a way of knowing what she’s up to.

    Not if.

    When.

    Her eyes remain closed and the machines chirp out her vitals. But I have to hang on to the hope that she’s still in there.

    “My Huckleberry,” I whisper as I rub my thumb over her hand.

Compromise & Contraband

    She’s been home three days. It’s harder now. I can’t be close to her. Her mother’s a warden, and I’m the contraband. Even that last week at the hospital, administration got involved and no amount of favors could get me back in her room. That’s when it would have counted. That’s when she was awake.

    Lindy opened her eyes once for me. I touched my palm to her face, rubbed my thumb over the clear space of skin. She searched for my identity, but it wasn’t where she left it. Still, she smiled at me, and it was enough. I would have kissed her, hoping to jog her like sleeping beauty, but her mom walked in and the world flipped upside down.

    I don’t remember the exact words, but I know the feelings of anger and betrayal, shame and frustration. I remember screaming at her that I loved her daughter and Shane trying to get me from the room before security came. But the memory I can’t shake is Lindy’s hands pressed over her ears as if every word caused her pain. That’s the last thing I want, I don’t want to hurt her. That’s why I’m here. I need to apologize, to her, to her mother; I need to set it right.

   I step up on the porch and clench the bag of sour gummy worms tight in my hand. She brought them to me when I was in the hospital. Seems appropriate considering the way things have shifted. As I lift my hand to knock, the door flies open and Pam Johnson steps out.

  “What are you doing here?”

  My mouth goes dry as I struggle for words. “I want to see her.” The candy feels stupid as I’m facing her mother’s rage. “I need to know that she’s okay.”

  “She’s alive, no thanks to you.”

  “No thanks to me? If you’re blaming me for the delay— Shane was the one who insisted she come back to Seattle. I was leaving to meet her at whatever hospital they sent her to when he called an audible and changed the plan at the last second. You can’t blame me for the time we lost in transit.”

  “I blame you for more than that time,” Pam says. “I talked with your mother when she came to visit Lindy. I asked her point blank if you told Lindy the risks going in to this last case. You didn’t. You both knew the killer had to be a member of the staff and neither one of you told her that. Shane said Lindy thought it was simple recon, just interviews and checking things out, gathering evidence for the cops. You both lied to her.”

  I drop my eyes to the floor because she’s right. She didn’t even have to twist the truth to get there. We knew what was really happening. My mother asked me not to tell Lindy everything, and I was mad enough that I didn’t.

  “She didn’t have to stay,” I say, but it’s empty.

  “Then you don’t know my daughter. She can’t leave it alone. Once she knows there’s a case, she has to solve it.”

   “I know,” I say, taking a step back, “I didn’t think she’d… I never would have sent her if I thought she’d get hurt.”

     “Well she did get hurt, and you’re responsible.”

    I can’t argue that. The plastic slips in my clammy hands. “I want to apologize, to you, to Lindy, to anyone else who feels offended so I can be part of her life again.”

    Pam’s features tighten into a scowl. “She doesn’t know who you are. The brain damage has erased almost everything. It’s like I’ve got my teenage daughter again, before all this PI business ever took root.”

    As if to confirm what she’s saying, I hear Lindy’s laugh catch the wind at something Shane said to her. They’re on the back porch. I could outrun Pam easy. Dive around the corner and insert myself back into my huckleberry’s life.

     “She’s happy,” Pam says. “Seeing you could bring it all back. She’s never going to take another case. She’s never going to put herself in danger again. Do you really want more of her blood on your hands by taking that away?”

   “No,” I say feeling the emotion in my chest, “but I love her. I can’t stay away.”

    One eyebrow cocked, she fires her last shot. “If you love her, you’ll move on. You’ll let her forget.”

    “You’re asking me to stop breathing,” I say. But it doesn’t crack her. Maybe she’s right. None of this came into Lindy’s life until she met me. It was my father wrapped up in the secret society, my mother who got her locked up with a psychopath. Maybe leaving her is the best gift I can give.

    I extend the bag of candies to Pam. “Can you give her these? So she knows I was—” I can’t finish it. “Just give them to her?”

      She takes them and crosses her arms. I reverse and back down the stairs. It’s not until I’m at the second stair that she’s willing to go back inside. From where I stand I can watch her through the window  as she dumps the candy in the trash, one worm at a time, then dangles the empty bag for a second before she lets it go.

    Crushed, I return to my Tahoe. The memory of Lindy’s laughter catches the edges of my mind. If this is what she needs, then I should give it to her. But I can’t help wondering if I’m strong enough to stay away.

Forget Me Not, Remember Me Always

I’m glad Vanessa has her own car. I couldn’t ditch her fast enough. Rage boils beneath my skin. I haven’t been this angry since—never. I’ve never been this angry.

She lied.

Pam Johnson lied to me.

Lindy never forgot me. I saw it in her eyes. Everything was just where we left it.

I scream out my frustration. The sound bounces off the interior of the Tahoe. I clench my hands over the wheel and scream again. I never should have believed her. Not in a million years.

What did that look like to Lindy? Like I ran away the second life got hard and took up with my ex. There aren’t enough curse words in all the languages I know to express my anger.

I tried to touch her. I couldn’t keep myself from her. I reached out to touch Lindy’s face, and she pulled back hard. Like I was the one who hurt her. Like I was him.

I’d never hurt her.

I’ve been hitting the gym twice a day since she went in the hospital, on the off chance that if she ever needs me to protect her I’ll be ready. I hoped we have a run in at the hardware store, or another funeral, or maybe she’d rob the grocery store for some widow, and I could fend off the cops if I had to. I wanted to see her, see if she’d remember me, and then there she was shopping for new clothes. I nearly ran to her, but I thought my eyes might be playing tricks on me.  Crazy thoughts, but now these new muscles ache to wrap around her, hold her tight and never let her leave my side.

I have a girlfriend.

I’m in love with Lindy.

She’s terrified of me.

She’s scarred physically, but even more psychologically.

I’ve made a mess of my life.

I have no way to fix it, not yet.


Sleuth28

She hates me. That’s my only explanation for this whole thing. Lindy hates me. The lighthouse door slams on its own. Steel has a way of weighing itself down, and the high winds today aren’t helping anything.

The door, my mood, nothing.

I went to tell her what had happened while she was in the hospital, try to have some semblance of a rational conversation, but the reasonable Lindy was gone. Instead I found the tight ball of anger who hates me.

My phone calls out to me because she’ll talk to Sleuth28. I created the profile to track her cases, assuming she recovered. I couldn’t be in the dark again, waiting, wondering, desperate to know which way the axe would fall. Shane was the one who showed me the app in the first place. Maybe he could see that I was losing my mind sitting next to her near corpse day after day. He admitted to creating his own profile to keep tabs on Lindy. Lot of good it did him. I was the one who sent her on the most dangerous case of her life. It was me who pushed her away and nearly got her killed.

Shane warned me not to talk to Lindy or interact with her. She’d see right through it, but I watched two other users demean and ridicule her, and I couldn’t stand by when she needed me.

Not again.

A mistake, maybe, but when she’s open to the world, vulnerable as she is now, I can’t help but protect her, even if she hates me.

I pick up my phone and log on. She’s there and she wants to talk. Strange since we just fought on her back porch. Strange since she tried to take my head off with that roundhouse kick. But there’s safety in the anonymity I guess, for both of us. We don’t hurt each other here. It’s like the first date we never got.

“Baby, you in here?” I hear Vanessa call from the bottom floor.

Cursing, I shove my phone under my leg so she won’t see. It’s not cheating, at least not real cheating. I’m just trying to connect with Lindy.

No, it’s not fair to Vanessa.

I love Lindy, and Vanessa loves me. All screwed up beyond belief. I’m a horrible person. I’d dump Vanessa in a heartbeat if I knew Lindy would want me back.

Back?

How can a person want you back when they’ve never wanted you in the first place?

Her dark hair pops over the railing, then her face. By the world’s standard she’s drop dead gorgeous. Full lips, large blue eyes, mocha tinted skin, but where she used to make my heart floor the gas, now I’ve begun to dread her being around so much.

“What are you doing?” she asks it with caution, maybe she can sense that I’m up to no good.

“Just sittin’,” I say as casually as I can. “I didn’t know you were coming over.”

Her shrug is slight. A curl tumbles behind her shoulder. She’s trying to look nice for me. Trying to get my attention back again. “I thought I’d surprise you.”

More like, she wanted to be sure Lindy wasn’t here with me, alone in a lighthouse, doing who knows what to her boyfriend. She has every right not to trust me.  My allegiance is too flexible. When Lindy was in the hospital, I abandoned Vanessa. I was a horrible boyfriend, she told me as much when she broke up with me outside the ICU.

“Well it’s a surprise,” I say while miserably hiding my passive aggressive tendencies. I learned them from my mother, the only way she could get back at Charles in public.

“Do you want me to leave?” Vanessa asks and her eyes go fishbowl with tears.

I’m a jerk. Because I do want her to leave. It’s stupid. She’s my girlfriend. That’s on me.

When Lindy was in the ICU I spent every waking moment there, crashed in the hall, sleeping on lobby chairs, hiding from her mother when necessary. Friends at the hospital let me use the resident’s facilities when I needed to, perks of a past life I guess. Vanessa lost her mind over the whole ordeal. Claimed that she wasn’t as important as Lindy since I refused to leave. In my shattered state, I agreed, not only that, I told her she never would be.

That’s what I can see in her eyes right now. That fear that she’ll never be Lindy.

That’s the problem.

She won’t be.

I took her back a month or so later. Lindy’s mom told me Lindy had suffered brain damage. Everything was gone from the last six months. I was erased, but that meant the psychopath, Dallas, had been erased as well. I knew enough about neurology to know that if I went back into her life, I stood the chance of bringing it all back. Me and him, tangled together like a package deal.

For her, because I love her, I walked away. I’ve been trying to make a happy life with Vanessa, but since seeing Lindy, knowing I won’t break her, knowing that everything her mother told me was a lie, she’s crawling under my skin, demanding me to scratch that itch.

“You don’t have to leave,” I say to Vanessa, but I don’t sound sincere. It’s stupid. She’s driven forty minutes to see me.

“Did I interrupt something?” she asks as she steps up to the landing. Her eyes are scanning the space, as if Lindy might pop out from behind the couch.

“No, just thinking, like I said.”

“What about?
It irks me that she’s asking, but only because of the guilt. Sleuth28 or not, Lindy doesn’t want me. I know that. I’m bashing my head against a wall again. My hand goes out to my girlfriend and her soft palm glides over mine as I pull her into my lap. I could be happy with her. If I tried a little harder. My lips find hers and it’s familiar, more familiar than Lindy because we’ve only had snatches of time where it all worked out. Vanessa has been here through it all. I just need to try harder.



A Meddling Uncle

My knuckles hit twice against the door, but it’s just a formality. Shane always unlocks it so I’ll walk in and he won’t miss any of the game.  I’ve got a six pack for him, his favorite beer, and a six pack for me, Coke. Not like I’d be drinking real heavy anyway, I have to drive home later, but abstaining makes me feel loyal to her, and even a small connection is better than none.

“Shane!” I call out and I hear him yell at the TV, not me. His team is losing. Seahawks against the Niners. I’m not Seahawk nation, and I’ve never bled red and gold, but human interaction is something I need. My only other options are Johnny’s bar, where I know I’ll get wasted, and Vanessa’s place, and I can’t be trusted in the mood I’m in. It’s too easy to pretend she’s the one I want, too easy to morph her face into something I need.

"Grab a chair,” Shane says without breaking away from the TV.

“I’ll put these in the fridge,” I say and move to the kitchen because I know the way. We’ve been doing this awhile now. He’s lonely, I’m lonely, and he doesn’t make me talk, but he’ll listen if I need it. We hit a rough patch last week when I confronted him about what Pam, Lindy’s mom, told me. I demanded some sort of apology for him letting me believe she forgot me, and Shane simply said, “If you’re dumb enough to believe that girl could forget you, you deserve to be forgotten.” I guess, being guys, we called an unspoken truce and moved on.

I sink into the matching leather recliner. Shane doesn’t have couches. I think it’ll encourage visitors. The second leather recliner only showed up after our second game together. He said he got it on a deal, but I figured it was his way of telling me I was welcome, as long as I brought drinks, of course.


"What’s the score?” I ask, not because I care, but because he does.

“14-6, Niners, but it’s still the first quarter, so you know anything can happen.”

I know better than to talk during the game, let alone a Seahawks game. I’m surprised he invited me, normally he watches these alone. But I got the text late last night, right after I stopped chatting with Lindy through PI Net.

The game cuts away, and Shane is back in the real world for at least the next two minutes.

“You look like crap,” he says as he glances my way for the first time.

“You’re not much better,” I tease back.

He’s getting old; Stella dying hit him like a semi.

"I know my reasons, too old for the job I got, too lonely for the nights, but what’s your excuse?”

I can’t look at him. He pulls me apart like his niece, and I know he’ll see the truths I’ve been hiding. “Just the same old stuff.”  I can feel his eyes on me still, so I don’t dare look up as I tack on, “Lindy has a new case, I hear.” He doesn’t correct me so I push further. “Is it dangerous?”

He hesitates, so I have to look up. I need to know if he’s going to try to lie to me.

“Yeah, it’s dangerous,” Shane says without breaking his stare. “But I don’t know who else to send in. We’ve already lost a few.”

I choke on my churning bile. “Lost? Like dead?”

“We don’t know,” Shane says without sugarcoating it. “They’ve never checked back in, so they could still be undercover, or they could be…”

“Dead,” I finish for him. “But you’re sending her with someone, right? A cop?”

“Yeah,” Shane says with a nod, but I feel his reservations. “She doesn’t trust him. I’m afraid she’s going to break off on her own once they’re in the back country.”

“On her own? She’s barely stable, physically and mentally.” My voice is betraying all the fear I have locked inside of me. “She’s not ready for this.”

Shane weighs the thought. “She’s capable of more than people give her credit for.”

“Yeah, when she’s healthy,” I say it like he’s lost his mind. Maybe he has.

“If only I could send her with someone she trusts…” Shane lets his voice trail off as the game returns.

What’s he getting at?

Does he mean me? I can’t keep her safe. Sure I had boxing lessons, I’ve been working out, but I’ve never thrown a punch in a real fight.

“It can’t be me,” I say. “You have to convince her not to go.”

Shane puts his finger to his lips to shush me like I’m a child, and my frustration peaks.

“No, we’re talking about this.” I don’t care about the game, or his rules, not when her life is in the balance. “She can’t go, Shane.”

“You know her well enough to know that you can’t talk her out of it either,” he says. “When she gets her claws in something she can’t let go.”

“But coming from you, it could work. She trusts your judgment. Tell her it’s too dangerous or too soon. Tell her she’s in over her head. Tie her up, lock her in a holding cell, I don’t care, just don’t let her go off and die again!”

Shane takes the remote in his hand, and the screen goes black. He’s selecting his words with careful precision. “Ryder, she’s going. She’s leaving in two days. I have no doubt in her ability to blend in and find the information she needs. But I do doubt that she’ll know when to stop. She could relapse out there and push through it until she’s gone. Cox can shoot and fight, sure, but he doesn’t know Lindy. He won’t see when she cracks, or if she needs help. You would see it. You have the medical training to keep her safe. You know her personality well enough to see when she’s breaking down. You would know when to pull her out.”

My head is shaking on its own, as if my brain understands that this is a suicide mission for one of us, if not both of us. He’s worse than her. I’m having flashbacks of telling her she couldn’t break into that masquerade, and she was going to do it with or without me. How am I back here again? Same situation, same players and the same stupid non-choice: Go with her and get killed, or stay back and watch her get killed.

"I can’t do it,” I say to Shane. “She doesn’t even want me there. Every time I get around her she lashes out—”

“She doesn’t know what she’s talking about, Ryder. Lindy is lashing out at everything and everyone. You’re not alone there. But staying here with that girlfriend of yours, it sure ain’t getting you any closer to her, is it?”

He’s got a point there. I’m treading water with Vanessa, too insecure to be alone. I'm waiting for Lindy to get better, maybe remember what we had before I screwed it up.

"She has a chance at a shot within the department, Ryder. Captain is talking about bringing her on if she can do this. She’ll make detective in a couple years, maybe less, I know she will. After that, it’s on to the FBI, and she has her life back.”

That’s what she wanted all along, all those years ago. I know she blames her disease for the setbacks, but it’s been more than that. Not that I want her involved with the FBI, or the department, or chasing these risky cases she finds in the first place.

But I want her to be happy.

I want her to pluck every star out of the sky and realize how amazing she is. I’d give her everything if I could.

“Just think about it.” Shane sinks back into his chair and the game is chirping at me again. It’s all bright colors and loud noise, but I can’t find clarity in any of it.

Could I do it?

Could I actually go with her?

Alone with my Huckleberry for days? Weeks even?

It’s somewhere past halftime when I realize I have to do this. I can’t let her go out there on her own again. But there’s more to it than that. I need to break up with Vanessa. This is a cliff, and if I’m gonna jump, I can’t be tethered when I fall.

Cops & Ryder

Cop lives in Bellingham, the one she calls the lunk, I think Shane called him officer Cox. I pull to the curb. A blue neon beer sign flashes from the window. I check the address again. It can’t be right.

But it is.

I grab the envelope, draw in some courage, and open the car door. This idea is crazy, following her on a case. She’s gonna freak out. She might bail.    

I guess if she does at least she won’t be risking life and limb. It’s a win either way, other than the five thousand dollar set back on my part. I sold the wave sculpture I’ve been working on since I met her. Took a hit on it. Could have gone for twice what I sold it for, but that’s the thing about desperation, people can smell it and they’re willing to rake you over the coals.      

The path to his place is littered with glass bottles and crumpled takeout wrappers. Bass is leaking from his house, as if it’s seeping out the cracks with every thumping beat. Action movie or music, I can’t be sure. My medical training warns that he’s headed for hearing loss if he’s making a habit of this. The closer I get, the louder it sounds. I hear other voices. Maybe he’s having a party. Just my luck that I’m showing up to bribe some cop when he’s likely got seven other cops with him. I’ll be lucky if I avoid getting locked up tonight.      

I rap on the door three times and wait. I swap the envelope to my other hand and wipe my sweat on my jeans. I’m about to make a run for it when the door pulls back.

Glass bottle in one hand, tipsy girl in the other, what a winner. Can’t imagine why Lindy didn’t fall all over herself trying  to get with him. But I’m not dumb enough to share my sarcasm.  Even with my time at the gym, I know I can’t take the guy. He’s got at least 80 lbs on me.      

“Yeah what?” Cox asks.”    

“I’m Ryder.”

I’m hoping it’s enough to get across why I’m standing on his doorstep.      

It’s not.      

“Shane was supposed to call you.”      

“Yeah okay.” He leans into the young woman’s neck.      

By the way she blushes, I’m glad I don’t know what he’s telling her. She turns to leave but not before his palm catches her rear. She squeaks like a chew toy and giggles.      

“More of that coming for you,” he calls after her as she leaves. He watches her exit, nearly drooling, completely unaware of my discomfort at the whole ordeal.      

“Shane said you had a proposition for me.”      

My stomach twists. I’d hoped Shane would explain it all. But no such luck.      

“I want your place on this case with Lindy Johnson.”    

“Nah, the money is too good and Under the table, I’ll be out in a week tops, not to mention being in the Chief’s good graces. I’d be stupid to pass that up.”      

Out in a week? By my calculations we’ll be lucky to find them in a week, let alone retrieve Tasha Saunders.      

I’m about to speak but Cox starts up again. “I mean, the chick is nuts. Kinda hot besides those scars. But I think she might get a little crazy, if you know what I mean.”    

I hate that I know what he’s getting at. The thought of anyone with her makes me sick, but listening to hs filthy tone churns my anger      

“I’ll give you three thousand to bail.”        

“No way. I mean, it’s more money, but the perks I’ll get outweighs the money.” He makes a lewd gesture I won’t bother repeating. No way can I leave him alone with Huckleberry.      

“Five.” I meant to build up to it, make him feel like he’s got negotiating prowess.        

Cox’s eyebrows jerk up. “Double?”        

“Double.” I lift the envelope so he’ll know I’m serious. “Five thousand to walk away.”

He snatches the envelope and peels it open, counting the contents. “You’re serious?”

“Do we have a deal?”        

Cox thinks on it, rubbing his massive palm over his mouth. “Why do you want to go so bad?”      

He’s feeling around for more cash, but I’m spent.        

“That’s not important.”        

“You got it bad for her, huh? Figure you can get your piece of tail once you have her alone.”        

My temper sparks again. I look away to avoid his stare. Blood rushes in my veins.        

“Yeah, I’ll do it.”      

It quells my inner storm for the time being. I release my right fist, never having realized I’d clenched it in the first place.      

“Shame though,” Cox pulls the cash free and fans his face with it, “I was looking forward to seeing if those scars were everywhere. Girl like that, you know she’s a good—“      

My fist cracks against his face. I bounce back, shaking out my hand, tears stinging my eyes and nose. I forgot how much punching hurts. Cox drops to a knee, swearing under his breath. He spits blood at my shoes where he dropped his money.        

I strengthen my voice despite my fear. ”Don’t show your face for a few days. Say you got food poisoning or something.”    

He’s still cursing my name and cleaning up the money he dropped by the time I get into my Tahoe.      

I punched a cop.      

Somehow there’s always a connection between me, Lindy, and felonies. I dial Shane’s number, turn on the speaker function, and toss it on the seat before I pull away from the cop’s house.      

“Yeah?” Such an abrupt way to answer a phone call.      

"I did it. Plan’s in motion.”      

“Did it go smooth?”      

I flex my injured hand. “For the most part.”      

“Did something happen?”      

I hesitate. “He had some lewd stuff to say about your niece. I punched him for you.”

Shane laughs even if it’s heavy. “Thanks for that. Lindy did the same. Cox seems to bring it out in folks. Now you’ll have something to bond over“      

I end the call, more apprehensive than ever.


The New Plan

I’m waiting outside the captain’s office. My heart is slamming against my chest because I know this isn’t going to go over well. Lindy may have hated Cox, but me? I’m thinking she’d take the lunk over me.

"Come on.” Shane pushes open the door. I take half a step in and her voice explodes.

"No. This can’t happen,” Lindy is already yelling at the captain, “I will walk before you bring him in as my partner.”

Yeah, that’s about the reaction I expected.

“You are not in charge of this precinct, Miss Johnson!” I’ve never met the captain before today, but it feels like Lindy has met her match.

"This isn’t even official police business!” Lindy’s volume is rising. “I get to have a say in who I work with!”

  Shane takes a step toward his niece to try to calm her, but he should know better.  “Lindy, think about it. It’s not a bad idea. You have a rapport with Ryder. You—”

  “This was you, wasn’t it?” Her bright-eyed fury turns on him. “You went meddling—”

  “Enough!” The captain silences all of us with one word. He’s talking to Lindy, reminding her that he’s in charge. A whole lot of good that’ll do him. The girl is a wild mustang, build a wall and she’ll still find a way over. I see the tremble in her hands, and I want to take them in mine to still her anxiety. It’s been awhile, but I remember how she feels against me. The ache to have that again is sharp, and I hope this is worth the risk.

Lindy’s slender finger whips back to point between my eyes. “He can’t fight. He can’t shoot. Other than his medical training he is of no use to me. You’re saddling me up with a hospice nurse, and I can promise you that if he gets hurt, I am holding you personally responsible.”

I frown and lean closer to Shane. “That last part was almost endearing.”

And I mean it. If she really hated me she wouldn’t care if I got gutted and left for dead.

Shane nods to the hall, and I follow him, though I was barely in the office to begin with. I let a stream of air slip from between my tight lips.  I knew it would be uphill, but maybe I thought some part of her would be happy to have me instead of the meat head.

The thought brings to mind being there at his house. The neon beer light, the tipsy companion, and loud music, the place smelled like a bachelor pad, and my knuckles still ache. I have $8 left in my account. Took everything I had, some money from my mom, and then I had to sell a couple pieces I wasn’t planning on.

That Lindy piece is still upstairs. I have a standing offer, but I can’t part with it, not yet. Not if I may never get the real thing.

The door clicks shut, and she’s glaring at me like I just torched her house.

“Well that went about how you said it would,” Shane says it like we’re alone. But we’re not and she’s caught deciding between running and clawing my face off.

She picks running.

“Lindy!” Shane shouts after her, but she’s not going to stop. She might not even take the case at this point. Despite my instincts telling me to leave her alone, I’m already jogging after her. I get caught between two officers and have to wait for Sergeant–eating-a-bear-claw to get out of my way. Cursing under my breath, I shove open the outer door and scan the parking lot. Her SUV is in the lot still. It’s new, well not new, just new to her. She totaled her last car on that suicide mission I sent her on. Regret pulls at my heart. I hear a sound and turn.

She’s against the wall, arms crossed at her chest, blonde hair blowing in the wind. It’s remnants of Cassidy. I see her natural hair at her scalp, but I can’t picture what it would look like anymore. I take a step toward her, careful like she might spook. She looks away, but lets me move to her side.

“Can we talk about this?” I ask her when I’m still a ways off.

“There’s nothing to talk about.”

I stop short because I feel like any closer and she might bolt.

“Are you still going?”

“I don’t know,” she says, but she’s avoiding me.

“It wasn’t my idea,” I try to explain it, but I have nothing to give her.

I’ve done something wrong because she takes a step away from me.

“I’m sure it wasn’t. This has Shane written all over it.” Lindy squints back at me as if she’s trying to see through my charade. “I don’t get it. I don’t understand why you are willing to come.”

I can’t give her the real answer, and the first thing that comes to mind is my dwindling back account. “I need the money, I guess.”

She growls at me and starts away because she doesn’t know about the manor or the foundation. She thinks I’m still drowning in my father’s fortune. We haven’t had a civil conversation long enough to cover any of this. My fingers catch her arm, but she jerks herself free and takes three more steps back. Once more I realize how much she hates me.

“Calm down, would you?” I beg. She’s not willing to even take a breath of my air, so I give in and tell her the truth. “Fine. Shane brought this to me yesterday afternoon. He said he was worried that you might relapse out there, or you might do something stupid and you needed a partner you could trust.”

For a second I see terror, not fear, a flash of terror in her eyes like I’ve become someone else, but then it’s gone.

“Wait, afternoon? Cox wasn’t admitted until late last night. How did Shane know that he was…”

Now I want to run because she’s figured it out.

“Wait, let me explain,” I say, but she’s nearly jogging toward her car.

Lindy turns and walks backwards, the hair whipping across her face, almost the portrait I have in my room, but the blonde hair takes it twelve degrees off center and it grates on my memory.

“Are you kidding me? You two poisoned him?”

We’re in a police precinct parking lot. I’m fast to claim my innocence. “No. Nothing like that.”

Once more she’s ready for a fight and stares me down. “What then, Ryder?”

“I paid him,” I admit. My feet shift, and I might as well be a scared little boy waiting for punishment.

“What?”

“I paid him twice what the chief was paying. He got a week off work, and I’m short a decent chunk of cash.” I look up and her lips are parted. Every part of me is reaching out for her. Can’t she see it? “It was worth it.”

"I can’t believe you did that.”

She means it because she doesn’t throw the words at me. They inch over my skin, velvet and cream.

"I don’t want you to go alone,” I say. “I can’t stay here waiting again.”

Memories of sitting next to her as the nurses cleaned her wounds, or worse the ones they let me dress so I wouldn’t feel so useless at her side, billow up in my mind.

Lindy glances toward the mountains, maybe contemplating what we’re about to do. “What about your girlfriend?”

That’s tonight. Vanessa is coming over, and I’m breaking it off with her. But I don’t want to tell Lindy that. She’ll assume more than I want and once more she’ll bolt.

 “Don’t worry about her. She’ll be fine.” I wait a minute, but she’s done talking. “Are you still going?”

 Her eyes close and for one second I consider crossing the space and kissing her, just enough that I can remember how it felt.

Like a song I heard once, but never again.

“I’m going. Meet me at my place at six.”


On a Break

This date was set up long before now. I’m supposed to make dinner, but I want to rip this bandage off as fast as I can. She’s gotta know it’s coming. I’ve been moody and distant lately. Maybe on some level I’ve been trying to see if she’ll break up with me first.

  “Baby? Are you in here?” She calls as the steel door groans.

  The maps crinkle under my touch. I’ve been studying them all afternoon. Preparation is the only cure I know to quell anxiety. But it’s not working this time. I can study all night and still not know where to find these people. Or worse, what to do once we find them.

   “Up here,” I call from the second floor. I don’t have a pet name for her, not even a shortened version of her full name. Maybe that should have been my first clue that this would never work out. Her footsteps echo on the stairwell, and I rise to meet her.

   She’s dressed in light pink, sweet and innocent, lamb to the slaughter I suppose. “I thought you were cooking,” Vanessa says with a quick glance for the kitchen. “Are we going out?” Three steps toward me, and then she stops. Something is wrong.

   “We need to talk,” I say as I motion for the empty couch. The four worst words in the relationship language.  I should shorten this and just say, “It’s over,” but I suppose she deserves more.

  “I’ll stand,” she says as she clutches her purse against her stomach like a stuffed animal. “What’s going on? What’s with the maps? Are you leaving?”

  I sigh because this is going to hurt. “I am, yes. I’m backpacking in the Cascades.”

  “For how long?” she asks. “Who’s going with you? Why are you acting like this, Ryder?”

  Every question is more panicked, as if she suspects the answer, and I still won’t give it to her.

  "I don’t know how long. I’m helping Lindy on a case.”

  Her blue eyes go to wide pools of emotion. “Lindy? Are you kidding me? No! No! No Ryder!”

  I look away, out over the still water of the bay. “It’s not up for debate. I leave in the morning. And I’m breaking up with you, Vanessa.”

 The thud of her body snaps my head back around. She’s hit the floor on her knees, shaking and shrieking as if I’ve stabbed her. My feet move without permission, and I pull her back to her feet.

 “It’s her!” She yells through ugly tears. “She’s ruining everything! We were happy, Ryder, can’t you see that? She’s poison!”

 I set her at an arm’s length, but her limbs cling to me like some creature bent on sucking the life out of me. “Please,” she begs me, “please, don’t do this!”

 "We haven’t worked for a long time,” I tell her, trying to remain calm despite her antics. “This isn’t about Lindy.”

   Black streaks pour from her eyes as her makeup wilts under the emotion. “Oh right,” she snaps. “You want me to believe that? Not about her? It’s always been about her. She’s the reason you and I are even together!”

   Veins pop from her forehead, red as a beet as she screams at me. Fists pound against my chest, but it’s hardly a threat. I’m more afraid for her safety than mine.

   “You’ll be okay,” I whisper as she folds into me. “You’ll bounce back, and find someone new.”

   “I don’t want someone new,” she whimpers against my shirt, “I love you, Ryder.”

   "I know,” I say, because I can’t say it back to her. “I know you do.”

   “Say it once,” she stares up at me, snot, mascara, and lipstick smeared over her cheek, a wreck of the woman she usually is. I’ve done this. I’ve destroyed her. “Tell me you love me, Ryder.”

   “I can’t,” I whisper. “You know I can’t.”

    “She can’t either,” Vanessa says as she straightens. “She’s not capable.” With two swipes she clears the black tar from beneath her eyes. “You’ll want me back when she turns you down, you always do.”

 “We’re over,” I say again as I take a step back.

   "How about this,” she says, “we’ll take a break. You can go off with your little patchwork doll and I’ll wait around because I know you and I know her, and no way will she do what you want.”

 "I don’t want you,” I say and it cuts me to be so harsh. “We don’t need a break because I’m done.”

   “She won’t love you, Ryder. He cut her up. You saw her. You saw how ugly she is now. Can you really look at that for the rest of your life? Every time you look at her, you’ll see him all over her.”

   Vanessa is angry, that’s why she’s like this. She’s never been like this before. Like she wants to hurt me. And it does. Yes, I see him every time I look at her. I see the man that had her in ways I’ll never understand. He set her free just to cut her down. Dallas made her beautiful, then destroyed her to a broken shell. Is Vanessa right? Did Dallas shatter the woman I love? Do I have any chance with her?

   “We’re on a break though,” I say. “A real one. If anyone asks, I’m single. You’re single.”

   “And when she hurts you again, I’ll be here to pick up the pieces,” Vanessa whispers as she worms her arms around my waist.


Lost in Dreams

“Ryder.”

I hear her voice, and I have no choice but to go to her. She’s owned me from that first night, controlled me from the first kiss, and I belong to her.

“Huckleberry,” I whisper, but she’s far away, far enough that I’ll never find her. My hands go out into the darkness, grasping at vacant air and pulling it back to me in its empty loneliness.

“Ryder.” The sound comes again, but this time she’s here, slinking around me, fingers trailing over my skin. Lips against my neck. Fingers tracing my chest. I’ll reach and she’ll be gone, just black night. But my fingers tangle up in her shirt, far too real for me to move away. Hunger lights me up as I pull her close, tuck her in my arms and kiss the bare skin of her neck. She pulls me back to her lips. Control is fleeing me. Every kiss destroys my rational thought.

“Huckleberry,” it seeps out of me as if I’m begging her, but I don’t know if I’m begging her to stop or keep going. “I want to be with you, be yours, forever.”

“Me too,” she whispers. Her kiss brushes over my cheek. “Just lean back, baby, I’ll make you happy.”

Baby.

It jerks me awake. I have her face pinned between my palms.

“Vanessa,” her name falls out with my heaving breath. “What are you doing here?”

We haven’t shared a bed. I’ve never let her on the third floor of the lighthouse. She’s wearing my shirt like something’s happened. Panic wells up inside me like a rising tide. Please, tell me nothing happened.

“I was downstairs.” She jerks her head free like I’m hurting her. “You said I could sleep over so I didn’t have to drive back tonight. It’s the least you could do considering the way you hurt me.”

I find my discarded shirt from the night before. The cotton glides easily over my skin as I replace it. “But why up here?”

She’s sitting where Lindy once sat, occupying the same space. I want to shove her off even if she falls on the floor.

“I heard you talking. I wanted to be sure you were okay.” Her smile goes crooked, and her hand trails over my chest. “I thought you might like the company. I could be so much more for you if you’d let me”

I catch her hand in mine like a spider that needs to be crushed. “I think we covered what I want from you last night.” She pulls loose. I fumble for my phone. I swear between clenched teeth the second I see the time. “I’m gonna be late.”

Vanessa stands so I won’t shove her. Anger builds in my chest despite my need to smash it back down.

I have his temper—My father’s.

Years of practice have kept it in check, but I hate manipulation and tricks.

“Why didn’t my alarm go off?”

She looks away. I grab her arm to force her to look at me. A soft cry pulls from her throat, and I know I’ve hurt her.

“What’d you do?” I demand.

“I turned it off,” she says. “I wanted you to stay. If she left again, you might see me for once. I’ve become invisible since she’s been back, baby.”

Not wanting to touch her any longer, I fling her arm from my grip. “Get your stuff. I have to leave.”

She lingering as I’m standing to change from my sweats, that same coy smile that caught my attention the first night I met her. “Or we could…”

“We could nothing, Vanessa. I’m leaving.”

Her bottom lip drops out, but I’m too upset to care. It’ll cut at me later. Guilt has a way of resurfacing. I change quickly and drop my bag off the side of the nautilus staircase to the second floor landing. She’s standing there in her dress from last night. I should make her get her stuff from the drawers, make this a clean break, but I can’t shake the feeling that she’s right. We’re not over. Lindy might not want me.

She marches down ahead of me as if she’s my prisoner. I flip lights as we move, turn off the heat, and try to shake the memory of Lindy in my dreams. It’s not the first time I’ve had that dream. Stupid since reality is nowhere near where I’ve landed.

“Wait outside,” I say to Vanessa. It’s not just the manipulation that’s making me angry. It’s the way I truly believed she was Lindy. Vanessa stole that from me, and I’m furious. I flick off the lights in the studio and arm the alarm before I pull the steel door shut and lock it.

“When will you be back?” she asks.

I shove my bag in next to my other gear.

“I don’t know.” It’s the truth. How am I supposed to know? Details from Shane were not forthcoming. I might die out there.

Nerves quiver to life as her palms slip over my back and around my waist. Too much is still awake from the dream. If I close my eyes, it’s Lindy again, happy to see me for once, eager for more than what we have. But it’s not her and the truth makes me ache.

“Stop.” I mean for it to be strong, but she can hear my need and she’s willing to shove the crack open.

“Stop what?” she whispers back. “Loving you?” She snakes her way under my arm so that she’s back in my embrace. “I can’t. It’s not possible.”

It hasn’t all been bad. She’s a good girlfriend. Any sane man would realize he’s won the lottery. Her hair is silk beneath my touch as I push it away to look at her face. It’s harder now to say goodbye. She’s not crying. Her skin is clear. We’ve been together for months, am I crazy to let her go?

“She’ll never love you,” Vanessa whispers as she presses her lips against mine. “She’ll never love you like I do.”

I have nothing left, not even enough to wipe the tears from her eyes. All I can do is slam the back of the Tahoe and climb in the driver’s seat. I shed no tears for Vanessa, but as the words, She’ll never love you, bounce around in my brain, I fall apart and drown in the likelihood that she’s right.



Too Broken to Heal?

She’s ten inches away. Lindy, the woman I actually love, she’s finally sleeping next to me again. I reach out once I know she’s drifted off far enough. My hand compresses the thin sleeping bag she’s brought. I want to capture her waist and pull her against me like the teddy bear I slept with as a kid. If I thought it was hard to keep my hands from her at the precinct, now, looking nothing like my cousin and everything like herself, I’m helpless. I’m lost to her.

   I need to find a way to tell her what really happened after she told me, “I don’t”. The anger in her eyes speaks volumes about her side of the story, but she has no idea what actually happened. There’s a bench outside the ICU whose cushions likely will still mold to my shape.

  My palm wraps around her shoulder through the nylon sleeping bag. Even in her sleep she jerks away from me. I hate that Vanessa seems to be right. She’s broken.

    I should have reached out to her earlier, after we fought, before we went to bed. That moment when she walked away from me and stood at the edge of our camp, I should have stood up and wrapped my arms around her. Temper got the better of me. I have the bad habit of rehashing everything in my mind, playing her sins on repeat and stirring up the anger in my heart. I know better. I should be better, because all that I’m left with is regret for not making the right choice. As usual, I’m left wondering what to do to get closer to her. I need to fix this, but how do you fix someone this broken?

   When I was little, Charles bought mom a bouquet of flowers. He made a big show of bring it home. The whole staff had to make a comment on it, all the roses and lilies and the way the crystal vase sparkled. I clearly remember it because I sat at the kitchen table coloring, careful not to break any of the crayons while I worked. I felt his stare fall on me. My tension doubled. It’s hard keeping up perfection when someone expects you to fail. The longer he watched me, the more my nerves and hands trembled.

  “Careful,” he said, “you’re getting too close to the lines, Ryder. A good surgeon keeps a steady hand. You do want to be a doctor, don’t you?”

     “Yes, sir,” I said, knowing no other answer. But my hands didn’t listen. They shook in fear.

  Mom came into the kitchen, freshly showered, a new dress and more makeup than normal. Some of my fear drained when his eyes landed on her instead. I would have been happy to fade into the walls if I could have. I couldn’t hear what they were talking about, but mom’s voice pitched up. She gasped. My crayon swerved. The pressure gave way and the crayon snapped. Mom hit the floor. The vase flew through the air and shattered against the wall, crystal raining down like hail in a winter storm.

   Charles stormed from the room. I stuffed the crayon pieces in my pocket. I looked up to mom, her palm pressed over her red cheek, tears glistening in her eyes. She couldn’t believe I’d broken the crayon either.

   “I’m sorry,” I whispered. Without thinking, I ran to the broken vase, the pile of shards and petals and water seeping all over the marble floor.

   “Ryder, no! Careful!” She peeled her hand away from her red cheek and bent to pull me back. “I’ll call Miss Polly. She’ll clean this up.”

   “But your pretty vase, it’s ruined.”

   Miss Gladys already had my hand, muttering something about my mother’s fits and how she never seems happy with anything. I looked over my shoulder, filled with regret, wishing I could piece mom’s vase back together again.

  I feel that way now. Lindy’s whimpering in her sleep, but every time I touch her she retracts deeper into the pain she’s feeling. She’s a pile of broken pieces, and once more I’m helpless to fix any of it.


Tangled In The Net

Something woke me. My muscles tense, waiting on the sound again. These people, this group we’re searching for, they might have found us. I wait, listening for a cracking branch or feet outside our tent. The cold air catches my growing perspiration. Between my nerves and the sleeping bag, I’m already feeling warm.

Lindy steals a breath. For a second I worry she’s heard something I didn’t, but she’s breathing deeply, still asleep. I have to correct myself. She’s not breathing deeply, her breaths are speeding, sharp and shallow. A soft whimper bursts from between her lips. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve heard her struggle in the night. It’s no wonder she’s exhausted every day. Between the fatigue from her disease and the nights she fights her demons, she can’t find rest. I’ve tried reaching out to her before, to try to comfort her, but my touch only deepens her pain. It’s as if I bring it into reality, making the nightmare three dimensional. Most nights she fights it back and eases into some hiding place in her mind where the nightmares can’t find her. I wait, listening to her fears bleed into the night, but she’s not beating them back tonight.

We’re nearing sunrise. Black is easing to gray, not enough to wake up, but enough to see her features twist and pull in terror. I ache watching her. I breathe with her when she draws a deep breath as if she might scream. Her lips press tight as if she’s trying to keep her agony to herself. Is this what she went through? Am I reliving it with her? Her chin trembles. A soft whimper breaks from her chest. Her body caves forward. I can’t survive much more of this. I have to help her. I have to free her from the torture this time.

“Lindy,” I try to keep my voice soft and soothing, “Lindy, wake up.”

As expected, I release a torrent of fright within her. She twists, balling her fists tight and presses them against her forehead. Her sobs continue, growing deeper and stronger. I shift to take her hands, but she strikes out. Her arms flail through the air. I catch one but the other strikes me across the cheek.

“No! Stop! Please stop!” She screams the words at me as if I’m him. I struggle to keep a hold of her, but she’s strong and breaks the grip.

“Lindy! Wake up!” I don’t want to hurt her. Her fists slam against me, pummeling my chest, my arms, my face, as if I’m her attacker. In the dim light I have no way of predicting which way she’ll come and her pain becomes mine. I fight for control over her frantic body.

“Please Dallas! Please don’t do this!”

I catch her arms again. She shrinks back, terrified to be in my grasp. My stomach twists at her torment. I feel sick seeing how far he pushed her to her brink. She begged him. She pleaded with him, and obviously he never relented.

It takes most of my strength to pin her arms from their attack, but it only intensifies her terror. A scream bursts from her chest. I call her name again, but she won’t break free.

“Get off! Get off me!”

I lose my grip on her arm. It catches me upside my head. Reaching out, I capture her again, pulling her up until she’s sitting. I shake her hard, once, twice.

“Lindy, it’s me. It’s Ryder.” I’m desperate to free her from her prison. “Please, listen to me. You’re safe.”

Her body collapses in on itself, limp for three seconds. A shaky inhale tells me she’s finally awake. Her braid came loose. She’s kept it tight every day. Even in her distress, she’s beautiful. Her head drops into her chest in defeat. I release her hands and let them fall, worried I might have left bruises on her wrists. Gravity pulls a chunk of hair over her shoulder. Her head snaps up, eyes far away, drowning in fear. She spins away from me. I move to catch her again but her hand locks around the knife she keeps next to her bag. She flips the blade free with one hand. My heart drops. Is she still dreaming? The blade moves and for a second I worry she might come after me, but worse, she starts for her throat. I grab the blade from her hand and throw it to the opposite side of the tent. She dives after it, as if she can’t handle one more moment living this nightmare. I lock my arms around her waist.

“Lindy, stop.” I toss her back with ease. Her eyes go wild, locked somewhere between reality and nightmare. I have to pull her free. I have to give her something to hang on to. Against my better judgment, I grip her shoulders and pull her to my lips.

It’s better than I remember.

Exquisite.

Fragile.

Volatile.

Addictive. When she relaxes into me, I pull her closer, transferring a hand to her lower back to steady her weakened body. She’s exhausted from her fight. I need her to feel safe. I deepen the kiss, trying to show her everything I haven’t been able to say. This isn’t a school yard crush. This is a love that crushes me every time I look at her. I won’t only never hurt her, I’ll protect her to my dying breath. She’s more than everything. She’s my world.

I break the kiss, resting my head against hers to catch my breath. She’s as sweaty as I am, like we’ve done battle and only now is she willing to surrender.

“I probably shouldn’t have done that. I didn’t know how else to reach you.”

I want to add that I’m glad I did. Maybe now she can start to heal. Maybe now we can have something real between us. Could it be that easy? A kiss to solve everything? Have the fairy tales had it right all along?

I press my lips against hers, fully expecting her to melt into me like she has in the past. She stiffens and presses me back with both hands. Every inch carves away at me. She won’t face me. I crumble inside like discarded paper. “You’re frozen. Let me hold you.”

She debates her answer. The argument is written across her face. I once thought of her like a steel butterfly, and those walls are rising in front of me.

“No.”

Her answer hurts almost as much as hearing “I don’t”.

“You’re cold.” I take her hand, but she slips it free again.

“It doesn’t matter.”

I watch her, waiting, hoping she’ll change her mind. But she doesn’t. Maybe Vanessa was right. Maybe love isn’t something Lindy is capable of. Not anymore. Disappointment bleeds into my heart. To rise to such a place of perfection only to fall seconds later, I can’t keep doing this. I can’t wait for her forever, not without some kind of promise for a better day. My heart won’t survive.

Giving up, I sink back to my side, burrow into my bag and search for sleep again. It’s stupid to be obsessing considering what the day will bring. I need to remember why I came. It wasn’t to win her back. I came to protect her. If my reflexes are dulled by a lack of sleep, her pain will be on my hands. I won’t let that happen again.

Still, as I drift off to sleep, I can’t help but wonder if she felt what I did a second ago. Did she feel that rush, that indescribable heat? I’ve never felt it before, not even with her. I want to sink into it and drown. Some part of me wonders if I can survive in a relationship without her love? Would this, this other feeling, suffice me? If she can’t love, could I limp along with stolen moments like these instead? Is half a life with her better than all the love from someone else? I don’t have an answer, not yet.

My limbs go heavy, relaxing into exhaustion. I drift, as if on a canoe pushed back from shore, lazily skimming over sleep. A sensation rips my body awake and alert. Her hand lifts my elbow, as if she can weasel under me without letting me know. The bag rustles between us. I shift to take her in my arms, pulling her to my chest, resting on my back. I can’t believe this is happening. Emotion pricks my nose. I’m fading back to that night in the lighthouse, sleeping with her against me, knowing beyond a doubt I’d found the one I’d searched for my whole life. My heart races at the thought that I’ve got her back in my arms again, but I know it has to be on her terms. One wrong move, one word out of place, and she’ll scatter. I wait, ready, willing, I’ll give her the world if she wants it. If that’s what it takes to have her, I’ll find a way.

“When?” Her whispered question catches me off guard.

“When what?” I can’t control my voice. I might as well be thirteen again with the way it shifts and cracks.

“When did you fall in love with me?”

I want to laugh. Such an odd question, but it fits her. It’s almost an accusation, like she’s interrogating me for a crime. It’s on par with, “Where’d you hide the diamonds?”, as though I’ve done something wrong in loving her. Maybe in her eyes I have. I broke the cardinal rule.

“I’m not sure. When I first say you on that bar stool?” The memory of her shifting her hair to the opposite side drifts through my mind, then the way we sparked when I kissed her cheek. “Maybe on the bluffs?” Hard not to fall in love with her then. I feel like that’s the first time I actually connected to her, no walls, no games, just my huckleberry girl.

“I don’t think it was all at once but a little at a time, more like realizing it one day like something I’d known all along.” That moment is clear in my mind as well. Stepping out of my Tahoe. Seeing her across the way with someone else’s arms around her. “But I knew it as soon as I saw you with him. He had your heart, and it belonged with me. I had to get you back.”

I want to confess it all. The time in the hospital. The stupidity of trying to put distance between us by sending her to the ranch. The profile I’ve made just to talk with her again. But I have a bad history of laying too much on her at once. I can only hope she’s this willing to talk in the morning. Until then, I’ll rest better with her back where she’s supposed to be, wrapped up in my arms.



The Men's Side

Walking away from her is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. The bruises on her face are darkening. I try to find comfort that I didn’t put them there, but does that really matter? Without her next to me, I’m about to burst out of my skin.

        “Move.” Raife’s command is simple, but forceful. My heart slams against my chest, but I put one foot in front of the other, headed back down the trail for the male side of the encampment. Knowing how easily I could lose my mind, I fall back on years of therapy. All through med school I dealt with anxiety, deep, paralyzing anxiety. I never knew why, other than the high stress of my work load built it from nothing. I lied and told my parents I needed extra cash for tutors. As long as I drew that blasted symbol on my thumb, Charles would give me anything I asked. That extra cash paid for a therapist on campus. It was supposed to be mindfulness, or ways to connect me with reality to keep the anxiety at bay. Count four things you can see.

        I look up ahead.

        Cabins

        Men.

       A bird perched on a stump.

       Guns.

      I draw in a breath and start again. Name four things you smell.

        Pine.

        I close my eyes for a second to focus.

        Dirt.

        Bacon?

        A hand slams against my back. I trip over my feet and crash against the dirt. Pain lights up my side where those boots caught me earlier. I groan and tuck into a ball.

        “Get up,” Raife says. “Act like a man.”

        It jars something in my mind. I shake my head to chase the memory away, but like fog, it has no real shape, and therefore nothing can hold it back from infiltrating my mind.

        “Act like a man, Ryder,” Charles’ voice catches me like the boots from earlier. I shake my head again and it fades away. Flattening my palms against the ground, I push myself to standing, smothering the pain I’m hiding inside.

        “Brother Gabe! Brother Liam!” Raife moves away from me to other men. I take a moment to touch my tender ribs, checking for broken bones. In the distance, two men pull away from the larger group. Raife says a few words to them before they start in my direction. I brace myself for more pain, but they each take an arm and move me toward a cabin. The taller one kicks open the door, revealing two sets of bunks. They help me to a lower one and release their grip. Without a word, the shorter one tilts his head like a signal and the first loses the door and latches it. Light fades back until only the most prominent features on their faces can be seen. For a moment, we stare.

        “Who are you?” The shorter one takes a knee near me. “Raife says you’re friends of his wife Fern, but it makes no sense. They’ve been here too long. She can’t get word out. No way is that true.”

        My eyes dart to the gun in the taller one’s hands. He holds it with more confidence than I could ever hope to. I thought we’d proved ourselves. I thought we’d made it, and now I’m faced with execution all over again.

        Lindy would lie. I know I should. I should make up some story about Fern getting a letter out to us, despite the setbacks. But the man in front of me narrows his eyes.

        “You’re different.” He tilts his head in the opposite direction as if to see me from a new angle. “Would it help to know that not all of us approve of the way things are done here? I love my wife. Liam,” he points back at his companion, “he does too. Neither one of us would ever hurt her, or any other woman or child here at the camp.”

        Something near hope starts to flood my veins. I look to the short one and say, “I’m Ryder Billings.”

        “Gabe Renner.” He extends his hand to me. The familiar social construct feels out of place here, but I grasp it and follow through with the handshake. Gabe waits a second before he asks again, “Why are you here?”

        “We were backpacking and got lost.” The lies fall about before I have a chance to think about them. “We lucked into Fern and that story. I think they were going to kill us.”

        Gabe glanced over his shoulder to Liam. With a nod, Liam sets his weapon against the wall.

        “No doubt about it, they would have killed you. But now, you’re as good as dead as the rest of us. There’s no way out of this place.”

        “Not yet at least,” Gabe says. “But we’re working on that.”

        “What does that mean?” I looked to both of them for an explanation, but nothing came.

        “Don’t worry about that yet. You’ve got bigger issues.” Liam sat on the bunk across from mine. “You have to survive the cleansing.”

        “The cleansing?”

        Gabe looks away for a second before he says, “That’s what we’re supposed to be starting in here. Propaganda, rewiring your brain,” sarcasm stains his speech as he adds, “cleansing you of the outside world.”

        “But you’re not?”

        “No,” Liam says, “we’re gonna teach you to survive. Teach you how to hide in plain sight. That way when the others start in on you, you’ll have a fighting chance of staying in control.”

        Gabe leans a little closer. “They’re gonna beat you. You’re going to hurt like you’ve never hurt before. The Cleansing is about torture, about stripping you back to a shell and rebuilding you from the foundation up. We can help you make it through, but it’ll be easier if you don’t have anything for them to prey on. Tell me Ryder, do you have any demons in your past?”


Don't Lose Yourself

Days mean nothing. Time means nothing. It’s all a mess of pain and bad memories. Every impact brings up a ghost from my past. Every poison word sent slithering into my ear jars loose a repressed piece of my childhood. I keep my face blank. I fight to stay level. I cling to my identity even while repeating back to them that I’m Brother Ryder, member of the fifth infantry and Soldier 382.

    I’m not.

    Gabe taught me that. I repeat their commands, but I rebel inside. I tell myself I’m Ryder Billings, son of Isabelle Billings. I paint and sculpt. I like to watch the sunset over the Sound from my third story of the lighthouse I live in. They ask me who I serve, I tell them Cyrus, but in my mind I’m wrapped up in Lindy’s arms, standing in her driveway again, reliving that stolen kiss after the masquerade. They tell me I’m a solider, I nod, but I know inside I’m hers, nothing but hers.

    "To the house,” Nick says with a shove to my shoulder, “even scum like you need to eat.”

    I could take him. I outweigh him by at least thirty pounds, maybe fifty. But Nick has advantages. Power and no pain. I could swing and catch his jaw with a right hook. Might lay him out cold, but the retaliation from those who respect his authority might land me in the pit. If I don’t knock him out, all he has to do is connect with my rib cage once. Too many more hits and I know a couple will crack. I’m a walking bruise. The right hit and it won’t matter if I outweigh him by a hundred pounds.

    I fall in line, soon joined by Gabe on one side and Abram on the other. For the first time all day I feel safe. They both have sway within the ranks. When they’re around, the pain lessens.

    Gabe pulls back the swinging door into the house. Smells of roasted chicken, potatoes and ham slap my face. At least we eat between the rounds of abuse. I take my seat on the back side of the table, sandwiched between Liam and Gabe, once more protected by them. I can’t show weakness, but I want to rest my heavy head in my hands and sob for what I’ve survived. That will come later. Safe behind the cabin doors. None of my cabin mates ever talk about my breakdowns, and for that I’m grateful.

      Food slides across the table. Gabe stiffens. His eyes lock on her, carefully taking inventory of every part of her. I get it. Harmony is his wife. Every meal she carries the food to the house, every meal he sees her, but every meal Cyrus pins his wicked glare on Gabe and dares him to break a rule. It’s a different kind of torture than mine, but excruciating for one of my few friends in the camp.

    "Looks good!” Nick slides in behind Harmony, too close, close enough to breathe in her scent and sigh out his approval. “Smells good too. Good enough to eat.”

    Gabe’s chair jerks against the floor but Abram puts a hand to his arm under the table. Cyrus waits. When Gabe doesn’t push it any further, Cyrus gives a nod to Nick and he backs away. Harmony gathers her skirt and her breath before she rushes off in a hurry. It’s only once she’s gone that Gabe starts to relax.

     They pass the drinks, beers and ales, stolen from what I’ve learned. Thomas and Raife hit a truck three weeks ago. They claim to be like Robin Hood, but I don’t remember the story saying, ‘Steal from the rich to give to ourselves’. I pass my bottle like I always do. Gabe nudges me with his elbow drawing a wince from me that I can’t subdue. I shake my head and he glares again. He thinks I should drink more. It would dull the pain, both physical and mental, but I need to stay sharp if I’m going to make it out alive.

    “Sky!” Cyrus calls. “Sky, you’re needed.”

    The name is new. I learned early on that Cyrus has his own team of women living in the house. None are his wives. I’ve met Lavender when she bandaged up a knife wound I received during training. I met Coral when I helped her carry the bed linens to the line to dry. Sky is new to me.

    She pushes open the door. Her left eyebrow tweaks up with more challenge than I’ve seen since arriving. Her mouth skews to the side, evaluating the table full of men. “You called for me Cyrus?” She sweeps her long blonde hair to one side and smiles as if his every wish is her command.

   He takes her hand and pulls her closer. “Eat with us, my child. Bless us with your beauty and grace.”

   “I’m tending to the other house servants right now.” Sky effectively peels her hand from his without offending him. “I’d hate to neglect my chores.”

   Thomas, seated near the head of the table , sneers in her direction. “I believe your chores involve pleasing the men.” He swings a hand back and grabs her rear like it’s the dinner on the table.

   Without warning, Sky twists into his grip, snagging a knife from the table and jams it against her offender’s throat. Thomas’ eyes triple in size. Sky glares down at him without relinquishing her grip, or lessening the pressure.

   “I think you’re mistaken, Brother Thomas,” she barely breathes the words loud enough for the rest of us to hear, “I live to serve Cyrus, and him alone. Wouldn’t you agree to the same?”

    Afraid to nod, or speak, Thomas lets a whimper slide free. Sky’s blade pulls back and clatters against the table. She stands once more and smoothes the front of her dress. I don’t know what I expect, but it isn’t Cyrus’ laughter.

    “Sky, you never cease to stop amusing me. Such a spitfire in her sweet devotion. You live to please.”

   Her smile turns tight, but spreads. “Of course. Is there anything else, or may I return to my duties?”

     Cyrus waves her away with a hand and all too eager, Sky retreats through the door. Slowly, talking and eating resume. When he thinks no one will hear, Gabe leans close to me and whispers, “Sky always surprises me with the way she fights back and gets away with it.”

     But that’s thing, she didn’t surprise me. After all, I’d met her dad. Nerves of steel likely ran in their genetics. Somehow I had to let Lindy know that I’d found Tasha Saunders.


Prove Yourself

I don’t know if Lindy knows why I hate guns. I’m not sure I really knew before I came here. Little by little it filtered back. Charles’ insisted I know how to shoot. He’d take me on walks in the forest behind our manner. That wasn’t new to me. I’d always had that memory, but the darkness that followed those first step into the woods cleared when I held a gun in my hands at Eden’s Haven. Just as Charles used to slip a revolver into my young hands, Nick hands me a gun and tells me to shoot.

I hated every second of it as a kid. That’s why I blocked it out. He made me kill animals until there weren’t any left in the forest to kill. I’d sneak out after he fell asleep and tried to find them, maybe to doctor them and save a life, but all I ever found was corpses.

I remembered missing on purpose. Charles’ hand caught me upside the head and a second later I collided with a tree trunk. He screamed at me that I’d never be a man. I fell in a heap of tears and bruises, left out in the cold to find my own way back. It helped me become a better marksman, not because I wanted to kill, but because if I was forced to do it, then I wanted the suffering to end in an instant.

They gave me Lindy’s gun most days. I knew the shape of it better than I knew the shape of her. It molded to my grip, submitted to my strength, and for a few hours the pain stopped because they’d found my aptitude.

The new guy could shoot.

Once they trained me in rifles, the long range games started. They’d set apples on tree branches to see if I could pick them off. Two hundred yards, easy. Three hundred, not a challenge. Five hundred, took some concentration. Fifteen hundred yards, I made two out of four shots.

I watch as Tasha is shoved from the house. Nick snags my arm, pulling me away from my post at the top of the hill. I’d just spotted Lindy in the garden. Frustration pulls at me and leaves me hesitant.

“What’s going on?” I ask the weapons guard.

“Cyrus needs your help, sharpshooter.” He shoves me again. I have no choice but to follow the path in front of me. Visions of picking off innocent animals shift to Cyrus asking me to pick off intruders infringing on Eden’s Haven’s land. I can’t shoot innocent victims, and yet if I don’t, he’ll kill me. The conflicts and contradictions in this trap clang around in my head. The path empties into a clearing. Cyrus waits with an assault rifle, complete with a long range scope.

“Brother Ryder, what a joy to see you on this occasion.”

I stiffen because Cyrus’ joy is usually my torment, but Gabe has trained me well and I reply, “I live to serve, sir.”

He extends the rifle. My grip locks around it, even while my body is repulsed. “We’d like to test your skill. Shoot the water jug.”

I know there’s a catch. There’s always a catch. Every minute of living in this nightmare is like setting a foot in a snare and hoping it doesn’t go off. Regardless, I take my space on my stomach, rifle over the top of a log. I spot a few markers, nylon tags tied to trees to tell me wind speed and variables. I stare through the sight and try to locate his target. I adjust the sight and find the jug, but my heart drops. Tasha is holding the jug on top of her head.

I draw in a quick breath. It’s involuntary, I can’t help it. What he’s asking me to do, I can’t take that risk.

“What did she do to deserve this?” My question isn’t allowed, no way should I be asking it, but I need to find a way around this.

“We’re testing her allegiance,” I’m surprised Cyrus is willing to tell me, “if she stays still and has faith in everything we stand for, she won’t move. If she flees I know she’s a traitor.”

My stomach churns. “How far back are we?”

“Two hundred fifty meters,” Nick says. “You’ve done this a hundred times. It’s not a challenge for you.”

I realize quickly that this is not only her test, but mine as well. If I refuse, then I’m outing myself as a traitor as well.

I settle back in to my space. I swear Tasha is staring at me through my sights. As long as she doesn’t move, we’ll both survive. I drew in a breath, hold it, and squeeze the trigger. Water explodes over her head, but she’s still standing. Another jug replaces the last, and I know what I have to do. I repeat the steps, water explodes and Tasha visibly shakes.

“I think it’s too easy.” Nick speaks only to Cyrus. “This is hardly a challenge for him.”

“Three hundred,” Cyrus says. “Set it up.”

I push to my feet, unwilling to take that chance. “There are too many variables. I’m not familiar with this gun. She’s proved her faith, hasn’t she? She didn’t twitch once.”

The proverbial snare tightens around my ankle. Nick’s back hand whips me to the ground. I cough twice to catch my breath. Cyrus’ boot slams against my abdomen. The butt of Nick’s rifle crashes down on my shoulder. Pain and abuse ring in from every side. In my mind Charles yells and screams. His fists pummel me until I’m nothing more than sobs and shaking. Finally, the beating stops. I tremble, but keep my tears internal.

“If he can still shoot, I’d wager we’ve handicapped him enough that two-fifty will be a challenge now.” Cyrus doesn’t bother to look down at me huddled in the dirt. “Have him shoot until the jugs are gone. If he misses even one, put a bullet in his head.”

The underbrush snaps with Cyrus’ exit. Nick nods to my gun. “You heard him. Get to work.”

Movement only heightens the pain, but I push through, trying to simultaneously silence the demons and memories let loose in my mind. I groan once as I lay out. I keep the rest inside, for fear that Nick will see it as weakness. I line up my sights, draw a breath in, hold it and squeeze the trigger. Water bursts near Tasha’s hand. She drops the jug. A cry of pain lights up my ears. The next time she’s in my sights, her nose is dripping blood, someone punished her for showing fear, but she’s alive.

I focus harder because our lives depend on it. Ten more jugs pass. Ten more bullets I could have put through her head. Ghosts swirl around me, howling my sins in my ears. Every day I spend in this place I come closer to a mental break. No amount of Gabe and Liam’s tricks will save me, not with the darkness I’m uncovering.

But today, I’ll hang on to my win. Tasha is soaked. I’m bruised. We’re both alive.


The Job

“At least we didn’t need a sharpshooter,” Gabe whispers from my side.

I nod because it’s not the first time it’s occurred to me. They could have me picking off cops. I never could, and disobedience would mean a bullet through my head instead. Reality dawns on me all at once as the van slows.

I’m robbing a bank.

Not me personally, but I’m part of a team that’s about to rob a bank.

“Brother Ryder,” Raife calls from the front, “you’re up.”

Gabe gives me a quick nod. He’s my real commander. It’s his orders I’m following, but I still have no way of knowing if he’ll cause my death just as fast.

I exit the van, take the keys from Raife and slide into the front seat of the convertible we’re using for getaway. That’s what Gabe meant when he told me at least they didn’t need a sharpshooter. It was his way of apologizing that I had to be involved, but at least I didn’t have to kill anyone. Four other men, including Thomas and Raife, follow me into the car.

“Go,” Raife says, fastening his seatbelt.

It strikes me a bit funny that criminals care about safety first, but I dare not laugh. We ease into Seattle traffic, another reason I was chosen to drive, I’m one of the few familiar with the surface streets. We make good time traveling in silence to the bank. Two minutes out, Raife goes over the plan again.

“Thomas and I will enter the front. You two move up the street, ready and waiting. Ryder, keep the engine running. In and out in seven minutes, understood? Then we rally with the others and return home.”

Home. Home isn’t that far away for me. My real home. The lighthouse, even Lindy’s cottage. The manor sounds better than returning to Eden’s Haven. But dies were cast and my fate is sealed. I park out front, tires pointed toward the street for a quick getaway. The rest of my crew climbs out. Right on time the armed car appears in my rearview mirror, cresting the hill behind us.

“For communication.” Raife sets a phone in my hand. “If we get separated. At eight minutes, you drive away, got it?”

“Got it,” I repeat back like a good soldier. I watch them leave, note the time on the dash and start my counter plan.

Gabe knew they’d give me a phone. Good because I had to leave mine back at camp with Lindy in case she needed to escape. I flip it open and dial the number I’ve memorized.

“Yeah?” Shane says seconds after the first ring.

“They just went in. You have seven minutes.”

“Understood.” The line goes dead. I swipe at the call record to erase it. In the distance sirens begin to wail. This won’t bring them all in, but catching Raife will strike a serious blow to Eden’s Haven. At eight minutes I’ll pull away, leaving them all behind. I’ll rally with the others, tell them the whole thing went south, and we’ll return to Eden’s Haven. With Raife caught by authorities, they’ll have all the information they need to raid the compound, and I’ll be waiting to help.

Four minutes left. I clench my grip around the wheel. Up the street the two men I don’t know watch the armed guards remove the bags of money. Three minutes left. They move in, weapons concealed beneath jackets. Up the street, two cop cars turn the corner. I twist the wheel, set my foot to the gas and draw in a deep breath for courage. The passenger side rips open. Raife falls inside. Seconds later, Thomas jumps the side into the back. His palm slams against my head rest. “Go! The cops are already here.”

“What about the others?” I hope to stall a minute longer, allow the Seattle cops a chance to apprehend us, but Raife’s gun stares me down.

“Drive! Now!”

I pull into traffic, too aware of the pressure of the muzzle against my temple. My mind spins with some kind of plan, but there’s nothing. I weave traffic, trying to hold back long enough that a cop will see me, but they’re focused on the two we left behind, I’m sure of it. I have no way of telling Shane our plan was ruined.

“How’d they get there that fast?” Thomas casts glances over his shoulder, searching for threats.

Raife chews on the question. “No way they could, unless someone tipped them off.”

My gut clenches tight, but I keep my mouth shut. Still, a voice inside me whispers that I’ve exhausted my luck. I’ll never make it through the day alive. I need a miracle at this point.



Night Before The Raid

I pull her a little closer, relishing the way she melts into me. Strange to find love this deep in a place like this. She doesn’t pull away when I thread my fingers through her hair. The grip Dallas had on her is fading. He’s sinking into the water as I pull her out. My desire to kiss her becomes almost unbearable, but I hold back. She needs sleep. Yesterday I watched her gait falter. Her words are locking up, even if she doesn’t realize it’s happening. Whether it’s her disease or this place that’s making her weaker, the least I can do is let her sleep.

Lindy shifts once, likely trying to become more comfortable. Leaning against a wall in the corner of a cabin, comfort isn’t a luxury we enjoy. We shouldn’t be touching like this either, but the two children sleeping won’t tell, and I latched the door and closed the curtains last time I came in. With the raid in less than four hours, we need this quiet sanctuary.

If she’d have me, I’d marry her tomorrow. She worries so much about the future, about everything she’s bringing into our relationship, but I doubt she considers all my issues. Being here, at this compound, it’s all been set free. I think back to that moment when Gabe asked me if I had any demons. I’d told him no, but that’s because I hadn’t met half of them yet.

Now I worry for my sanity. No one knows what’s going on in my head. I’m sitting on the edge of a total meltdown and no one knows. I keep those thoughts from me, those memories that threaten to steal the last string of sanity I’m clinging to. I play a good game, pretend I’m okay, but I’m not. I’m not even close to okay.

The truths I’ve uncovered here, the trauma I’ve endured, I don’t know how I’m going to function ever again. I worry Lindy has no idea how bad it is. I worry she may not want me anymore if she does know. Is it possible for two damaged people to make things work?

I hope so. I can’t imagine a life without her in my arms. If I hadn’t found her yet, I think I’d keep looking until I did. I need her, no matter what the future holds.


Last Words Left Unspoken

The door to Willow’s cabin sticks a little when I yank it open. Maybe it’s trying to protect me from what waits inside. Lindy stands against the counter, her back to me. She’s arranged the knives in order, longest blade to shortest, like a childhood game turned morbid by this nightmare landscape we lived in. I don’t have to touch her to know she’s tense. I run my hand over her back, testing the waters so to speak.

“Is it time?”

“No, not yet,” I say to her, “The ammunition hasn’t arrived. FBI wants those guns.”

She doesn’t say anything. Instead she bundles the knives together and starts to order them again. I should be more scared, of what we’re facing, of this ball of anger I’ve chosen to love who’s just as skilled with a knife as she is with her gun, but I’m not thinking about any of that right now. We might die today, in less than ten minutes in fact, and all I can think about is getting close to her one last time. If this is my last dance on earth, I want to spend it with her.

“How are you holding up?”

“That’s a stupid question.”

She’s angry, but it’s not real. It makes me laugh to myself. It’s a knee jerk reaction to everything we’re facing. And she’s right. It was a stupid question. You don’t ask someone who’s facing death how they’re holding up. It’s nowhere near what I really want to know.

“I know I’m supposed to be waiting patiently,” that’s what I promised her at the start of all this, before the world fell apart, “but we could be home tonight. I’m wondering where that puts us.”

I’m doing too much waiting right now. Waiting on the authorities. Waiting on the guns. Waiting on Lindy to know where we stand. Patience has never been my strong point.

Her fingers spin the largest knife so the hilt will land in her hand. Gripping it tight, she slams it into the wooden countertop. “She’s prettier than I am. Vanessa, she’s prettier than I am.”

A smile slides across my cheeks. Lindy Johnson, insecure, never thought I’d see the day.

“I guess she is.”

Her fingers lock around the next knife and I’m lucky she doesn’t jam it into my chest. It sinks deeper than the last, evidence that I said the wrong thing.

“You’re a jerk.”

I roll my eyes because I’m not used to seeing this side of her. I plan to squelch out any misgivings she has on the subject. I turn her words from earlier on her. “Well, it was a stupid thing to say.” And it was. Vanessa is gorgeous. I’d never question that. Walking down the street, the average guy would rubberneck to catch another look at her, Lindy’s beauty isn’t less, it’s different.

“It’s true, she’s pretty, but beauty fades.” Taking my life in my hands, I slip my arm around her waist. “But you don’t.”

She’s likely still considering stabbing me for what I said, but instead she asks, “I don’t what?”

I ease closer, noting the way she twitches when I pull close. I love that I get to her. I love the way she comes unhinged for me. I love knowing I’m the only one who’s been here, treading on her heart like it’s a first snow, and I’m the only prints. She draws in a quick breath as if I’ve stolen it away. I ache to give in to what we’re feeling, but I need her to understand what I’m saying.

“You don’t fade. Not in presence, not in personality, and never in my heart. You don’t fade. She’s pretty to the world. You are my world. She’ll never have anything on you.”

The fire of her anger extinguishes but a new flame ignites. It’s been happening more and more since the bonfire, since she kissed me on her own. Since the beginning I saw traces of this, Lindy wanting to have a future with me, but where her body told me yes, her words held me back. That’s fading. Those moments I stole on the bluffs, they’re expanding as she’s opening her heart to me.

“When I ask you how you’re holding up. I don’t mean about all this.” I can’t help myself when she’s this close. I’m weak. I twist my head, leaning into her neck. Her body eases near, though I doubt she’s aware. Every word brushes my mouth against her skin. She trembles in my arms. “I mean you, Lindy, how are you holding up? Has anything changed? Are we any closer to being free of those memories?”

Her grip tightens on the knife, but I doubt it’s anger that grinds it against the countertop. She’s used to holding back, keeping herself safe, and I’m wearing on her self-control. I catch her earlobe between my teeth, before I spread kisses over the crook of her neck. Puffs of air escape her, but she’s still not willing to let go.

“I swear I’ve lost my mind a thousand times since we go here, but you stay strong no matter what.” I tuck her hair behind her ear, kissing the ridge of it, relishing the way her opposite arm clenches over the one I’ve got wrapped around her waist. It’s moments like this where I know I’m the only one who’s held her this way, kissed her like this. She’s mine. I’m hers. This is all that matters. She’s changing. Any second her walls will crumble, I can feel it. “When do you let yourself lose control? When do you fall apart, Huckleberry?”

The knife falls with a clatter, but she’s not thinking about weapons or raids, or anything beyond this moment. Her body presses back against mine, neck swayed far to the side as if giving herself up for sacrifice. Trust. That’s all I see in her. For the first time in a long time, if ever, she trusts me. It feels bigger than love from someone like Lindy. She’s never given this side of her to anyone. The responsibility to keep it safe weighs on me.

“I try not to,” she says, “I never know if I’ll be able to put it back together again.”

I know it’s true about her. She waits for the quiet in the storm and cries her tears alone. I don’t want that for her, not ever again. I want to be there through it all, the good and the bad. For the first time I feel like she might let me. We’re stronger together, I think she finally sees it.

“You can break with me. I’ll fix you every time.” I can’t stand another second without her lips. I take her hips and spin her to face me. “I’m not going anywhere. You know you can trust me.”

Every other time I’ve said that word, she’s flinched, like Dallas is cutting her again. But it’s not there this time. She’s free, or at least she believes me. Breath is rushing in and out of me. My heart races like we’ve gone running, but it’s not exercise, it’s her. It’s being close to her, it’s seeing this change in her since the bonfire. I have to know. I have to see how it’d feel. Her hands light me on fire, trailing up my chest, destroying my self-control like tinder in a flame. I capture her and press my lips to hers.

Passion nearly cripples me. I can’t pull her close enough. I can’t get enough of her. I could kiss her the rest of my life and never be satisfied. My hands travel over her back, constantly trying to steal one more millimeter. Her hunger steals my breath. No ghosts, no walls, nothing but… I stop myself. I can’t let myself believe that she might love me. I don’t know if she’s capable, and if she isn’t, I finally have my answer; a life time of whatever this is will always trump a life with anyone else. She presses closer, yielding to my need and it only fuels my fire.

I grasp her hips, easily lift her too slender body up on the counter, eager to live out the fantasy I had months before at Rockin’ B. I cling to her thighs, trying to steady myself, but with her hands cupping my face, I’m losing this battle. She pulls away and I follow her, desperate for just a minute more of whatever this is.

“Ryder,” she swallows hard between rapid breaths, “Ryder I have to tell you something.”

At first I worry she’s going to do what she always has, tell me we can’t be together, but when I look up into her face, that’s not what I see. What I see steals me breath. I take it back. No way, in no world, will Vanessa ever be prettier than the woman looking down at me. She’s about to say it, the one phrase I’ve been waiting on. But here? In this moment? I’ll always wonder if she said it because of what we’re about to face. Does she mean it because it’s true or is this her way of giving me something to hold on to moments before we’re killed?

“No, whatever you want to say can wait. I don’t want a deathbed confession I have to question later. Tell me tonight. Whatever it is, tell me tonight.”

She’s going to argue with me. I know what to expect, so I pull her from the counter and stop her from speaking with a kiss. She wraps her arms around my neck, barely balanced on her toes, letting me hold her whole weight. We’re lost to this, slaves to the feelings driving us. I could stay here and let the battle outside wage, never caring once what happens, as long as she’s mine.

The door creaks open and true to Tasha’s nature she strings together a line of curses. “Really? Right now?” I push back, leaning on Lindy’s collarbone to catch my break while Tasha says, “Come on, it’s time. The guns are here.”

The door closes a second later leaving us alone once more. I hate the way reality squeezes the life out of us. We have no choice. We’ve made commitments, there are people counting on us. We have to follow through.

“I guess it’s time, Little Sparrow.”

She pulls the medallion from her shirt. Thumb trembling, she presses the little bird twice. I pull her close, pressing a kiss to her forehead, much like I did before she left for Rockin’ B. We’re back together again, reunited once more.

That’s something that keeps dawning on me.

We always find each other.

Whatever the raid brings, whatever paths lie ahead of us, I’ve found my soulmate.

We’ll never stop looking for each other.

I’ll always find her.

Whether in this life, or the next.  


Ryder's Diaries (Fables & Felonies)


As mentioned in the post entitled Ryder's Diaries, I wanted to include these perspective short stories to enhance my reader's experiences. There are multiple spoilers contained within this story. Please only read after you have finished reading Fables & Felonies. I hope you enjoy Ryder's perspective as much as I have enjoyed writing it.


Ink Blots & Loathing

I stare at the picture again, but only because he told me I had to. If I focus hard enough I can keep the images from my mind. The trick is to look at the spaces between the pictures. On this one, it’s easy. Instead of looking at the campfire, I focus on the darkness between the rocks. The first time I saw the campfire I could hear women screaming as loud as if they were sitting beside me. That’s why Dr. Tarleton made me look again.

I shuddered the first time. Nearly crumpled the entire picture into a ball with the way my hands jerked together. It wasn’t just the screaming. I felt her get ripped out of my hands. I don’t know who, but I can feel the pain and the terror as if it were happening right now, right in this instant, and I don’t want to go back there again. Back to a place where I am helpless. Where I’m  pointless. I don’t want to feel that way.

“What did you see, Ryder?” Dr. Tarleton asks me.

“Rocks,” is all I say in return.

“No, not this time. When you looked the first time, what did you see?”

“Nothing,” I say and it’s the truth. I didn’t see anything. I heard something. I felt something, but I saw nothing.

“Take this picture,” Dr. Tarleton says as he holds another one out to me. We’ve been doing this for a couple weeks, looking at pictures, writing down feelings.

I hate it

I just want it all to come back at once, and then sometimes I don’t want any of it.

I’m different now.

I don’t know how I was before, but I know I am different now.

The picture is of a small boy and his father. The father is hunched over talking to the boy. His right arm is outstretched, pointing off into the distance. I can’t see all of the father’s face, but the boy isn’t looking up, he’s staring at his shoes. I can remember staring at my shoes when I was little. It was safer that way. Looking up at Charles was like staring at the surface of the sun, fried you from the inside out until your soul was black.

“What is happening in this picture, Ryder?”

I hate the way he pronounces every sound in every word. I shouldn’t hear the ‘g’ in ‘happening’ and yet I do. I’m on edge today, unhinged by the screams that keep bouncing around in my mind and the way she was ripped out of my arms. I want to reach out to her, but if I did, I’d be reaching for air, like falling from the fourth story.  She’s not there. I don’t even know who she is, or where we were.

“It’s a father and a son,” I tell him. We’ve looked at this picture before. I wonder if he’s cycling them on purpose, or if he’s just given up hope.

“What is happening between them? What do you think the father is saying to the son?”

My eyes squeeze shut as his words echo in my mind.

You’re worthless.

Such a disappointment.

Good for nothing.

Mistake.

Just kill yourself, Ryder.

I know Dr. Tarleton is staring at me, scribbling notes ferociously on his notepad that I never get to see, and I have to hide my reaction away.

My breath is not as steady as I would like, but I say, “He’s mad at his son.”

“Why? Why do you think he’s mad at his son?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “He left his baseball glove on the lawn, or he came in second in the spelling bee. Any number of things could have set him off.” I can feel the anger and frustration mounting inside of me, and I know I need to shove it down, but it’s stronger today, and I can’t control it. “It never takes much to make him lose it. All I have to do is screw up something small, and I’ll pay for it.”

“How do you pay for it, Ryder?”

I wish he would stop saying my name. Does he think I forgot that too? I haven’t. I know my name. Ryder James Billings, middle name is after my Uncle Jimmy. He’s Cassidy’s dad, and I don’t know why that comes into my mind every time I think of his name, but it’s important. I stare up at the clock. Just a few more minutes. A few more minutes and then I’m free until tomorrow.

“Ryder,” Dr. Tarleton says, “how do you pay for it?”

He never lets me not answer. I can give lies, but I can’t avoid questions. I usually lie if I don’t know the answer. Pretty sure he knows that though.

But this. I know the answer to this.

A quick slap to the face if I left my glove on the front lawn, maybe two if it got wet in the sprinklers. Second place in the spelling bee meant no dinner, possibly no breakfast if he was still home in the morning. I let my play dough dry out on the table when I was in kindergarten. I remember because it was the first time he told me I should have  just killed myself. Six-years-old and contemplating suicide.

The answer to Dr. Tarleton’s question is easy, and I don’t have to lie.

“Pain,” I reply. “He makes me pay with pain.”


All's Fair...

Katie. She’s my solace right now. I went looking for Lindy, but as usual I can’t find her. My leg won’t stop bouncing. It does it every time I sit down. Dr. Tarleton calls it nervous energy. He says it’s latent from what I’ve been through. My body is producing more adrenaline than it should, and it makes me feel as though I’m in the middle of a fight.

I think the reverse is true. I wonder if I’m in the middle of a fight and that makes me produce more adrenaline.

   “You’re back,” I write, “I was worried.”

I don’t have to wait long before she writes, “You shouldn’t worry. I was just working a case.”

    “That was the reason I was worried.”

PI’s take dangerous cases, Lindy had taught me that. The idea that Katie could vanish just as easily out of my life, leave me staring at my phone waiting for another woman to call me and tell me if she were dead or alive—that thought nearly leaves me catatonic.

       “I’m okay, I promise,” Katie writes back.

The couch in my living room shifts as Vanessa sits next to me. Her hand slips over my thigh to stop the bouncing. It bothers her. Everything I do bothers her. She’s my girlfriend, at least that is what she keeps telling me, but it itches at the back of my mind every time she says it.

I don’t think of her as my girlfriend. In amnesia, or repressed memories, or whatever they’re calling me these days, I think you’re automatically single, back to square one because nothing you remember can be trusted.  Even worse, nothing anyone tells you can be trusted. They just want you to be who you used to be, and you can’t. You never will be again.

“Baby,” Vanessa whispers as if she might break me with her full voice, “I was going to make you some dinner.”

'I’m not hungry,” I say as I tilt the phone away from her. She can’t see Katie. It’s not cheating, but the secret is mine, and I won’t share it. “I told you not to call me that anymore.”

She smiles and I feel like dirt. Vanessa is gorgeous, exotic, I’ve seen other men stare at her when we go out. They envy me for having my own supermodel, and the best I do is tolerate her while she bends over backward to make me happy. I often wonder if I was this mean before my head injury, or if this is new.

Maybe I’m becoming him.

Maybe Charles was just a nice guy that got pushed too far.

Vanessa kisses my forehead, and it just drives the guilt deeper into my gut. I’m too hard on her. I haven’t even given her a chance, not from the first moment I saw her in the hospital. It didn’t matter that she was beautiful, she wasn’t Lindy.

I flip my phone back over, and my leg begins to bounce once more. The door downstairs opens then shuts again, and I know it’s my mother, or my warden, they are the same person and completely interchangeable.

Katie is still active online, and I can feel the cold relief in my veins. It’s not romantic, it can’t be because it’s not real, but she listens and I desperately need someone that will listen without ulterior motives.

     “I was beginning to think I’d imagined you or at least imagined that we had talked. I’m having a hard time with my memory right now. It’s hard to trust anything.”

        "Well,”she writes back, “now you know it wasn’t imaginary. We talked. I enjoyed it.”

My heart swells at the idea that she enjoyed talking with me the other night. No one enjoys me anymore. I used to have friends, but now my wardens keep me isolated, afraid someone will trigger the wrong memory. Mom won’t let me go to Johnny’s out by the boundary. I can’t call Shane and watch a game. They freak out any time I leave the house alone, like I might just drive off a cliff. If they could read my mind then they would know I have far more imaginative ways of ending it all, but not before I get some answers.

I realize I’ve been staring at my phone instead of writing back and I feel the need to apologize to my only friend in the world.

      “Sorry,”I write, “things just get blurry for me right now.”

     “Tell me about your day,” Katie writes, “that way you’ll have someone to help you keep it straight.”

I nearly laugh out loud. That's the last thing I want to do. Admit that I’m close to a psychological break and have to see a psychiatrist daily? No, that doesn’t seem like the best way to make friends.

       “You’ll think I’m crazy,” I write back.

        “In my line of work, not likely.”

Fine. I warned you, I think.

          “I had to see a psychologist,” I write, “he showed me pictures and different things to see if they could make my memory come back.”

          “Did it?” she writes almost immediately. I stare at the screen for a second. It hadn’t even fazed her.

         “I told him no,” I wrote back, wondering if she’d catch my hidden meaning.

           “But did it?”

She caught it. Shouldn’t be surprised since she’s a PI.

         “I don’t know,” I admit through the chat window. I start writing, then stop, then start again. Should I really tell all my secrets to some girl I don’t know? But then, maybe that’s the safest way, like whispering sins in a dead man’s ear. “I saw things in my mind, but not enough to connect them. I should have said something, but I don’t trust him. I don’t trust anyone.”

        The words are nearly instant. “You can trust me.”

My mom steps up the last step and braces herself on the railing. I’m not sure why she gets winded every time. She’s not overweight, there’s more oxygen here than at the ranch. She claims it’s because she never has to do this many stairs at home and the spinning nautilus shape makes her dizzy.

“Hello Darling,” she says. I want to believe all the love I see in her eyes, but the worry and pity are there too. They're pushier than her love, and then that’s all I can see.”Is Vanessa here?”

Stupid question. I swear Vanessa is always here. When I want her, when I don’t want her, it doesn’t matter.

“I think she’s making dinner,” I say as my mom kisses the top of my head. She’s been doing it like that since I was young. It took me a while to figure out that it was because she was avoiding any possible bruises my father might have inflicted on me during the day.

“Who are you talking to?” Mom asks as she spots the chat window.

My mouth tilts to a frown without my permission and I smash he screen against my leg like a naughty child. “No one. Just someone I met online.”

“Not Lindy?”

Why is her voice so cold? The prickle in my spine says danger, but is it because of my mother, or because of Lindy?

“Not Lindy,” I say and it’s the voice of a child, the little boy that had to lie to get her attention, to misbehave to get her to pull away from her socialite life. The little boy who couldn’t seem to keep his head above water for more than ten seconds all through his childhood because his parents appeared determined to drown him.

She doesn’t say, “Good” but I can see it in her eyes.

Someone erased Lindy’s number from my phone, and the picture I kept from the first night we met. I tried to find her online, but Lindy works through PI Net, and I couldn’t find any other listing for her. I’ve called her Uncle Shane a dozen times, but he hasn’t picked up, and he won’t return my calls. I can’t get Lindy’s number from PI Net unless she’s actively accepting cases, and her profile is dormant. Makes sense since she is working a case right now.

Ex-boyfriend.

That’s been rattling around in my head for a few days now too, smacking into the screams every now and then. She’s run off with an ex-boyfriend and left me here to rot.

I’ve gone crazy.

That’s the only explanation.

Totally mad.

      “I have to go, Katie,” I write quickly. “My mom’s here.”

I click out of the chat window before she can pull me back into her world. It’s stupid. For all I know she’s a hairy Sasquatch from Wisconsin with a beer gut who gets his jollies by messing with mental patients.

It’s not real.

But then, nothing feels real right now.

“Ryder?”

It’s Vanessa again. I look up at her. She’s a little scared of me. I  see it in her wide eyes. They’re big anyway, but I can see the whites around her irises when I get like this.

Moody.

Unstable.

Over Vanessa's shoulder, my mother watches me as well. Do I look crazy? Am I drooling? Is my hair a mess? I never bothered to comb it. But no, that’s not the fear. I’m acting like him. I’m becoming Charles.

Volatile.

Explosive.

That’s why she’s afraid of me.

“Baby,” she catches herself and corrects, “Ryder, I was thinking maybe we could barbecue tonight. I’ll do all the work. You can relax up here. I know you love a good barbecue.”

She knows that, does she? I don’t know that. How does she know more about me than I do?

“Sure,” I say. “Whatever you want.”

I don’t even have a pet name for her. How can she be my girlfriend if I don’t have a pet name for her?

I had one for Lindy. I can’t remember now, but I know I had one. I don’t think she liked it. I can remember her annoyance when I used it. The thought makes me almost laugh, and Vanessa thinks she’s caused this crack of happiness in me.

“See?” she says as she sets her hands to my shoulders. “Better already.”

She lowers herself to sit on my lap and my body goes rigid. If she feels it, she ignores it because she wraps herself around me, long arms curling around my neck, hand against my head, tight, and I can’t move.

That’s the thing. I  remember being with her, belonging to Vanessa. I can remember laughing and trips, and dates by candlelight, but it’s not mine. It’s someone else’s life that got shoved into my head, and no matter how many times I try to claw it out, it remains there, taunting me that it was real. We were real.

Vanessa touches my face, and I stare at her trying to place the memories as they bombard me. I can see dark hair, but is it as dark as Vanessa’s black hair? I’m not sure. Her fingers brush over my lips, and I squeeze my eyes shut because in my mind I’m in a cabin, not in my lighthouse. I can see the rough plywood walls, and I can smell the herbal concoctions of some mad witch. This has happened before, but I didn’t get a good look because I pushed Vanessa away before I saw the memory’s face.

I can’t tell if it’s Vanessa or the memory that kisses my mouth. But I know I want more, more of the memory. I want to fall into it and hide. My hands tighten, and I can feel her body in my grasp, slender, slight, smaller than Vanessa. I can feel the worry from my memory that she’s too thin.

I have to get her out.

I have to save her.

She needs me to be strong.

She needs me to keep her safe.

Her lips are on mine. It’s important. This kiss is different, that’s why the memory is here, because this meant something to us. Whoever she is, I’m crazy about her.

It breaks apart, the memory, and Vanessa is there, but the memory is too, and my hand tightens in the memory’s hair, ferocious, terrifying. He’s there. Charles. Inside me. Panic rises because I don’t want to hurt her.

Tell me I didn’t hurt her.

My hands are in her hair, but I’m so scared. Why am I scared? I can’t find my way out.

“Baby?”

Vanessa’s voice pulls me free, and the cabin is gone. All that is left is the feeling of my hand intertwined with dark hair. But for what purpose? Was I pulling her closer? Was I dragging her? Did I kill someone? Is that why they’re protecting me? I’ve seen blood in my memories and instinctively I’ve known it’s not mine. Was I brainwashed?

What did I do?

Who is the girl with dark hair?

Vanessa? No, I don’t think so.

I stand and nearly knock Vanessa to the floor. My keys jangle as I pull them from the bowl I keep by the door. I can hear mom yelling after me, but I’m not a boy anymore and I’m sick of these games they play with me. If I drive off a cliff, that’s my choice, not theirs. They won’t own me.

The engine revs in my Tahoe and gravel refracts from the underside of my car as I pull away from the lighthouse. I don’t have a destination. Maybe I’ll drive to Johnny’s and get plastered. That would bring back some memories, or bury them forever. One or the other, and I don’t know which one I want anymore.

Maybe I’ll drive to Shane’s and demand we watch that game from last night because I’m sick of him avoiding me. Maybe I’ll drive all night, and when I get to the California border I’ll just start shouting her name until she finds me.

That is, if she’s looking.

If she even cares anymore.

Or if she’s wrapped up in the arms of someone new.

I lose myself sometimes. I tell myself that Lindy’s done that. I don’t know why I know it, but I do. I can hear her telling me that she’s lost time before. When I open my eyes, or come to, or whatever, I’m parked at her house. I’ve been here before, peeked in the windows, tried the doors. She’ll unlock me. I know she will, so maybe her house would do the same? I don’t even know what to call us.

I know she wasn’t there our first date. That’s how I met Vanessa. I know when she came back she was broken. I have bits and pieces of horses and Lindy and the manor. But it gets cloudy after that, just wisps of memory. I want to remember, but the second the memories come, I pull back hard because it’s terrifying. Everything I’ve hidden is violent and dangerous and tangled with my childhood beatings.

Her gravel crunches under my feet and the memory of our kiss out here is strong, unhindered by whatever blocks the rest of it. The whole choice was impulsive that night after the masquerade, but I find my best decisions are impulsive. I can still feel the beading of her dress from that night, rough under my palms. I thought she’d scream, or punch me, but she melted. She surrendered.

She was mine, for fifteen seconds she was mine.

The porch is hollow as I step up and start for the back. I’ve been here before. It’s hitting me now as I walk. I can hear her grunts and the sound of her fists hitting the canvas bag. She’s so strong. It should scare me, but I feel safe with her. Not because she’ll protect me, but because she won’t attack me.

I ache.

The closer I get to her bag and the memory, the more I ache. But I don’t know if I ache because that’s how I felt in the memory, or if I ache because I need her now and she’s not here.

The porch is empty. The bag is still. I put my hands on the canvas, and I can hear her voice.

“What are you doing here?”

Out loud, I say to the memory, “I said I’d stop by.”

I got the answer right, and the memory plays on.

“That was a week ago, and I said to call.”

She was mad at me. Why? Did I hurt her? I squeeze my eyes shut and drag my hands against the canvas until it grates my skin.

“I was in the neighborhood,” I say aloud.

“I’m a little busy,” the memory replies and I can see her. Crouched down fixing her shoe before she rights herself. Her hands run down her arms, and then I see them. Scars. Long and short. Nicks all over her body. My heart pounds and I reach out for her, even if it’s just a memory, because she needs me.

I can see it in her eyes though. She hates me. She stares past me like I don’t matter anymore. The memory begins to splinter, and I scramble to catch it before it’s gone. Her foot swings high and she kicks the bag. Her toe catches my ear.

I hear my own voice. “You clipped me!”

“It wasn’t intentional,” she says, but I can taste the doubt in my mind.

I can hear myself arguing with her, but all I want is to pull her free and demand my answers, make her tell me where I went, because I know she knows. I need her to tell me what happened to the girl with the dark hair. To the little girl with blonde hair, the one I saw lying sick in bed.

I know the girl was dying. I saw the cabin walls and I could feel the fear in my heart that I couldn’t save her. I’m not a doctor, why was I treating children?

My fist collides with the bag and pain lights up my arm.

Alive.

Connected.

Free.

I swing again and derive way too much pleasure from the pain. The pain pulls me out of the memory and makes the present tangible again. Charles made me take boxing lessons as a teen, said I needed to learn to fight. He’d stopped hitting me by then. I was too big. It always felt strange that he wanted me to learn to fight, strange until I figured out that he was grooming to become the newest version of him.

The thought releases a new bout of anger and the punches come faster, both fists, relentless until the pain is unbearable and I’ve left bloody streaks on her bag. I should feel bad, but a part of me is here with her now, maybe forever. Why does that give me hope? My hands find the wraps on instinct, hidden at the base of the trunk by her back door. Have I seen them before?

Dr. Tarleton told me about this study psychologists did on blind sight. This group of people had damage to their striate cortex, or the primary visual cortex. The relay that sent messages to the occipital lobe was destroyed, but their eyes were healthy and normal. They found that sometimes these people could navigate hallways of obstacles, even though they were blind, or reach out for something, adjusting grip to match the object. He says that’s how I am, blind sight for memory. The memories are all there, but I’m repressing them to stay safe. Maybe that’s how I know that she keeps gauze at the bottom of the trunk, and athletic tape to hold it in place.  

All I know is I need her. Sometimes it’s more than just needing her to fix my brain, sometimes I need her against me, my arms around her. Sometimes I feel ripped in half, and she’s got my missing piece.

But all the time I miss her, and I don’t understand why she won’t come back.


Gratitude & Gravy

“Baby?”

Vanessa’s voice shatters my peace. Dr. Tarleton said I should try meditation. For the most part, I either fall asleep or get bored, but today I actually had something. Sunlight through dark hair, a daisy behind her ear, I was chasing the girl with the dark hair again. I have to know what happened to her. I’m worried I hurt her.

“Ryder?” She speaks my name with guarded fear. I can’t ignore her any longer. I open my eyes, annoyed that once more she’s stopped me from finding my answers.

“What?”

Her large eyes widen for a split second like she’s regretting coming upstairs to see me. “Johnny called. He’s having a party, a get-together, like a barbecue.”

I laugh once but not because she made a joke. “Now you’re telling me about everything I’m missing out on? That’s new. Your idea or mom’s?” I don’t give her a chance to answer before I start in on what she must be thinking. “Let’s see how depressed we can get him. Trap him in this tower, take away his freedom, but as a new treat, let’s tell him what his friends are doing so he knows he’s missing out. Won’t that be fun?”

Her bottom lips quivers before she swallows hard. “I wanted to know if you were interested in going with me.”

The words sting. My stomach turns to granite. Regret doesn’t even come close to what I’m feeling. I open my mouth to apologize, but what can I say? Sorry, I was channeling Charles for a second there. Regular Ryder programming will resume shortly.

I hate myself.

“Yeah,” I say after a second. Every trace of animosity has been replaced by shame. “That sounds fun.”

She brightens and runs her hands over her green sundress. It’s late in the season for something like that. She’s probably freezing, but she’s doing it for me, trying desperately to get me to notice her.

I’m a jerk.

“I’ll be downstairs,” Vanessa says. “We can leave in twenty minutes?”

I nod and push to my feet. She takes the nautilus staircase, but before her head disappears, I blurt out, “Sorry.”

She pauses for a second, long enough that I know she heard me, but doesn’t respond.

It’s not much, but it’s a start at feeling human again. I take a fast shower, and comb my hair for the first time since I don’t know when. A haircut is becoming a necessity. When I let it go long, curls start to appear. I consider shaving, but the stubble and the overgrown hair leaves me looking dangerous, and I like that feeling.

I pick out jeans, a Henley, and my leather jacket. My hands run over the textured feel of the Henley. All at once, I feel her, the girl with the dark hair. Her hands push up over my chest, wrap around the back of my neck and twist up into my hair.

I’m alone in the room, but not in my mind. She’s like a ghost that pops in to torment me.

Faceless.

Nameless.

Only identifiable by the burning heat in my chest.

She vanishes in the next second like a blast of wind carried her away. I might have killed her. Maybe that’s why I’m seeing doctors and stuck at the house. Maybe mom hasn’t told me I pled guilty but managed house arrest on grounds of mental instability. Shouldn’t I wear an ankle bracelet? Am I allowed to go to Johnny’s party? Maybe they’ve got plain clothes cops in hiding, or a doctor with some pills to make it all go away again. Some trap door I’ll never see until it’s too late.

I take the stairs quickly. Vanessa waits at the bottom, a cream sweater buttoned around the dress. I should say something about her looking nice, but my mouth won’t. I feel like I’d be betraying the phantom living in my mind. The girl with dark hair might hear. She’s already mad at me for murdering her. I can’t take any more chances.

“Ready?” I grab my keys from the bowl, but Vanessa jangles her own. She doesn’t say it, but she doesn’t trust me to drive. She tries to smile, but it comes out strained. I don’t know why she stays. I’m not nice to her. I’m not rich any more. I don’t know who I am, but I know I’m not the person I used to be.

She drives a silver convertible. Thankfully the top is up, or my carefully combed hair might be a disaster by the time I get there. I don’t care, not really, and the thought makes me laugh. Instead of smiling, Vanessa stares at me like I’ve lost my mind. It shouldn’t be news to her. I’ve known since I woke up that I’m not stable.

We don’t talk. I let the radio fill the silence between us. I feel like a dog on the way to the park. If I had a tail, I’d wag it. I haven’t see Johnny in, I don’t know, but I know it’s been a while. He lives by the border, a two-story cabin close to the water. We pull in and park near the other cars. She wasn’t kidding when she said he was having a party. I count at least ten vehicles, and my anxiety rises with each one.

Johnny’s waiting on his back deck when we pull up, like he knew we were coming. “Ryder!” He jogs the steps to meet me.

Apprehension burrows in my gut. I know him, at least, I feel like I do, but I get nervous around people who knew me from before. They expect me to be one person, and I’m not him. I hate disappointing them, but I have no manual to tell me what comes next. It’s all empty halls and blank paper in my mind.

“Hey, Johnny.”

His arms clasp around me in a bear hug. My healing wound screams out, but it feels too good to be accepted, and I ignore the pain as long as I can.

“I was so glad when Nessa told me you were coming. It’s been too long.”

Nessa? I jar on the familiarity between the two of them.

Did I call her that before?

No. I’ve never called her anything but her name.

“Yeah, I’ve been out of it, I guess.”

I don’t miss the hard glare from Vanessa to Johnny. She doesn’t want him asking about anything. Johnny nods slowly as if the telepathic communication went through.

“Hey, let’s get you inside. The turkey’s all carved. We’ve got a lot to be thankful for.”

Turkey?

I feel like I’m constantly ten steps behind everyone.

“It’s Thanksgiving?” I grab Vanessa’s arm. “You said it was a barbecue.”

“I—I— wasn’t sure how you’d react.”

Johnny stalls on the back steps. “What’s wrong with Thanksgiving?”

“Nothing.” I shake it off and try to find normal again.

Nothing is wrong with Thanksgiving, except I guess I didn’t register the amount of time that had passed. Sure, I saw the dates on my phone, but I didn’t pay them much mind. Now I feel like I’ve lost too much time all over again.

The back door slides open. Faces spread into smiles around the table. Everyone is happy to see me. Panic buzzes through my hands. I want to run. It’s too much. Their faces morph into other faces. We’re in the woods. The table is plywood balanced on stumps.

“Gabe.” The name falls from me like a whisper. Like a print job waiting in the queue for the power to flip back on. “Liam.”

“No.” Johnny points to the two guys on the end and their faces shift back to strangers I don’t know. “That’s Ben and Tanner. We went white water rafting with them a few years ago, remember?”

Remember is the worst thing you can ask a person when they have repressed memories. Vanessa shoots him another hard look. I’m starting to see why mom hasn’t let me out yet. The world is a minefield, at least anything that’s familiar to me.

“Hey, let’s get you some food. Johnny barbecued the turkey. Isn’t that cool?” Vanessa loops her arm through mine, but I feel like a convalescent, not her boyfriend. I wish she’d stop talking like I’m brain dead. My brain is alive and well, albeit, a bit holey.

We take our spot on the end of the table, Vanessa on my right, Johnny on my left, like two sentinels there to guard me. The chatter resumes at the table. Johnny spends his night talking to Vanessa. When did they become friends?

“I know at least ten guys, myself included, who would sell their souls to trade places with you.”

Johnny’s words flash through my mind. He said it once, though I can’t remember when. Is that what’s happening here? Vanessa’s eyes are bright when she’s speaking to my old friend. For all her talk about wanting to be with me, I never see this side of her. My stomach twists. I force mashed potatoes down my throat to convince myself that I’m going to be okay. Life happens all around me, but I’m removed from it. Like I’m part of a parallel dimension, close enough to see them, but not close enough to interact.

I’m the invalid.

I’m the weirdo sequestered to his lighthouse prison.

How nice of my captors to give me some yard time.

I guess I’m the Thanksgiving good deed as well. Let’s invite Ryder. He’s weird and little busted, but we’ll feel good having him there, pretending like he’s not so screwed up.

She should be here.

It comes out of nowhere. Lindy knows Johnny. I’m not sure how, but that’s where we met, and he was all too comfortable with her. Not comfortable in the same way he’s shooting bedroom eyes at my supposed girlfriend, but comfortable like he’s been around her for years. He might have invited her if she was still here. It seems like the sort of invitation she’d turn down, but for fantasy’s sake I’m willing to indulge it.

I imagine what it would be like with her next to me. She’d be watching every face at the table. By the end, she could tell me who was mad at who, who was going to hook up tonight, and who would be breaking up by morning. We used to play that game when I was in the hospital after the first case we worked together. She’d push my wheelchair to the cafeteria, and she’d watch people around us, telling me stories about who they were. Whether she was right or not, I’ll never know, but I loved every second of it.

People start pushing back from the table, cocktails in hand. Once more I’m behind. Barely touched my food, but I’m starving. I like eating alone. No one is watching me for drool or waiting to see if I’ll go ballistic at any second. A woman steals Vanessa away. She casts a quick smile at me and a sharp warning with her eyes to Johnny. My heart starts to slam as she walks away. I don’t want her, but then I do. I need someone to work as a buffer. I can’t handle the whole world without a filter.

“You’re looking great, man.” Johnny leans forward on his elbows. He extends a beer toward me, but I shake my head to turn him down. “What can I get you then? I’ve got hard ciders, wine, whiskey.”

“Coke?” It’s the only drink that sounds good right now. Like maybe it’ll comfort me.

Johnny laughs to himself but leaves to retrieve my request. He sets the can in front of me, smiling. “You’re still drinking her drink, huh?”

I pop the top and take a long sip. I wish I knew what he was referring to. Finally, I set the can down and shrug. “What are you talking about?”

“Lindy.” Her name perks my ears. “She’s normally water on the rocks, sometimes just rocks, but it’s Coke if she’s blending in or celebrating. I just thought it was funny that you’re still drinking the same.”

“I didn’t know.” But the second I say it, it catches like it’s stuck on a memory. The first night, that’s what we drank. I asked her why she needed to go to a dive bar to have a soda. She claimed she liked the ambiance.

“Glad to see you with Vanessa again. Never thought it would happen with the way you were hung up on Lindy.” He takes a long swig from his bottle. “When I heard you two took off together, I figured you finally got your wish.”

“We took off together? How’d you hear about that?”

Johnny shrugs. “You know how things are around here. People talk. Besides, Nessa spent her share of time at the bar drowning her sorrows.”

“So I broke up with her?”

Johnny stiffens. Maybe he’s realizing he’s overstepped. I don’t care. If he’s got some answers for me, I deserve to know.

“She wasn’t happy you went off with—” Johnny stops before he says her name. “How about we go play darts, man?”

“No.” I grab his arm to keep him next to me. “Where did I go, Johnny? Where have I been?”

“John!” Vanessa’s voice breaks over the top of mine. “What’s going on? Why is he upset?”

She talks like I’m a child. Like I’m not coherent enough to follow any of this.

“We were just talking.” Johnny pushes to his feet, jerking his arm free of my clenched grip. “I didn’t mean anything by it, Ness. He was doing fine.”

The room is spinning. I stand, knocking the chair back. My stomach lurches. My mind is going far away. I’m not at Johnny’s anymore. There’s a man watching me, silver hair to his shoulders. I’m in danger. Voices scream around me. Hands pull on my shoulder. I jam the heels of my palms against my temples to keep the chaos out, but that’s the thing, it’s inside me.

“Ryder!” Vanessa’s voice breaks over the din. The silver-haired man fades away, but not without burning his wicked smile into my memories.

I stare into the wide eyes of the woman who calls herself my girlfriend. She’s afraid of me. That’s smart. She should be. Her expression matches every other face in the room.

I’m something to be afraid of.

“I want to go home.” I swear the room sighs relief at the words. “Take me home, Vanessa.”

No one says goodbye as we leave. Why should they? It would be more like good riddance. The silence keeps up in the car. My leg is bouncing again. She tries to steady it, but I shift to stay out of her reach. The bouncing helps. It keeps me from breaking wide open. She doesn’t understand how it feels to always be on the brink of losing my mind.

“Do you see now?” Vanessa only ends the silence once we’re on my property again. “Do you see why we’ve kept you here, away from everyone?”

Shame clouds my thoughts. I’m that little boy again, ready to hide in my closet where no one can find me.

“Yes,” I whisper. “I get it now.”


Just Beneath the Surface

I sent her a letter through her uncle, but that was a while ago. Well no, I sent her a letter through my mother, who then sent it through her uncle. She still won’t let me see Shane, and I know it has something to do with triggering memories. He’s a cop, so that tells me I was working a case, likely with Lindy. It’s not much, but it’s something.

Dr. Tarleton says he’ll let me know about what happened once I deal with everything from my childhood. Does he know how big that mountain is that he’s wanting me to climb?

Here, take on Everest, if you survive, then I’ll tell you what you want.

Idiot.

I don’t trust him.

For once Vanessa isn’t around, and I feel like I can breathe again. My mom isn’t even around, but I know she hid my keys when she left, or took them with her. Does she know I could just as easily throw myself from the bluffs?

I’ve thought about it. That’s why I’m standing here now, staring over the edge, wondering if the fall would snap my neck, or just leave me broken and back in the hospital. Then I would be in trouble.

No, if I end it, it has to be permanent.

Therapy isn’t going well. The doctor did the gun test again. He set it on the table at the start of our session. It’s been two weeks of therapy now. The gun glared at me until the doctor asked me if there was something I wanted to do with it. My hands grabbed the gun and disassembled it, laying each part down in a perfect row. Without thinking, my hands grabbed the pieces and reassembled it.

Less than twenty seconds.

But that wasn’t the disturbing part. He’s done this test three times now. Normally, at the end I set the gun back on the table. This time I pointed it at Dr. Tarleton. The trigger clicked before I realized what I’d done. The shrink’s face went shock white before he remembered the gun wasn’t loaded.

I doubt we’ll do that test again anytime soon.

I searched online for information about conditioning and sleeper agents. Was that what had happened to me? I hate guns. I know that as clearly as I know that I hate needles and injections. I sometimes wonder if that phobia stems from the shots my father gave me as a child. The ones that made me sick for days before he administered the antidotes.

What kind of parent poisons their own child?

But more disturbing is the ease with which I hold the handgun. The way I know it’s a 9mm, and I know it holds ten rounds, and I know Lindy has the same gun. I know where the safety is. I know how the sights line up. I know the gun better than I know what’s hanging in my closet upstairs, but I don’t know why and the questions might drive me crazy.

Or more crazy.

I’m already there. The doctor wrote something on his pad once his color returned. I’m guessing he noted that my first instinct was to shoot him, not myself. It’s all about the little triumphs, at least that’s what he keeps telling me.

The wind blows up the cliff side and pushes me back. It’s enough to stop the thoughts for now. At least the wind cares if I live or die. Lindy doesn’t. Clearly. Or she would have called when she got my letter.

Cold.

The wind. My hands. My heart.

All cold.

I started poking through my dresser the night before. I wanted to find the knife my grandfather had left me. Dark thoughts have a way of burrowing deep. It was gone, probably for the best. Probably because of my mother, she knows about dark thoughts. In the final drawer, I found something far more dangerous than a knife, or a gun, or a noose.

I found a framed picture of Lindy and me, that first night at Johnny’s. The night she was working and she led me on so she could get the picture of the couple in the back. But this picture, it was the moment she cracked, just a little and it was real.

Mine for a millisecond.

I slept with the picture next to me, my hand over the frame like that night I held her after she was buried alive. Has our entire relationship been me clinging to her as she runs from me? Is there a word for that? A title?

A title other than stalker?

Because that’s how I feel. Or used. That’s the other title. Why can’t I let her go? If she’s so horrible, why can’t I just release her to the abyss where her memories are hiding?

I sink to the edge of the bluffs and run my fingers over the green grass. It’s damp. My pants are going to be soaked. My first thought is how badly my father will beat me for ruining my jeans. The fear is innate, even if he’s dead. Have I always been like this? I don’t think so. I think this is the part of me that’s different.

The doctor slipped yesterday while we were talking. I could tell because he back tracked so fast that if his words had been steps, he would have fallen.

“We have to uncover these old memories before we can deal with the new ones.”

It was the word ‘Uncover’. Uncover meant I had buried them. Had I done this before? Repressed other memories? A different time the doctor had told me that brains learn coping techniques. Had mine just found a technique it liked?

Bad situation? It’s okay, just shove it under a boulder where it’ll never be found. Stupid brain. I still have to live my life and uncovering memories is not a hobby I enjoy.

I find myself reaching my hand out to someone, but I’m alone. It’s strange the way my body takes over sometimes, like the memory is playing just below my conscious, an old movie at the park like the ones mom used to take me to.

I’d fall asleep on her lap as she watched Doris Day and Carey Grant. She played with my hair as I slept, or pretended to sleep. Love as warm as a blanket, our quiet escapes from the prison he’d created for us. I could see the flickering light through my eyelids as I let her fingers tickle over my scalp, trace my ear, squeeze my shoulder. All the gestures Charles never allowed her because it would ruin me in his eyes. That’s how this feels, a memory tickling at my brain, flickering just beyond my grasp so that I reach out for a hand that isn’t there anymore.

“Lindy,” I whisper, as if she’ll whisper back. And then it comes.

It’s a wave, an entire tidal wave crashing over me until I drown in her. The bluffs, the one place that is ours, will always be ours, because this is the one place where her walls fell and she was mine, not a millisecond, not fifteen seconds, but hours. Hours of her long fingers wrapped around the base of my skull because she couldn’t bear to be apart from my lips. Hours of my hands tracing her shape, pulling her close, knowing it might be the only time I got with her, but she was mine. No games. No walls. No withholding.

And I was hers, because for the first time she actually wanted me. She forgot she was sick. She forgot her rules that kept her safe, and she let herself live.

I can feel her fingers weaving through my hair, clenching her grip when it’s too much, when the passion is more than she can bear because she never lets herself feel this way, and I can’t help but wonder how I forgot this. How could I ever forget this passion, and longing, and hunger?

Just a kiss, that’s all it was to the outside world, nothing like I’ve had with other women, but it’s more than all of them combined when it comes to its value. One kiss from Lindy is equal to a lifetime with anyone else.

I’m breathless when the wave subsides, the memories slink back, but I’m left with pieces of her scattered around me like shells in the sand. Her eyes, not as dark as mine, not sharp like Vanessa’s either, but alive, so alive with the way she watches me. Her lips, surprisingly full for how slender they’re shaped. The splattering of freckles across her nose that I long to kiss, one by one, counting them off as I go. She’s wickedly smart. It’s another shell to pick up from the wreckage. And she’s fragile.

Fragile?

What a strange thing to think about a girl as strong as Lindy. But I know it’s true. I can’t hold her too tight, or she’ll break and crumble in my arms. Is that what happened? Is that why she’s gone?

I push to my feet just as my mother’s BMW pulls into the driveway. I bought it for her. It occurs to me all at once, maybe residual pieces from the memories. With Charles’ money. Before I gave it all away. I made a refuge for battered women and children at the manor, or at least that’s what she told me.

Then all at once I’m holding Lindy. I can see tears in her eyes, like she’s begging me to stop what I’m doing. She’s terrified, and because of that, I’m terrified as I remember it. Did I hurt her? Did that part of me that belongs to my father do something to injure her?

“I have to go, please let me go.”

I can hear my voice, ruined, ragged at the edges.

“Promise me you’ll be careful.”

I can feel the pain my chest as she answers me, “If you want results, I can’t promise that.”

I want to kiss her. Why didn’t I kiss her? I can feel how close she is to me even if it’s not real. Inches. I was inches from her lips and I didn’t, why didn’t I? It hurts. It physically pains me not to press my lips against hers, and yet I didn’t.

“Come back to me in one piece.”

And just like the blind sight, I know she didn’t. She came back changed. I can feel her skin against my mouth. I’m wishing it was her lips. I’m wishing I could take it all back, convince her not to go. Apologize for everything I’ve done wrong. Disappear into the manor and not come out for weeks. Why can’t I? Why am I sending her away?

The sounds my mother makes tickle at my subconscious like she’s knocking at my mind’s door, but this memory is new, and I have to see the reason why I let Lindy leave me. Was this when we separated? Was this recent? Was she leaving to meet her ex? Is that why I didn’t kiss her?

My mother calls out to me, but I squeeze my eyes tighter and fit my palms over my ears to shut her out and chase the memory.

I walked back in the manor and long arms looped around my body, kissed my lips and whispered, “It’s good that she’s gone. Now you won’t be so confused.”

Vanessa. That’s why I didn’t kiss Lindy. That’s why I wanted to apologize. Because I had Vanessa. It’s an old memory, not so buried after all.

“I love you, Baby,” she whispers from my memory, and I know she wanted me to say it too, but I couldn’t because my heart left with Lindy. Even when Vanessa kisses me in the memory, I’m betraying her because my thoughts are with Lindy, and it’s her that I’m kissing, a lie fed to the one I was with.

“Ryder.” My mother’s voice is insistent. She won’t let me stay in my mind. “I’m worried. I’m calling the doctor. I think I’m losing you.”

There’s panic there, and I don’t want to frighten her, so I let the memory go and open my eyes.

“Sorry,” is all I can say. “I got swept up.”

She’s frightened, almost too scared to ask. “What did you remember?”

Now it’s my turn to be afraid. She won’t like my answer, but maybe she can fill in some gaps.

“Lindy, when she left. I don’t think it was this time though. Didn’t you say she left when I was still unconscious?”

She thinks about her answer. She always does, like she’s trying to see the path and where her words will take us.

“Yes, she left before you came out of your coma.”

“Why did she leave me before? From the manor?”

She’s stuck on the way I said, “leave me” as if it’s an issue, or a bug she wants to squash.

“She came to help me,” my mom says carefully. “People were dying at the ranch and Lindy came to investigate.”

“I sent her away?” It's phrased like a question, but I don’t need her to answer it like one. It was the truth. I sent her there. I knew the risk and I sent her because I needed her gone. Vanessa was right that I was confused, and it was easier with Lindy gone.

“You knew she could help me,” mom says as she places her warm palm on my cold cheek. “And she did.” There’s a hesitation there. Lindy could tell me what it meant just by looking at the muscles in her face.

“But she came back different,” the blind sight takes over again as I add, “scarred.” The bit from her back porch fits after the ranch. Like a puzzle piece that slides into shape.

Mom doesn’t like the guilt I’m feeling. I can see it in her eyes.

“Lindy fell in love with the wrong person, and he nearly killed her.” She says it like she wants to hurt me with the information, and she does. It slices me as sharp as a blade, as if I’m wearing one of Lindy’s scars.

“Lindy fell in love?” It’s the little boy’s voice again. The one who hid under his bed when the bruises hurt too much. The one who waited there for his mother to find him in the middle of the night, after Charles was asleep. The little boy who knew his mother would hold him until the throbbing stopped. The mother who knew to kiss the top of his head so her affection wouldn’t hurt.

Her eyes are a crisp blue as she takes my face in her hands. She needs me to focus, needs me to hear all of her words.

“She never loved you, Ryder. No one that loved you could have put you through this—” she stops herself because she’s not supposed to tell me what I went through, what everyone is protecting me from. “She’s selfish. She does what’s best for Lindy and deserts you. That’s all you need to know. That’s all you need to remember about her. She’s cold.”

My vision starts to stray because I don’t like this. It’s itchy, because I think it’s wrong, but she forces me to look at her again as she says, “Vanessa loves you, and you loved Vanessa. You were very happy before Lindy came back and ruined it again. You were going to marry her. That’s why she sticks around. She’s waiting for you to ask again.”

It’s as if the ground falls out beneath my heels, because I stumble back out of her grasp.

“Marry her?” I can feel the tension between my brows, so tight it hurts.

“You asked for your grandmother’s ring, dear. Why else would you want it?”

I search her face. Muscles twitch at her inner eye, but I can’t figure it out. I don’t have the skills to know if it’s a lie.

“I don’t remember that,” I admit. “Not any of it.”

Her smile is soft and loving. “Of course not, and she’s going to be patient. It’ll come back. Just give her a chance, dear.”

My mother’s arms wrap around me, and on instinct I lean into her love. How can I still be this little boy when I’m a grown man? How can I still yearn for her affection and acceptance when I know my mother deserted me? That memory never left, but I’m so lonely and Lindy surrounds me, even if she’s hundreds of miles away. The little boy in me wants my mother to protect me from the monster that Lindy became.


Rising Floodwaters

Katie says it’s good to talk to me. After the day I’ve had, I need to hear that. She has a boyfriend, or at least something like a boyfriend. We covered that last time we talked. It makes this whole relationship we have safe. I have girlfriend, or at least something like a girlfriend, not one I want, but every time I go to break up with her, I have this voice inside me that sounds like my mother reminding me that I haven’t give her a chance. I don’t want to give her a chance. I don’t want to give anyone a chance. I just want to be alone. I want to sort through the wreckage of my mind and put the broken pieces back together instead of looking at a doctor who constantly says my name and reminds me that I’m broken.

     “I had a hard day,” I write to Katie, “I was hoping I’d have a friend here to cheer me up.”

Sometimes I wonder what she looks like. Her profile picture is blank. It also shows no open cases, but I wonder if she just doesn’t record them like she’s supposed to. Maybe she’s a rebel. I think she’s blonde. Like my cousin Cassidy. Blondes are fun. I dated some in college. They giggle a lot, they’re up for anything, and right now I feel dangerous. Maybe I need a blonde in my life, someone to get into trouble with. Maybe Katie doesn’t want her kind of boyfriend anymore. We can split the difference and meet in Oregon, erase a few of the memories that are determined to haunt me today.

My leg is bouncing again. I can’t make it stop. Even when I clench the muscle, it just bounces harder and my eye starts twitching. I’ve completely lost it.

It’s Lindy’s fault. She has my answers, and I can’t find her.

I look at the screen and realize she’s already written back, “What happened? Are you okay?”

      “I’m fine,” is the automatic response I write because that’s what I tell everyone. I’m fine. I’m not, but the doctor seems to think it’s okay if I lie, as long as I don’t keep silent. It’s not right to tell Katie about Lindy, not when I’m having thoughts of meeting Katie around Roseburg, Oregon, at midnight. Yes, I’ve already calculated the distance and how fast I’d have to go to get there. We could have all sort of mischief before I come to my senses at sunrise. Maybe then I could leave Lindy behind. Maybe then she would stop haunting me.

       “You have your guy, so I guess it’s safe to talk about this kind of thing.” I stop myself, but remember Dr. Tarleton’s words about honesty this morning and the power it has to wake up our minds. It sounded like mumbo jumbo hippy nonsense to me, but it might be worth a shot. “I started painting today, early this morning, and the more I worked, the more I remembered.”

It was true. That was what drove me out to the bluffs. I’d been painting, nothing in particular, at least not consciously. Blind sight took over and when I stepped back, I could see her hands painted there, long lines, a soft palm, stretched like she was reaching for me. Maybe that’s why I reached for her on the bluffs. Maybe that’s where the memories came from.

       “No real memories,” I write, just in case Katie gets excited and thinks I’m healed. If I ask her to run away with me tonight I don’t want her thinking that I’m whole. She needs to know that I’m still shattered and she could get cut in the process. I add, “and not recent I guess. Just Lindy, all Lindy. Her eyes, her long fingers, the scars she carries, all of it. She flooded me today, and I couldn’t get away.”

It was the best way I could describe it. Flooded. Drowned. Almost dead now. She’d tried to kill me again, maybe finish the job. Maybe I’m haunting her as well and that is why she’s trying to kill me now.

Katie hasn’t written back, and I can feel my adventure slipping through my finger tips. Maybe she’s wised up. Blondes aren’t dumb like they say, and I’m sure anyone can see just how dangerous I am. But if I don’t get to have some drunken escapade with a stranger, then I might as well speak my mind.

      “She’s gone,” I type into the box, “and they’ve erased her from my phone, so I can’t even find her. She hasn’t logged on here in ages, and I don’t even know if she’s alive or not. I don’t even know why I can’t get her out of my mind.”

I expect her to say something like the rest of them. It’ll take time. This is a process. Be patient with yourself, but true to Katie, she writes, “What did you paint?”

I’d forgotten the pieces I’d done. I look back over my shoulder and stare at the three canvases in the corner, each on their respective easels. My favorite is the blue version, the chilling cold of it all, as if she’s made of ice. From what my mother says, Lindy might be. I twist in my chair until I can capture the canvas in the best light and press send.

Patience is not something that has ever come easy for me. My father trained it into me with a belt, but even then, without the threat of physical harm, I don’t wait well. I swear nearly five minutes go by before my self-conscious vulnerability makes me type in, “Well?”

      “It’s beautiful,” she writes, “Is this Lindy?”

I thought it was obvious, but it’s not like Katie knows Lindy. Maybe blondes aren’t that smart. Maybe I’m not that good.

        “Yes,” I answer back.

        “Is there a reason you used blue?” she asks.

I bristle at the question. I’ve never been to art school, too busy with med school and my father’s expectations. Any time someone critiques my work I can’t help but feel my defenses rise up.

      “It’s cold,” I write. “Distant. Like her.”

       “Is that how she is?”

I’m split in half. I want to defend Lindy because I remember the bluffs and despite the wind and the wet ground beneath us, no part of it was cold, but then there’s everything my mother said and the way “she never loved you” clings to me like the mud on my jeans. I don’t know what Lindy is, because she’s not here to show me.

I write the closest answer to the truth that I can manage. “I don’t know, but it’s how I feel now.”

       “You seem angry,” Katie writes after my quick reply. “Are you mad at me?"

        “No.” It’s an easy answer. She’s my saving grace right now.

        “Are you mad at her?”

        “Yes.” I type it on instinct and press send.

         It pops up immediately. “Why?”

Where do I start? How can I explain what a mess my life has become since I woke up from that coma? The way the memories bombard me, and yet I still squirrel them away because I don’t know what is going to get me in trouble, or when someone is going to decide that I  truly lost it?

Will I even know?

The only one who could answer my questions is hidden, sealed off behind some invisible wall that I can’t get to. Close as I can tell, she doesn’t care. Why would she? She’s with an ex-boyfriend, maybe the one that gave her the scars, maybe someone else. But she must love him if she left me. There’s no other answer that fits. She doesn’t love me. She’s with the one she loves. That’s why she doesn’t care that I’m dying inside.

         “She’s not here. Other than one letter I haven’t heard from her at all. I can’t find her because everyone I know is hobbling me. I’m lost and confused and she has all my answers, and yet she’s deserted me. So yeah, I’m mad. I’m furious because I don’t understand how she could leave me like this.”

The words pour out of me, successively making a block of anger, hot as magma from the center of the earth. It’s easier to write them. It’s easier than admitting out loud that everything between us was a game to her.

Katie is quiet for a minute before she writes, “Maybe you don’t have all the facts. You said you’re having a hard time and seeing a lot of doctors, maybe you’re being protected.”

She’s distancing herself. She’s finally able to see that I’ve lost it. I’m unhinged and there’s no reason to stick around anymore. She sounds like the rest of them, and it does nothing to abate my anger.

“She’s broken the rules for everyone else,” I write. And I know it’s true. She steals files, she picks locks, laws are pliable for Lindy. “Why not me? Do I really mean that little to her?”

‘She never loved you’ clangs around in my mind once more, and I can feel my mother’s hands on my cheeks.

Katie’s reply comes quickly, especially for how long it is.

“Maybe she’s dying inside because she can’t get to you. Maybe she needs you just as much as you need her. I bet she’s thinking about you every day, every minute. She can’t sleep. She’s stopped eating. She looks for every excuse to talk to you, and stares at your number in her phone knowing that even though you can’t call her, she could call you, but she doesn’t because she knows more than you do.”

I stare at the block of text. It’s different. She’s different. Like someone stole the phone from her, and I have a new voice to listen to. One that knows more than Katie should know.

Maybe. Why does that stick to me? Why does it highlight itself in my mind. Just one word, but I’ve heard it this way before, used as more than just a hypothetical.

Maybe means yes.

It’s not true, but it is, right now, the way she used it. Maybe means yes. How do I know that? What part of my blind sight is kicking in?

More text pops up. One more block, then two, nearly seconds away from each other, so fast I can’t read one before the next is there, and it’s one huge block of words.

“You have to know that feelings like hers don’t just fade away. She couldn’t forget you if she tried. I can’t handle being away from you, but because of medical advice she listened. Just because you don’t know why I’m not there, don’t assume it’s because I don’t care.”

My mouth goes dry in an instant.

I.

She said I. It can’t be a mistake, well no, it’s a mistake, but not because it’s Katie. It’s someone else. Then it snaps back. The reason I created this Sleuth28 profile in the first place. Lindy wouldn’t talk to me. The memory is clear as it forms, like a wall crumbled in my mind to reveal a secret room. I left her place after our argument on the porch by her punching bag. I logged on to PI Net, and she was there, waiting for me, ready to talk and interact. I did this to her, and now she’s done it to me.

“Lindy?” is all I write at first. I need her to confirm it. I need her to tell me that she’s been talking with me under pseudonym because I’m haunting her like she’s haunting me, and this is the only way to find peace.

“Lindy, is that you?” I write, because it’s all making sense now.

The way I don’t scare her.

The draw I feel toward her.

It has to be her.

“Lindy, have you been talking to me this whole time?”

I want to tell her I’m not mad. Maybe a little mad, but if she could explain it, I could forgive her.

“Lindy where are you?”

I need to know. Is she with him? Does she share his bed? I can hardly breathe at the thought, and I’m panicking at her silence.

“Huckleberry, talk to me.”

I know I’m begging. I know it’s pathetic, but I need her. Even if she’s moved on, I need the memories she shares so I can put my broken brain back together.

“Please, I need answers.”

Silence. All she gives me is silence. The anger is riding in my chest and my fingertips are white as I hold the phone.

“PLEASE!” I write all in caps so she knows the urgency. But nothing.

The thought comes to me, and I begin to navigate PI Net. Her profile as Katie is easy to find and sure enough the phone number is the Washington area code. I copy it down and type it into my phone. It rings, once twice, maybe a billion times, but she won’t answer. Is she there? Did he take her phone? Would he hurt her if he suspected she was unfaithful?

This agony I’m in is exquisite, so close to her, but far, far from her at the same time. Still staring past me like on her deck, like in my painting. I’m invisible. And then I hear her voice.  

“Hi, you’ve reached Lindy Johnson, Private Investigator. Leave me a detailed message and your number after the tone.”

The beep sounds and I know it’s her. Katie is Lindy. Lindy is Katie. She never left me, not completely. Tears are streaming from my eyes as I try to make sense of what I know.

“Come home,” I sob into the phone, “come back to me please. I need you. Please, Lindy come home to me.”

I send texts, leave messages, but nothing. She shuts me out until the phone strops ringing, and it goes directly to voicemail. I curl up on a couch on the third floor, clutching my phone near the melting city of Seattle that I painted on my wall. I can hear the wind through my window, feel the night spray on my bare arms.

Somehow I know she’s in trouble. Lindy could die. Would anyone tell me? Or would they hope that eventually I just forgot her? Desperation melts to depression and I don’t know when Vanessa slips in beside me, but she’s kissing me, and she doesn’t care that I won’t kiss her back. She doesn’t care that I’m ruined, that I’ll never be who I was. She tries to peel the phone from my grasp, but that’s the only time that I fight her. I won’t give it up. Not until I know that Lindy is alive, because right now I know she’s in danger, and I’m helpless again. Helpless to save her just like I was helpless by the campfire, helpless to save the little girl, and helpless to save myself as a child.

Vanessa eventually gives up, because how much fun is kissing a corpse?

Is that all that I am? Is that all that’s left of me?

She’s wrapped up in my arms, but I don’t remember doing it. We’ve been here before, but it didn’t light me on fire, not the way my memories of Lindy do.

No. I can’t give up. Lindy didn’t give up on me. She’s been with me the whole time. Lindy has my answers, and even if she doesn’t want me, Lindy is my future.