Monday, February 16, 2015

Edge of Redemption: Chapter Two Kenna

Chapter Two

No matter how hard I tried, I could never recreate that day—the day I burned.
The heat of the flames licked my face, encapsulating me with a force I'd grown to savor. Tainted smoke filled my lungs, but my memories remained locked away as if it happened to someone else entirely.
It always began innocent enough with the deceptive smell of campfire wafting high in the air and bouncing toward me in a playful dance, confusing my memories with that of willow sticks and marshmallows, goodness and life. But I knew better. It was only a precursor. The old barn, abandoned fifty years before, popped and cracked. Its final battle lost and swallowed by a kaleidoscope of orange, yellow, and red flames. A cloud of black smoke filled the sky, but still, no new memories were triggered. No part of me, changed. As glorious as it was, it was all routine.
It was strange to think I'd just set my fourteenth burn, well, my official burn. The rest of my fires had been discarded long ago as simply a child's curiosity, but Cal knew the difference. He knew I was searching, and he wanted to protect me from myself.  Maybe that was why he encouraged the burnings in the first place. I bet he never expected it'd turn into this.
Even now as I played the part of showman and waved at the crowd, I recognized no one. My fans for one day. These faceless people in a crowd. My teachers. Old friends. My first love. I'd never gotten used to the spectacle, but simply tolerated their prying eyes. It was easier being the freak.
The people's chants and shouts of encouragement reeked of selfish intentions. If the billowing stench of molted flesh hadn't soured my stomach, their false sense of support would have. The fires eventually always smelled of death and decay. Maybe that was my curse—my one memory.
I heard the chief calling out to me, warning me to back away, but I chose to ignore him. I'd always pressed it until the last minute to savor each moment in hopes that the fire would never be in vain. The skin on my arms and face grew hot, but it was a heat that fueled me. Almost there. A little longer.
Shouts of warning had little effect on me. I lit fires for Christ's sake, big ones, I wasn't afraid. Besides, if I pushed just a little longer…  Mom? Did I even call her that? Why did it seem like a foreign word, tasteless and cold?
"Kenna. Pull her back. Now!"
And just like the thirteen burnings before, I came up short and retreated to the arms of the men leading me away.
A few onlookers remained in the dwindling crowd; I could see pity in their expressions. I must've been obvious nothing had changed within me.
"Next year, Kenna. I can feel it," someone called out, as if I wasn't more than just a thing to them—their creation—and an annual plaything.
Kenna Doe. God, how I hated who they'd made me. They might as well called me Brown or Green, something ordinary, something that anyone or anything could've been.
"You okay?"
I closed my eyes at the sound of Whit's voice and leaned into him. The other hands around me gave way, and eventually, I only felt his touch. I let him lead me, pretending he provided some sort of comfort, while I searched my brain for anything—even an afterthought of my former life.
"Are you okay?" he asked again.
It was times like these when I wished I could still cry, but it seemed with each added burning, my tears dried up completely. "I'm fine. I just want to go home."
"Let's get you some water," he said quietly. "Do you want to sit?"
I nodded and reluctantly opened my eyes. I'd forgotten all about the amateur preacher who'd requested I speak with him, but as I looked at him, standing next to me, in his bland short sleeve oxford shirt, my stomach turned. I wasn't in the mood for talk of God—of the Savior who allowed my mother to die.
"This is Duncan Cane," Whit said almost enthusiastically, as if this little prick held some sort of power. Like a goddamned medicine man come to banish the devil out of me. Been there. Done that. No thanks.
I didn't mean to study him as I did, but he didn't look like any student of God I'd seen, with his black framed Wayfarer glasses and trendy hairstyle. He looked like some rich kid who thought a lot about himself and wanted others to know just how little his shit stunk. No God-loving, seminary student could possibly be so shallow, even in a bad shirt.
"Sorry, Duncan Cane. I'm not interested." I turned to Whit. "Take me home."
Whit scratched his head and looked over my shoulder with a look of apology that made me want to scream.
I didn't always act like such a bitch, but burnings got the better of me. No matter how much I prepared for the letdown, I couldn't help the inevitable rage that stirred.
"I appreciate your willingness to talk to me," Duncan said.
"You know, maybe it isn't a good time."
Whit sounded nicer than I would've put it.
"I wasn't expecting what I saw today and I'll completely understand if…if—"
"If what?" I whipped around to face him.
He swallowed then stared back at me almost as if he'd slipped inside my thoughts.
"I'm sorry," he finally said, "about your mom."
I couldn't deny the concern in his voice. I guess I hadn't given those simple words of condolence much thought until then, when it felt like I'd heard them for the first time, seen it on his face.
"Thank you," I said.
Wait. What was I doing? Why did I have to continue the charade? But the truth was, as I looked back at Duncan my mind filled with things I hadn't seen before. Plain white shirts with short sleeves. Flashes of images—of people. Faces drawn and somber just like his. A large cross behind a pulpit in a little church. Singing. There was singing.
I laughed. I wasn't sure what was happening.
Duncan glanced from Whit and back to me. A stunned expression twisted his boyish face.
I couldn't help it. I laughed again.
"Is everything all right?" Whit took my hands and peered into my eyes. "Is it the fire? Do you remember something?"
"No. I don't know. Maybe."
Whit and Duncan exchanged glances.
The images continued to flicker. Numbers. One-five-seven. Two-Three-Eight. I laughed, but the images slowed. Plain white shirt. Short sleeves. Hands tight around the pulpit.
My heart began to pound.
I am one of the wretched. The words pierced through my thoughts. I am one of the wretched.
"Kenna, did you hear me?"
I am one of the wretched. Plain white shirt. Short sleeves. I am one of the wretched. Plain white shirt.
I jumped, but Whit's loud voice did little to curb my thoughts and speculation. Insistent. Foreign. Mine. I turned on my heels and started for my car. I had to get out of there. For the first time in fourteen burnings, I remembered something. But, it wasn't the fire that fed my memory.

It was Duncan Cane. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Edge of Redemption Chapter One

Edge of Redemption

Chapter One

Born of fire.
At least that was the tale. Elaborate and rambling. Far fetched, yet mystical. Or maybe, just maybe, the whole story was utter bullshit. I tended to believe the latter, but there I stood, waiting for the show, my camera in hand, my eyes searching the scene. Scratch that. I should be honest. It wasn't as if I arrived in Redemption by chance.
I came to this place, somewhere between backwards and normal to land Kenna's story. The real one. Minus speculation. Minus fantasy. The tricky part would be getting her to tell me anything at all.
It didn't help that I was a journalist, especially in this town. From what other saps like me reported, folks hadn't embraced my sort (soul-sucking media hound) or the stories I wished to tell (the kick ass variety). Didn't you hear the one about the journalist who walked into a bar? Spend five minutes in a town like this and you would, if there even was a bar.
Redemption did have small town appeal set in a backdrop of rugged mountains sprinkled with the last bit of winter snow. They stood like looming guardians protecting the town. Old brick buildings, grandfathers of today's towering giants, lined the main street. Imagine the stories they could tell—the secrets. I was born an Army brat so I'd been shuffled all over the world, been to places large and small, but none felt as timeless as this one or as creepy.
"It's a good day for a burning."
The line bounced around me like an annoying game of Keep Away. Me, grasping and reaching, desperate to know how seemingly good people could celebrate the worst moment in a girl's life over and over like an Independence Day celebration. Complete with cotton candy and corn on the cob.
"Are you Duncan?"
I turned toward the deep, authoritative voice. "Yeah, I'm Duncan." It was only after I said my name that I actually noticed who was asking. I recognized his face from the one news report about Kenna that came out of these parts.
"I'm Bodee. Bodee Whitaker. Most people just call me Whit." He jutted out his hand with such enthusiasm, I half expected a "put 'er there, partner" to follow.  
I probably stared back at his splayed mitt as if I was some sort of freaking germaphobe. It wasn't that, but could I really trust a man who'd let all this sideshow crap happen to his girlfriend? Did I want that bad juju rubbing off? Nonetheless, I slipped my hand in his and squeezed tight, as my old man taught me. I even did the lean-in, no back slap, just a lean. Damn, he had a grip too.
"Have you talked to Kenna yet?" Bodee rested his hands on his hips, his elbows pointed east and west in perfect superman pose. He was that typical jock I hated in high school complete with overly gelled hair and a frequent flyer gym membership. He was everything I wasn't or cared to be. I was okay with nerdy. Nerdy was popular. Nerdy got me laid.
"You're a fireman." I motioned to the emblem on his shirt.
"Yeah, kinda ironic, considering."
Kinda, disturbing, really. But I gave him an agreeable nod as if I knew what he meant and wasn't bothered by it.
"So have you talked to her?"
"No, I was going to wait until after…." I glanced around, not sure what to call this impromptu fire festival in the middle of some old farmer's field.  
Bodee scratched at his chin and chuckled. "After the show?"
"Something like that." I smiled, still trying to mask how shitty this all made me feel.
Faces of the people milling about the yellowing field caught my eye. Everyday individuals. No one particularly unique. I watched them stare, with their hands shielding their eyes from the setting sun. They focused on the weathered barn in the distance, two story and leaning slightly to one side, barely holding on, like an old man with one last sunset to take in. A million questions jumbled my mind. I had to bite my lip so I wouldn't start rambling. Those questions would have to wait until I could talk to Kenna.
"Well, if you're looking for a better seat, I can take you near the front." Bodee pointed at the fire truck parked in the prime location between the barn and the gathering spectators.
"Yeah, that'd be great. Are you sure I won't be in the way?"
"Nah, we've been through enough burnings. Nothing ever happens. Plus, you've got it in with the man upstairs, right?" He gave me a shoulder slap with a bit more force than I would've imagined necessary. Again, nerd here, not a jock or even a half a jock so I wasn't sure his gesture was some sort of male bonding thing or if Bodee was smarter than I thought.
I nodded and smiled, not ready to confront my lie. Yes, I was a complete jackass for saying I was a seminary student, but the truth wouldn't get me the story of my career—at least my college career. For today, or until I fleshed out Kenna's tale, I was Duncan Cane lover of all things Godlike, or God-ish.
Oh, I suppose I didn't mention that I wasn't a legit journalist with the degree and my Daily Planet name badge. Nope. I was a college journalism major, but don't judge. I was damn good at it. My soon-to-be-realized career was going to be big. Ask any of my professors, any except Professor Crow, who thought I was a little wiseass without talent. He was wrong. I was a huge wiseass and as far as the talent… well, I shouldn't brag.
Kenna Doe's story was big and soon, it'd be mine. Crow would have to swallow his words with his Metamucil chaser. GIRL RESCUED FROM BURNING SHACK AND ADOPTED BY PYROMANICAL TOWNSPEOPLE. How awesome was that? I needed to work on the tag line a bit, but first, her story—the real story and not what The Redemption Society wanted everyone else in the country to believe. And even if pyromanical wasn't a real word, it should be.
It will be.
Bodee weaved me through the crowd of people who looked at me with wonder, yet despite their curiosity nodded a hello and wished me a good evening. It made my gut ache a bit thinking of the lies I'd have to tell. My fake background. My self-serving intentions. It wasn't as if I hadn't gone through it before. Made a few enemies. Broke a few hearts. Life moved on eventually. It always did. My responsibility to the truth weighed more on my mind than a few superficial relationships anyhow.
"Is it always like this," I called after Bodee, but kept my eyes on the people around me, some in folding chairs, others standing with a child on their shoulders. They shifted their weight right to left, left to right.
"What's that?" He turned his head slightly my way but kept trudging toward the fire truck.
"This"—I made a gesture with my hand to indicate our surroundings—"is it always like this? I mean… with the whole town?"
Bodee smiled and nodded.  "Not everyone supports Kenna. There's quite a few who don't think kindly of her. Think she was brought to Redemption by evil, but they stay away for the most part. I think more out of respect for my uncle. He rescued her, ya know."
"Calvin Whitaker's your uncle?" I said, as if I didn't already know. Considering they had the same last name, my fake surprise came off a bit dodgy. I'd watched a local interview with him, not about Kenna, but about the reintroduction of wolves in the area and the effects on the cattle. He had that Wyatt Earp kind of air about him. Made a man want to stand taller to avoid drowning in his shadow as he passed. I couldn't imagine what'd be like being son or nephew. He seemed like a whole lot of man to live up. "Are you two close?"
"As close as anyone is to him. Most just call him Cap or Captain. On account of his time in the service. He's a great man."
I bobbed my head, speculating, filing questions about Ol' Cappy for later. "That must be hard for Kenna. People not supporting her—judging."  
Several people in the crowd started to cheer and clap.
"She's an amazing person." Bodee had to raise his voice above the noise. "Not much fazes her, as you can see."
We neared the truck and I finally understood the rush of excitement that hit the crowd. I'd seen pictures of Kenna, mostly from a few years back when she seemed like a less than ordinary girl with frizzy hair and a face sprinkled with freckles, but the years, holy shit, were they kind to her. I couldn't help myself as I stared back at her—I actually laughed this freakin' schoolboy doofus kind of laugh.
"You okay," Bodee asked with a slight laugh of his own.
"Yeah. I'm good." I closed my wide mouth and shook off my complete look of awe at sight of her, but I could see clearly in Bodee's expression, I was too late.
He nudged me. "You can say it."
Silence. What the hell could I say that wouldn't result in Bodee popping me in the eye?
Bodee folded his arms around his chest, which made his biceps seem even larger than they were, and me, as small as ever. "I think this is the part where you tell me I'm a lucky guy," he went on.
I turned to drink her in. It was as if I was looking at a woman for the first time and my body was feeling it too. I wasn't one for freckles typically, not that I had a lot of choice with the women I'd been with, but there was something about the randomness of those light brown flecks kissing her creamy skin. Her long, wavy red hair rested just at the small of her back, above an ass that… I ran a hand over my face and laughed again. My heart raced. This was either the best assignment, or the one that would ruin me.
Bodee was right. He was a lucky guy.  
She looked my way—okay, Bodee's way—and smiled. It wasn't a full mouth smile, but one of those barely there, subtle sideways glances that instantly made my mind bound with curiosity. She tucked her hair behind her ear as her smile fell. Sadness pulled at her eyes, no matter how hard she tried to appear otherwise, she was broken and I had to know why.
A lanky man with salt and pepper hair and pristinely tailored fireman's dress uniform wandered over to Kenna. I assumed he was the Fire Chief by the way Bodee and his comrades tightened their expressions as he took center stage. He held a wireless microphone in one hand and smiled less like the protector he should be and more like a politician. A wave to the crowd. A nod. God, the dude was smarmy.
"Good evening, Redemption." His voice echoed and cracked which prompted him to adjust the mic from his mouth. "I want to thank you for coming out tonight to celebrate and to offer support for one of our own." He turned and winked at Kenna. "It's been sixteen years since Kenna came into our lives. I still see that little four year old when I look at her sometimes. She may have not been born to any of us, but she is ours. In our hearts."
"We love you, Kenna," someone shouted and triggered applause.
"That's right," the chief said. "So, in honor of the day this precious girl came into our life, we celebrate with fire. May it cleanse you of the past and help you understand where you came from."
Bodee sidestepped around me and started forward, a blazing torch in his hand. He passed it to Kenna with little ceremony or affection I would've thought appropriate. She situated it in her grasp, her back still facing the crowd. I almost expected her to turn and raise the flame high in the air, like an Olympian or a Gladiator. But she slowly made her way to the barn, looking smaller with each step. She paused only a moment before tossing the torch inside.
She didn't back away as the flame flickered and grew, but dropped to her knees. No fear. No hesitation. Smoke filled the sky. The brittle wood spit and popped. It was all strange, and I felt guilty for watching. I turned to a man next to me and wanted ask him what the hell we were doing? What this all was for? But as I returned my attention back to the flames, I swallowed, mesmerized by her. The wind tossed her loose curls about—a firestorm of its own. In that moment, I understood nothing but couldn't turn away.
"It's pretty incredible, don't you think," Bodee said as he returned to my side.
"This happens every year?" The disgust in my voice was unmistakable. 
"This is what Kenna does." Bodee came back with his own defensive tone. "This is what she'll always do. At least until…"
I couldn't bear his pause. I had to know. "Until what?"

"Until she remembers who set the fire that killed her mother." 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Caretaker: Chapter Three

Keep in mind, this is a work in progress. Editing issues will be addressed later.
Chapter Three

Hagan licked her lips as she slowly awakened. A heavy metallic taste coated her mouth and the smell of sulfur mingled in the air. She struggled to force her eyelids open. Each time they gave a little, their weight eventually sent them crashing down again. Only intermittent flashes of light broke through before the darkness inevitably took control.
“Why is it always the last damn match that lights?”
Leonard. Her chest tightened at the sound of his voice. She held still and allowed her eyes to relax. No sense in fighting her body when the real threat loomed so close. As she lay silent, listening to her surroundings, her reality began to settle in. She’d been kidnapped.
“What else did you give her? She’s been out for hours.”Not Leonard. This new voice was low, controlled. The man in black, maybe?
“Ah, come on, Slick, it ain’t gonna hurt her.” Heavy footsteps clomped forward.
“There are rules.” The other man’s voice grew louder, more insistent. “If you can’t—”
“Shut the hell up. That’s my rule numero uno. And numero two, you don’t get to tell me a goddamned thing. How ’bout that?”
“I’m warning you.”
“Warning me?”Leonard laughed. “I’m the one with the most risk in this chicken shit outfit. She’s seen me. Shoot, they’ve all seen me and my car. I liked that old car.“
            She tensed her fists beneath the scratchy blanket draped over her body.
“You knew what you were getting into when we hired you. If I have to—”
“Why don’t you do us both a favor and take your scrawny ass outside for a smoke. I’ll stay with our girl.”
Our girl? She waited for the man’s refusal, but after a moment of pause, she heard a door open and close. Her body tensed. As strange as it was to wish for her other captor to stay, she didn’t want to be alone with Leonard. He was right. He had the most to lose: no disguise; the bookstore employees could identify him in a line up; and Hagan had taken down his plates in the logbook the first night she’d met him—a standard procedure for all suspicious lurkers of the bookstore.
“Hey,” Leonard yelled, “make me a turkey sandwich.” He muttered something about respect then shuffled closer to where she lay. “Don’t let the kid scare ya. I just gave ya a little somethin’-somethin’ to keep you relaxed. It’s good shit too.” He snorted what sounded like a thick glob of snot. “A girl like you knows her way around pharmaceutical. Am I right or am I right?”
Such a pig. She didn’t move. Maybe if he grew bored, he’d leave her alone. Why couldn’t it be as simple as that? He’d eventually leave and she’d find her way out of wherever she was. She’d be okay. She’d be—
“Ha-gan. Why don’t you wakey wakey so we can have ourselves a little chat?” Thump. “Hagan Hagan Bo Bagan . . . Remember that one?” Thump. “Chuck Chuck Bo Buck . . .” He yawned, exaggerating the sound.
Thump. Thump.
What was he doing?
 “I bet if I came over there and”—thump—“touched those titties of yours”—thump—“you’d wake up.”
She swallowed. Go away. Please.
“I’m a leg man myself, but your rack could change a fella’s mind.” Thump. “I still have dreams about that little black tank top of yours. The one with the sparkly skull on it.” Thump. “Tight enough to show just how round and firm those babies are. Loose enough that the straps fall off your shoulders . . . damn, girl.” He whistled. Thump. “Didn’t you’re daddy ever warn you what happens when you dress like a tramp?”
His footsteps grew louder, almost as if he was pacing right in front of her. The intermittent thumping sounds sent her mind racing with wonder.
“Old slick probably won’t be back for a while . . .”
What did he mean by that? Should I open my eyes?
A thick, calloused hand cinched around her ankle and sent her skin afire with a million goosebumps. He applied steady pressure as he pulled off one shoe, then the other.
She held her breath and listened for the sound. A ball? The sound came from a ball! For a fleeting moment, she felt something other than defeated—her senses had won. But the image of her captor tossing a ball around the room quickly washed away any trace of her meager triumph. Her nostrils flared as the musky smell of sweat and yeast grew potent. His breathing became louder, more labored—he was near. She could sense his leering eyes all over her body. Silence toyed with her mind. His breathing. His smell. What was he doing? Just go. Please just go. Go.
The blanket slowly drifted off her body almost as if he was trying not to wake her. His hand brushed against her skin at her navel. Oh, my god. He fumbled with the waistband on her jeans and as the clasp popped, she opened her eyes, drew back her legs, and kicked as hard as she could at the shadowy haze at her feet.
“No,” she screamed. Her eyes fluttered through the fog, while her hand instantly went to her head in attempts to mask the sudden throbbing.  
Leonard groaned. Stomped his foot. “Stupid bitch!”
She scooted against the wall and sat upright. Her head thundered from the quick change to a sitting position. She could barely make out his shape before he lunged and clutched her throat in his large hand.
“Don’t make this easy,” he seethed, his rank breath hot on her skin.
She clawed at his hand, gasping, flailing. She tried to scream, to plead for her life, but only her garbled pleas answered back. I can’t breathe. Help me.
“Consider this a freebie. Next time, I will slit your throat. Capish?”
His spittle peppered her face. She couldn’t nod. Couldn’t speak. Yes. Yes. Please. I don’t want to die.
A far off look darkened his eyes, and as she stared into them, a rush of warmth filled her pants.
He lessened the pressure he had on her throat, pulled his hand from her neck, and stared at the growing wet spot on her jeans. “Looks like we understand each other.”
She collapsed onto the mattress and began coughing, deep and painful coughs. Her face and throat burned from the strain. “Please.” She took several breaths. Her eyes locked on Leonard.
He bent over at the waist, hands on his knees. He took several breaths of his own. “I should’ve known you . . .” He stood taller and grabbed his crotch. “Stupid bitch.”
She hugged her knees to her chest. Waves of nausea rolled in and out. She would’ve thrown up if she had a moment to process what had happened.
He turned toward her suddenly as if he’d charge again and pointed a finger. “You’re lucky.”
“I’m sorry.” She wasn’t sorry. Would never be sorry. She hugged herself tighter, the smell of her own urine reminding her just how bad her situation was.
He glowered at her for a moment then cocked his arm back and chucked the ball hard against the wall behind her. She jumped at the loud thud, then watched the ball bounce and roll backwards on the dirty wooden floor. He scooped up his ball and silently walked out of the room. The only sounds remaining were her whimpers and the door locking behind him.
She sobbed into her knees. Thoughts of her family snuck through her fear and panic. Fight. You have to fight. She sniffed and wiped at her tears as she sat upright. She looked around her shabby surroundings. Weathered, wooden walls and floorboards mirrored how she felt inside, worn and broken. The room was the size of a small bedroom with only the dingy mattress she was sitting on and a lopsided metal folding chair as furnishings. Add a workbench and some tools and it could’ve passed as her father’s carpentry workshop.
She pressed a hand to the wall for stability and slowly stood on wobbly legs. She took a breath and began wandering the room.  From a support beam in the center of the room, a lantern hung on a rusted and upturned nail. She stared into the modest flame of her only source of light. Her mind focused on the steady flicker while her thoughts drifted to survival. How far would she have to go to stay alive? What would she have to do?
“Hel . . . hello?”
Hagan gasped and covered her mouth with her hand. She turned toward the voice—waiting, listening. This was a trick. A reaction from the drugs.
“Is someone there? Anyone,” the voice called out again.
She held her breath as the words melted over her. A female voice?
Hagan walked toward the wall from where the voice carried. She stared at the barricade for a moment, then gently laid a hand against the splintered wood.
She was not alone.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Chapter 2 (Caretaker)

Chapter Two

James propped his phone to his ear, while his other hand twisted against the steering wheel of his rusted 1975 Ford F250—old blue.
“Hey, it’s Hagan. I’m probably avoiding you, so do whatcha gotta do and leave me a message.”
            He took the phone from his ear and clenched it in his fist. The urge to throw it out the window tore through him, but he paused and closed his eyes while he controlled his breathing. “Damn it, Hagan.” 
In most respects, he was a simple man. He ate Spaghetti O’s straight from the can and couldn’t wait to do the Sunday crossword, even if he’d never finished one. He liked old Jimmy Cagney movies and loved to build things. He may have liked the simple things, but he was not without complexity. For those who knew him best, he was a kind and loyal friend. For others, he was a worthless criminal—a murderer.
            He glanced at his watch, then looked back to the empty parking lot of the Cotton Grove Cemetery. Waiting for his daughter, being angry with her, was easier than ruminating in scattered memories and poor decisions. He also didn’t want to face it alone. In one last desperate attempt to gain his daughter’s favor, he called home.
James shifted in his seat at the brusque tone of his father’s voice. “Hey, Pop. You’re back early.”
“Mags had a conniption, so I left her scraggy ol’ butt at the hotel and came home.”
“You should bite your tongue. She’s a good woman.”
“Maybe on Sunday, but the rest of the week she’s a pit bull disguised as a nice old gal who knows how to make a mean apple tart. That tart’s a ruse, I tell ya, and once she gets you in her clutches its goodbye tart, hello nag.”
James pinched at the bridge of his nose. “And you’re just a ball of sunshine, aren’t you?”
“Whaddya want, anyway?”
“Is Hagan home? We’re supposed to meet at the cemetery, but I haven’t heard from her.”
“Nobody’s here but me. Doesn’t look like her bed’s been slept in. You live here too. Didn’t you see her?”
“Not since yesterday. I assumed she woke up before I did and made her bed.”
Pop let out his James-is-a-dumbass laugh. “You don’t know your kid well enough. She only makes her bed on Sunday, and since it’s Monday . . . there ya go.”
“So what? Does that mean she didn’t come home last night?”
“She’s twenty-two. Maybe she found a fella to shack up with for the night. You know, test the thread count . . . sample the percale . . . do the horizontal mambo. . . ”
“Pop!” James pounded a fist on the steering wheel. “I get it. Do you know her schedule?”
“Yeah, I actually pay attention to her.”
He swallowed the aftertaste of the truth. “I’m trying. I am.” He took off his hat and ran his calloused hand over his shaved scalp. “She’s stubborn.”
“Just like her dad.” Pop softened his tone.
“Look, Son, Hagan’s been stuck with me for the last decade. I taught her to be suspicious. Maybe that ain’t right, but in my experience, it’s good to be cautious. There are a whole lotta snakes out there.”
            “Yeah.” James looked over the patchwork of headstones in the distance.
            “Her boss’s name is Peter over at the bookstore. He’s somewhat of a fruit, but Hagan likes him. Give him a call, maybe he knows where our girl is.”
            “I will.”
            “And son, give Ingrid my best.”  
            James closed his eyes, the stir of emotion stealing his words. He sniffed, sat taller, and slipped his phone into his pocket. His wife, Ingrid, had purchased a cemetery plot long before she knew she was going to die—even longer before she knew James. It was the one thing she’d owned free and clear, and the only thing his crime hadn’t taken away.
            He eased out of the truck and unfolded the map his daughter had made of the cemetery the night before. Ingrid’s final resting place was in the far corner, near a crooked pine tree Hagan had called Mr. Whispy. He took one-step after the next, pangs of regret stirring his insides. A beam of summer sun broke through the trees. Her gravestone shined like a beacon amongst the thick shade. Even in death, she knew how to stand out. He took a deep breath as her name became visible: INGRID MARIE PERRY.
He stared for several minutes, his eyes locked to those letters and her date of death. It was real. He knelt and brushed away the pieces of fallen cotton; he sensed her restless energy all around him, could nearly smell the clean citrus scent of her favorite shampoo. Eleven years without his wife; eleven years riddled with guilt; eleven years taken with no one to blame but himself.
From his prison walls, he used to silently speak to her, offering his apologies and regrets. He couldn’t wait for the chance to speak those words aloud, words he thought would come easy, but he should’ve known better—words never came easy for him. He slipped off his short brimmed fedora and stood with his head bowed.
With each intake of the fragrant air, he fought the urge to break down. His love for his wife was as intense as it had been in life. She was the one person that accepted his faults and encouraged him to be better. When she’d become sick, he would’ve torn down The Great Wall if it meant she’d get well. And after months of tests and more tests, the money ran out. What else was he supposed to do?
            He sighed, the sound of her voice filling his mind. No excuses, James. A man takes his lumps without complaint.
            So many things he wanted to say, things he had practiced in his mind. But in the end, they meant nothing. He placed his hand on the cool surface of the stone. “Je t’aime, Pigeon.”
            He sniffed back his anguish, slipped on his hat, and rose to his feet. He stopped halfway to the parking lot and fought the urge to turn around. Instead, he glanced up the vast trees and the billowing cotton, then with a forced expression of strength, he wandered back to his truck. He was James Perry. Ex con. Murderer. He needed to be tough, but when he opened the truck’s door, a swell of emotion rushed through the hardened man, bringing him to his knees. Years of suppression caught up with him and he wasn’t sure he could take Hagan’s condemnation too. He knew he should’ve headed over to The Purple Penguin Bookstore, but he couldn’t. Instead, he drove straight to trouble—straight for The Tavern Saloon.
            James’s childhood friend, Frank, owned the bar. It was clean and one of the only places where he wasn’t just a lowly ex-con. He was accepted and left alone to stew in silence. He squeezed through a crowd of college kids playing darts near the front door. One of them called after him with some reference to Die Hard and Bruce Willis as he made his way to the bar.  
Frank flipped a white towel over his shoulder and placed a cocktail napkin on the mahogany bar while James settled onto a stool. “Jim. Good to see ya, pal. How about an O’Doul’s?”
            James hesitated. Rows of liquor taunted him from behind the bar. “Bourbon. Neat.” He knew he shouldn’t, but the words just came out, nearly as delicious as the product itself.
            Frank shook off a look he knew far too well and placed a glass dead center on the white cocktail napkin. “You know . . .” He twisted the cap off a bottle of Jim Beam. “Sometimes—”
            “Just pour. I’m not lookin’ for advice right now.”
            Frank shook his head as he poured. “Me and my advice will be over there if you need anything.”
            James picked up his drink and held it to the light before bringing it to his nose. The familiar amber glow and woody corn-like aroma sent heat through his body without having to take one sip. It’d been a long time since he’d drank liquor. He’d stopped by The Tavern every now and then for a beer, mostly “Near Beers” and the like, but never touched the hard stuff. His proclivity for alcohol, whisky in particular, was the root of his former troubles and something he’d sworn to avoid.
            “I can’t believe it,” a woman’s voice called out. “Is that Jimmy Perry?”
            He placed his drink down and turned to see a busty brunette dressed in skintight clothing. He recognized her immediately. “Tristie Johnson.” He forced a smile, a barely there type of smile.
            Her own smile trembled but never faltered. “Thompson,” she corrected.
            He knew her name. She’d chased after him since he was three-years old, in one way or another. He’d even received dozens of letters from her while incarcerated, none of which he’d read. His cellmate, Vic, had enjoyed them, so they weren’t entirely in vain. Tristie wasn’t an unattractive woman. If she softened her make-up and teased her hair a bit less, she’d be a pretty gal. Her desperation was what repelled him. Her look, her appearance, all screamed of insecurity. And from what he remembered, she’d always been like that. In high school, the boys had called her Trusty. Apparently, she knew her way around a back seat, and since then she’d been in one bad relationship after another.
            She shimmied next to him, her nipples taut against her purple tank top. His body tensed. The smell of her spicy vanilla-like perfume lit his senses and stirred feelings he hadn’t experienced in some time. “Looking good, Jim. I heard you got out.”
            “Yeah.” He stared straight ahead, turning his glass of whisky with his thumb and middle finger in slow, even circles. He didn’t want to be rude but subtle hints had usually evaded Tristie.
            “How’ve you been?” She arched her back against the bar, accentuating her already accentuated bosom and making James wonder just how she looked without that tank top.
            “Not bad. You?” He took a breath, reminding himself it was Trusty Thompson’s boobs he was thinking about.
            “I can’t complain.” Her voice was sweet. “How’s that daughter of yours? Hagan, right?”
            “She’s good.” He glanced at the TV, feigning interest in the latest Diet Coke commercial.
            “We really should get together.” Her smile faded in and out as she looked from James to the TV and back again. “I could make dinner for you sometime. We could talk about old times and celebrate your homecoming. It might be fun.”
            He eyed her square in the face. “That’s nice of ya, Tristie, but I’m—”
            “Don’t say no . . . not yet, anyway.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a pen with a hot pink poof attached to the end. She smiled as she wrote her number on a cocktail napkin and tucked it in his shirt pocket. “There, right by your heart.” She patted his pocket and smiled. Then she did something he didn’t expect. She lifted her hand to his face and traced the outline of his jaw with her index finger.
            “You need a shave, Jimmy.” Her smiled twisted sideways. “But, I always liked a bit of stubble. Call me?”
            He hoped his expression would dispel any false hope, but as his eyes found hers, he softened. “Take care of yourself, Tristie.”
She nodded and started for the door, the sound of catcalling college boys grew louder as she elbowed past them. 
            Frank strolled over and leaned into the bar. “I remember when she chased you around Johnny Butler’s sandbox. Things ain’t changed much . . . except maybe your hair, or should I say lack thereof.”
            “And your gut,” James said, finally breaking a smile. “But I wouldn’t use the word lack.”
            Frank laughed. “Ready for that O’Doul’s now? I know you don’t want that shit.” He nodded toward the glass of whiskey. “You might think you do, but—”
            “Hold on.” James held up his hand and nodded towards the television. “Can you turn it up?”
            Frank grabbed the remote and turned up the volume for the local news broadcast.
Authorities are seeking information on a 2009 black Volkswagen Jetta pulled from the Portneuf Resevoir this afternoon. There has been no word yet from officials if this incident is connected to the rash of stolen vehicles dumped throughout the city. If anyone has any information you are asked to please contact your local police department.”
The camera panned in on the black Jetta, and James held his breath. No license plates. Maybe it wasn’t her car. It was a common model. Then he noticed the decal on the right passenger window—a purple penguin.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Chapter One: Caretaker's Kiss (Working Title)

Chapter One

Hagan stared through the murky window of The Purple Penguin Bookstore, waiting for her shift to fade like so many other useless minutes of her life. It had been especially slow for a Monday, which meant she had to lock up on her own. The trouble was, one or two straggling “pervies” always seemed to pop in right before closing to either get their jollies for free or buy something for the road.
At one time, The Purple Penguin had been an actual bookstore. Unfortunately, customers hadn’t rushed through the doors for the New Age books the shop promoted. The owner, a product of the sixties free-love era, changed tactics and replaced many of the books, Buddha statues, and incense with something a little more risqué for the predominately Mormon community. Tucked behind a beaded curtain in a former storage room, sex toys, x-rated videos, and a line of erotic products soon filled the shelves and kept the shop in the green.
            Just as she’d anticipated, a black 70s style Oldsmobile Cutlass rumbled up to the curb. One missing right hubcap, rusted fender, and bent antennae. Damn it. Leonard Small. She grabbed her co-worker’s discarded copy of “Inked” and began thumbing through it, not really seeing the tattooed images before her but needing something to settle her rambling thoughts. As harmless as most of the customers were, she voluntarily worked in a sex shop with a steady supply of whips and chains and all things to entice the freaks to come out and play. And Leonard Small could’ve been the captain of them all.
The metal bell fixed to the heavy front door rang as he shuffled inside, the smell of salami and sweat wafting above his fat head. He pulled a toothpick out of his mouth and smiled. “How’s it hangin’?” The sight of his tangled and discolored teeth set the hairs on her arms on end.
She stood taller as he approached and pointed at the clock. He sneered at her gesture, not bothering to look at the time. Son of a bitch couldn’t care less. He nodded, but didn’t speak, which was unusual for Leonard. He’d liked to chatter to whoever was working, pressing his large gut into the counter as he boasted about one of his exploits. Hagan hadn’t been shy about her distaste for him, so maybe he’d gotten the hint and would leave her alone.
            The tinkling sounds of the long multi-colored beads soon signaled his decent into “perveville.” She pulled out the logbook, and next to the daily sales, she wrote: 8:48 p.m. Oxymoron here—again! She tossed both the magazine and logbook aside and began drumming her fingers against the top of the glass case that displayed the most expensive treasures of The Penguin: a collection of anatomically correct Smurf figurines, hand blown glass dildos, gold plated handcuffs, and first edition copy of Alice Does Wonderland.
            8:50.  She pulled out her cell phone and scrolled through her recent text messages, all from her father and all purposely ignored. If she hadn’t needed something to do, she probably would’ve gone on ignoring him. “Nothing’s changed, jailbird,” she muttered as she typed: C U 2moro. Her father hated where she worked, hated that she’d dropped out of her junior year of college to “piss her life away.” Not that she cared what he thought, however true it might’ve been.
She slipped her phone back into her jean’s pocket. 8:52. She leaned over the counter and looked toward the back corner of the store and into the large convex mirror hung to prevent shoplifting. “Hey, we need to close up,” she yelled. “If you’re going to buy anything, move it or lose it.”
No movement. No sound.
“Leonard! Did you hear me?” She paused as she waited for a response. When he didn’t answer, she locked the cash register and slipped the coiled bracelet key chain around her wrist and up to her elbow before making her way toward the back. “I need to close up.” She stared into the room, not wanting to venture any farther. “Did you hear me?” With a nervous hand, she parted the curtain and pulled the beads to one side. Her chest grew tight—something was off. Damn Peter for calling in sick.
            In front of the rows of x-rated DVDs, Leonard stood with his back to her.
            “Closing time. Didn’t you hear me?” Just turn around and leave, freak. Turn around and leave.
            He didn’t move. The bell on the front door rang.
             “We’re closed,” she yelled.  She held her breath waiting for the bell to sound again, or a conceding remark from the new late comer, but nothing. What the hell? Her hand fell away from the beads, causing them to sway and crash into each other. “What part of—” She whipped around and slammed into a thick wall of stale cigarette smoke. She took a step backwards, realizing she’d just run into a man’s chest. “Sorry, but . . .” Her gaze widened.
            A man, dressed in black clothing and a full ski mask, towered over her. Oh my God. She turned again toward Leonard, the least likely person to help, only he was now facing her, his pervert smile on high, a loose white cloth in his hand. “I think I’m gonna like this.”
            Hagan looked from Leonard to the masked intruder. “This isn’t funny, Leonard.”
He laughed. “This ain’t meant to be funny, sunshine.”
“If you want the money. Take it.” She slid the register key from her arm and held it out for him. “Please, just take it.” Her hand trembled as she pushed the key towards the man’s chest. Take it.
He didn’t acknowledge the gesture, his eyes looking past her, not seeing her at all.
Leonard began whistling as he ambled forward.
“Please.” Her voice cracked. She held the key toward him again. Take it and go. Please. Take it and go.
Leonard stopped less than a foot from where she stood, tilted his head, and scratched at the patchy stubble on his chin. “We ain’t here for the money.” He batted the key from her hand.
Her eyes followed its flight into a far corner of the room. What was she supposed to do? She returned to face him. “I won’t say anything. Take anything you want.”
Leonard crouched and bore into her gaze. “I intend to get what I want.” He pinched her lips into a pucker and drew her face closer to his. “If you play nice, maybe you won’t get hurt.”
She tried to nod despite the strong hold he had on her.
“Very good.” He dropped his hand from her face and turned to the man in black. “Tie her up.”
“No!” She leapt toward the only space between the man and freedom, not that she had a chance. The men quickly pinned her in the doorway. Strands of beads tangled themselves over her arms and legs as she fought to escape their grasp. Leonard laughed as he taunted her with his ping-ponging shoves back and forth with the darkened stranger. She was an object, nothing more. Through all of her kicking and screaming and Leonard’s deep belly laughs, she heard the bell ring again. For a fleeting moment, she wanted to smile, but as the men continued without any regard to whomever ventured inside, she realized they weren’t worried—they’d expected it.
“Help! Help me!” She screamed so hard, so loud, her ears popped, then something soft covered her nose and mouth. Her pleas silenced. Her nostrils burned. And by the time she realized what that sweet smell was she’d just inhaled, it was too late. Everything faded to black. A chirp of her cell phone signaled the last sound she’d heard. Dad.