Authors: Elodie Chase


7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub



By Elodie Chase


Copyright 2016


Dedicated to anyone who has been
given a second chance, no matter how little they thought they deserved it.




It had
been a long day.

I couldn't pretend that wasn't the
case. I'd spent the afternoon fighting traffic on freeways slick with dangerous
black ice, driving to what felt like every obscure corner of Detroit in an
effort to source the paint I was going to need for my latest commission.

It may not be
glamorous, Rachel
, I
told myself for the hundredth time,
it's going to pay the rent and keep the apartment heated and the phone in your
pocket connected for another month, so just suck it up and paint their terrible
logo across the bland, cheery sunset they've requested. As long as their check
doesn't bounce, you can't complain.

Beggars can't be
choosers, and all of that.

I was write, but just because
something’s technically correct doesn’t mean you have to like it…

By the time I was done for the day,
my decades old Corolla had a backseat full of various paints and I'd come to
terms yet again with shaving to sell out in order to keep a roof over my head.
Painting the backdrop for billboard ads and movie posters wasn't exactly one of
the lofty goals I'd set for myself when I'd graduated from the School of Design
six years ago, but getting paid for the opportunity to create art certainly

Like everything, there was some good
along with the bad.

The snow was coming down harder now,
and I was more than a little glad when I took the last left off of the highway
that brought my apartment into sight. Pretty soon the flurries would turn into
a fully-fledged storm, and when
I wanted to be home in front of the heater, sipping hot chocolate and going
over my sketches one final time before I got to work.

The painting itself would take a week
or so, and the sooner I handed in her work, the sooner the money would be in my
bank account.

I parked the car and got out,
hurrying around to the other side's back door. The thing was falling apart, and
of course the handle that had chosen to drop off the car had been the one on my
side of the car, but I suppose it could have been worse. It could have been the
driver's door that was busted, after all.

I scooped up paint buckets and bags
of brushes and hauled my ass out awkwardly of the car just in time to bump into
Mr. Hillsman.

“Oh!” I said, surprised. Probably not
the best thing to say to the landlord you've been trying to dodge for the past
couple of weeks because you were woefully behind on rent, but he'd snuck up on
me and caught me unprepared. “Mr. Hillsman, I didn't see you there...”

He nodded, the sharp look he was
wearing making it clear that him coming up on me so silently had been exactly
his intent. “I saw you pulling up and thought you might need some help
unloading your car, Rachel.”

I smiled, though inwardly I didn't
believe a single word of it. His apartment was on the other side of the
building, so it wasn't as if he'd been serenely gazing out his window at the
winter wonderland when my shitty car had coughed and sputtered into his view.
And was I really supposed to believe that he'd somehow seen that I had a bunch
of gear in the backseat?

Still, no point in calling him on any
of that. There was little to be gained and a lot to lose if I got on his bad
side, especially now. “Thanks for the thought, but I've got it all taken care
of now.”

He nodded and frowned at the same
time. I was sure he was going to ask where my rent money was, which would mean
I'd have to tell him that the paint currently weighing me down was part of the
process of reimbursing him, but he surprised me by leaning forward and
whispering conspiratorially, “Might as well tell you. Police are here.”

I looked around, doing a quick scan
for cop cars and flashing lights. Finding nothing, I simply shrugged. “Yeah?”

“Yes. Well, detectives, at least.
They're up at number one sixty-eight right now. Somebody broke in to Mrs.
Brown's apartment while she was out.”

I nearly dropped the paint on my feet.
“But she lives right across the way from me!”

Hillsman nodded again, and I resisted
the urge to just push past him and go see if I’d been robbed too. He must have
sensed that he was in danger of getting bowled over, because he held up a hand
and shook his head at me in a manner I'm sure he thought was reassuring. “Don't
worry. They
kick down your door,
but the police have already been all through your apartment. I gave them
permission,” he said, even though he didn’t have the right to do that. “You'll
have to check for yourself, of course, but they’re fairly certain that nothing
was taken. It seems that the thieves were of the opinion that you didn’t have
anything worth the trouble of taking.”

I frowned, wanting to argue. There
wasn't really anything I could say in my defense, though. I'd traded wealth for
some level of happiness when I'd decided to be an artist, and I could certainly
see how an outside observer wouldn't see anything of value in my apartment.

“Thanks for letting me know, I guess,”
I told him softly.

“No problem.” He licked his lips
nervously, and I could tell that, no matter how much I wanted it to, this
conversation wasn't quite over. “Listen, Rachel, I suppose this as good a time
as any to let you know...”

“Yes?” I asked, cocking my eyebrow at
him. Inwardly, I could feel my heart pounding and my stomach twist into an
agonizing knot.
He's going to ask you
I practically heard myself scream inside my own head.
He's going to ask you out and you’re going
to not know how to say no and so you’ll say yes and you’ll be stuck at some
awkward dinner or some terrible movie and he'll think it's going somewhere it
isn't and things will go from bad to worse!

It had been too many months to think
about since I'd gone out on a date with anyone, but that didn't mean that I was
going to put myself back on the market by painting the town red with a
pot-bellied guy more than twice my age. Especially one who, I had it on good
authority, did his best to put the single women in the ground floor apartments
so that he had a better chance of seeing them naked during the course of one of
his unscheduled, unnecessary 'maintenance inspections', most of which took
place on the outside of bedroom windows in the later hours of the evening.

“The rent,” he said. “It's going to
be going up by fifty bucks, starting next month...”

“What? Why?”

Hillsman shrugged, and never had I a
better idea of what a distasteful weasel he was than at that very moment. Even
before he dared to open up the weak little hole he called a mouth, I knew he
was going to use the current robberies as a reason to grind his tenants even
further into the dirt. He'd blame it on the need to pay extra security guards
to circle around in their smug little annoying cars, or lie about getting more
cameras installed despite the fact that the ones that were already attached to
the walls were hanging by threads due to his refusal to fix them.

“You know what, save it,” I said, getting
frustrated and stepping past him. “I don't have time for this shit, to be
honest.” I picked up my pace and made a point of not looking back as I headed
over to my apartment, only stopping at the mailbox outside the row blank
windows and plain, clearly-not-sturdy-enough doors, one of which I lived

It wasn’t easy to grab all of my mail
without dropping the paint, but I managed.

Once I finished, the wind kicked up
around me, and I shivered as it shoved me to the side, almost knocking me over
into the snowbank piled up beside the path. There was something about the
Detroit winters that was starting to become more and more apparent the longer I
lived here.

They were out to get me.

I grimaced and stepped around an icy
patch lying in wait on the sidewalk and stepped past the shattered wood that
used to be the front door to my apartment propped up against the wall.
Unsurprisingly, I suppose, it was freezing inside. I planted my feet and
sighed, casting my gaze around quickly in an attempt to see if anything had
been taken.

Thankfully, it looked like Mr.
Hillsman had been right; my easel and art supplies appeared to be untouched. I
hurried into the bedroom and looked through what little jewelry I had.

None of it had been messed with.

That was something, I guess, even if
it really did mean that I didn't own anything worth taking...




woke me up. I lay there in the dark, trying not to panic, my eyes open and my ears
straining for the sound to repeat itself. I'd managed to prop the broken door
up as best I could, but it was doing a bad job of keeping out the cold. Worse,
I knew it would do an even worse job of keeping out whoever had kicked it in
this afternoon if they decided to come back.

It clearly wasn't safe. I knew that,
of course, but knowing it and having enough money in my bank account to fix it
pay the rent were two very different

The sound had yanked me from my
troubled dreams didn't happen again, and I put the noise down to one of the
usual suspects - distant gunshots or fighting cats. Whatever it had been, it
didn't repeat and I did my best to talk myself into going back to sleep.

Twenty minutes later, I was wide awake,
brewing a fresh pot of coffee with leftover grounds and stretching my arms up
toward the ceiling in my kitchen in an effort to crack my back. If I was going
to be awake anyway, I may as well get some work done. If I finished the
painting earlier than expected, maybe I'd only have to go without a properly
secured front door for one week instead of two.

It didn't take long to set the easel
up. I started mixing a few paints and flipping through my sketches, determined
to get as much of a head start as my insomnia was going to allow me.

Of course, right then was the moment
that my inner muse, that often-absent, always-precocious bitch decided to
completely abandon interest in the breakfast cereal client I'd finally won
after chasing the contract for the better part of a month and focus instead

On what?

Instead of pushing the inspiration
away as I normally would have, I simply shrugged and closed my eyes, allowing
whatever picture my inner eye desired to see to form in that hazy mist that was
somewhere between imagination and the land of dreams.

It was a man…

I could tell that right away, sadly.
Even as hazy as the image was when it first drifted into view, the way the mere
shape of his muscled form made my breath catch in my throat and my heart skip a
beat in my chest told me that it was the thing I’d been missing most. I'd been alone
for far too long, even I knew that, and the mere sight of him made my mouth go
dry with need.

Eyes still closed, I couldn't help
but smile. Here I was, just about penniless, as close to homeless as I'd ever
been, especially if the rent really was going up, no front-door on the
apartment and a job urgently requiring my attention, and some vision of a man
I'd never seen before was swallowing all of my artistic energy.

“Enough, Rachel,” I said out loud,
forcing out my breath in a little cloud and doing my best to push the sight of
him away, too. A chiseled jaw and flat washboard abs that looked for all the
world like they were earned through good, honest effort were nice to look at,
but if I didn't get my shit together and fast, I'd be out on my ear.

But he wasn’t just a pretty face. He
was tattooed and scarred, and I wanted nothing more than to be able to run my
hands across his flesh and listen to him tell me in his dark, rough voice where
he got them. He was a man with a past, and I needed to know all there was to
know about him.

And I needed it now. I craved it…

I opened my eyes and grabbed one of
the brushes before reaching out and dipping it into the paint. Without really
knowing what I was doing or why I was doing it, I saw myself casually tracing
the lines of his lean, almost primal face on the canvas.

I wanted to be mad at myself, but the
subject was so
, the absence of
paint in his otherwise piercing eyes giving his pupils a shine to them that
tricked the viewer into thinking the subject was truly alive. A few more brushstrokes
filled out his broad shoulders, the muscles of his upper arms, the short sweep
of his hair, pushed away from his face as if he were moving toward me.

Even though the expensive canvas had
been meant for other things, I let myself go, lost in the act of creation. It
was, without a doubt in my mind, the best thing I'd ever painted. I sat there
for a minute or two in stunned silence, simply staring at him, my emotions finally
running the gamut from angry with myself for wasting my talent on something I
couldn't immediately sell and being absolutely, completely thrilled that this
amount of ability rested in me at all.

He was drop dead gorgeous, at least.
There was no doubting that, and the little voice inside my head was glad that
if I had to paint a random mystery man, at least he was a hunk.

He was more than that, though. He was
mouth-wateringly, jaw-droppingly gorgeous. There was something in the sparkle
of those eyes that spoke to my soul, and it was whispering sweet nothings that
I'd practically given up the hopes of ever hearing again.

Which was all well and good, but it sure
as hell wasn't going to pay the bills anytime soon.

I let myself stare at him for another
second or two, and then got up and walked away, snapping on the light on my way
to flop down in front of the TV. Usually I'd never consider letting the boob
tube into my jealously guarded painting time. I’d always been convinced that it
soaked up my inspiration and drained me of the excitement I usually held
whenever the paint hit the canvas, no matter what I was painting.

This time though, I was desperate for
it to do that very thing. If anything could drive that man out of my head, it would
be the presence of some- crappy reality TV, the kind that's on its third re-run
in the lonely hours before the crack of dawn.

I needed noise. I needed senseless
bickering, the kind that only random housewives or asshole roommates or rival
factions on either side of a red or blue kitchen could provide.

I needed distraction, because I could
still feel him looking at me from the other room, wondering when I was going to
come back to him.

He was watching me.

for me, somehow, and not very
patiently at that. For a moment I'd have been willing to bet that were I to
whirl around I'd catch him in a different pose, his head tilted just so, those
fiery eyes staring through me.

“That,” I told the TV, “is just
stupid, though. It’s crazy talk.”

The TV didn’t have an answer for me,
of course. I hadn't really been expecting it to, but my heart was still beating
faster than it should be, and I could feel the appearance of little drops of
sweat break out on the nape of my neck despite the chill the unstable front
door was letting in.

I sucked in a lungful of air again and
let it out in a long, pained sigh. Mystery men intruding in my head were all
well and good, but I didn't need that guy or anyone else in my head right now.
I put my slippered feet up on the coffee table, knocking off the mail I'd
collected earlier and forgotten to go through in the process.

Well, no time like the present, I
suppose. I bent over and scooped up the envelopes, the usual sense of dread
rising in my gut and sitting there, coiled like a hot little snake ready to
strike as I recognized some of the logos of the companies that had sent me

When you get as much correspondence
from bill collectors as I do, you can spot them a mile away. They'd sent me
three today, and I set them aside without bothering to open them. I didn't have
the money to pay anything that happened to be outstanding, but I was confident
that they'd give me a bit more time before they tried to drag me to small
claims court. After all, even those slimy bastards knew that you couldn't
squeeze blood from a stone, and some of what I owed them was far, far better
than nothing.

The power bill was next, and once I
hooked my finger into the corner and tore it open, it was pretty plain to see
that this was my final notice. Great. If I didn't call them up and do some brilliant
negotiating, I'd be painting in the dark, watching the snow creep in and pile
up around my ankles in little drifts.

That only left one envelope to open,
and I almost tossed it aside without even bothering. It was handwritten, for a
start, and in my experience the only person who wrote out letters by hand and
stuck them in the mail addressed to me was Mrs. Banks, the crazy old cat lady
who lived twenty doors down. She was always trying to get people to sign one
petition or another. She had a rent controlled apartment, a stack of postage
stamps as high as her hip and more time than she knew what to do with.

But I stopped myself before I could
chuck the letter on to the pile of junk mail. Maybe something in me somehow
recognized the handwriting. Maybe it was the feel of the envelope itself, more
thick, folded parchment than cheap and cheerful stationary.

Whatever made me look at it longer
and harder, when I saw that it wasn't addressed to
Rachel Evans
, I froze. It was my Grandmother, and she'd opted
instead to scrawl
Voodoo Child
the front in thick, red ink that could well have been chicken blood, knowing
her. My address was under that, and I was sure to be getting some strange looks
from the woman who brought the mail…

Grandma. My mother's mother. I hadn't
seen her for more than ten years, not since the funeral where we put the flesh
and blood that linked us into the ground. She'd been kind enough to me at the
time, but when the State had requested that they put me in her care, she'd quickly
refused and vanished from my life as quickly as she’d entered it.

I’d always told myself that I'd been
perfectly happy to leave it at that, and I'd assumed that her lack of
communication had meant the same thing.

Obviously not, if the envelope I was
holding in my now trembling hand was anything to go by...

Even before I had the letter all the
way open, I could feel the tears spilling down my cheeks. They pissed me off.
Why was I crying? This woman was nothing to me. I doubted if I’d recognize her
if I passed her on the street. There were too many empty years between us for
her to dare to contact me now, and yet here I was, with her letter in my hand.

A key dropped out of the envelope and
into my lap as I read her words to me.


Let me start by saying
I'm so sorry, little one.

I'd have been there if
I could, but I felt certain that the farther away I was from you the safer you
would be. I fear that, while it may have been true in the past, it isn't the
case anymore.

There's more, of
course. So much more. None of it has a place in the mail, though. I'm writing
you in the hopes that you'll be able to visit me, so that I can settle a few
things before I go. My lawyer, bless him, found your bank details for me, and
I've put enough money in there for you to fly out and see me.

Please, can you try and
find it in your heart to give me the chance I need to make things right between
us. I know I don't deserve it, but I need it just the same.


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