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Authors: Nicole Blanchard,Skeleton Key

Mechanical Hearts (Skeleton Key)

BOOK: Mechanical Hearts (Skeleton Key)
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Mechanical Hearts
Nicole Blanchard

Mechanical Hearts

Copyright © 2016 by Nicole Blanchard

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.

Bolero Books LLC

11956 Bernardo Plaza Dr. #510

San Diego, CA 92128

www.buybolerobooks.com

All rights reserved.

Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Editing / Proofreading:
Ready, Set, Edit

Cover Design:
J.M. Rising Horse Creations

Acknowledgments

T
hank
you to Scarlett Dawn for heading yet another fabulous project and for honoring me with an invitation to participate.

To Wendi, for taking me on last minute and holding my hand when the dates kept getting pushed back. You rock!

To Hans Zimmer, for the Inception score that breathed life into this world.

Knockouts— you know who you are— I couldn’t do anything without your constant support and encouragement.

Dedication

T
o my best
friend for your constant inspiration and irritation.

Four Walls and a Roof


I
f you want
to live in my house, you’ll obey my rules,” Aunt Millie shouted, spit flying from her lips. Her normally pasty complexion was mottled red with anger; the color ran high on her cheeks and down her heaving chest.

My own olive skin never flushed that way. And I never grew angry like Aunt Millie did. I just got mean. Like my father, or so she always said.


Fine
,” I shouted back. I was horrified to find that my voice broke in the middle of the word. “Then I’ll leave.”

Aunt Millie jerked backward like I’d slapped her right in the face. All the blood drained from her cheeks, then her eyes pinched together and flashed. She tossed a hand out in the air. “There’s the door. If you think you can make it through college without my help, my house—rent free—then you go right ahead and try.”

She didn’t think I’d do it; I could see it in her eyes. We’d had many fights like that before. Our personalities just never seemed to mesh. She didn’t want kids and resented the fact that my father dumped me in her lap.

And I just wanted out. Away from
her
.

When I was little, I tried to do anything I could to please her. If she needed help around the house, I was there. When I got my driver’s license, I carted her to each and every doctor’s appointment.

But none of it helped. None of it warmed her chilly disposition toward me. So, one day, I just stopped trying.

I don’t know why I even bothered.

With that thought fresh in my mind, I turned my back on her and retreated to the small room she’d given me. It wasn’t much, and the few things I packed in my small suitcase and backpack were even less, but I didn’t give myself a minute to care.

As I stuffed clothes and charger cords and whatever else my hands closed around into the bags, I wiped errant tears from my cheeks. When a knock came at my door, I forced myself to suck the frustrated emotion back and pasted a smile on my face.

“Caro, what’s going on? Why is Mommy shouting again?”

Phoebe entered the room, one hand still clasped around a stuffed bunny that had seen better days.

I crossed the room and pulled her into my arms. “It’s nothing, sweetheart. She’s just mad at me.”

“You’re not going to go away again, are you?”

Her small, sweet voice nearly brought me to tears again. I pressed my lips into her white-blond hair. “Just for a few days. Until she calms down.”

“Why do you have to make her so mad? Why can’t you just be nice to her that way you can stay here? With me?”

“I promise it won’t be for long this time. And I’ll come back for you.”

She was silent for a few minutes, then her arms tightened around me. The scent of green-apple shampoo filled my nose, and I squeezed her tighter, too.

“I promise.” With one last inhalation, I pushed her gently back. “Go back to your room before she comes back. I’ll be back for you. I love you to the moon and back.”

Her eyes watery with unshed tears of her own, Phoebe looked up at me. “I love you to the moon and back,” she said, before she whirled around and dashed back into the hallway.

I kneeled there for a few more moments as I struggled to bring my emotions back under control. When I could breathe without the hitch in my throat, I got to my feet and zipped up the bags.

This is it.

This is my chance to make up for all of the mistakes I’ve made—and there are so many of them. It’s my chance to make everything right. For me, but mostly for her.

First thing the next day, I’d find a place for Phoebe and me to live. It didn’t have to be fancy, just four walls and a roof. I had some money saved from the paid internship over the summer, enough to cover the first and last and all the utility deposits. Once the house was settled, I’d meet with my advisor to go over my fall course schedule. Then, I’d come back for Phoebe.

With my backpack over my shoulder and the handle for the suitcase gripped in my sweaty palms, I left my childhood room behind me. Aunt Millie was still standing in the middle of the living room, slack-jawed and red-faced. Her eyes caught on my bags, and her lips thinned.

“If you leave this house, don’t think I’m going to welcome you back with open arms, you ungrateful brat.” Her words had once been like arrows, and she never missed a mark.

But I’d long since learned how to stop being a target.

Despite my resolve, my feet hesitated on the threshold. Behind me, I heard her derisive snort, which spurred my feet forward and into the dark night.

I threw my bags into the back seat of my rusted-out sedan and climbed into the driver’s seat. There, I let out a long sigh, the pressure inside me lessening with each step I took away from her. It was the right thing to do. I didn’t want Phoebe to grow up the way I had; she deserved a better life. I didn’t know what that was, but I was going to do everything in my power to give it to her.

In front of me, a light winked on in Phoebe’s room, and her silhouette appeared. One small hand pressed against the glass.

I pressed my own against the window. I only allowed myself a few moments before I tore my hand away and started the car.

For a while, I drove mindlessly. I didn’t have a destination in mind. No friends whose houses I could crash in, and I wasn’t going to waste the little money I did have on a ratty hotel room.

Eventually, I made it to the beach near Millie’s house where I always wound up when there was too much on my mind. I suppose I knew that was where I’d been headed all along.

The boat was anchored with the others, though it was much older than the sleek, clean models around it. Aunt Millie said it belonged to my father, but so much of what she told was lies that I only half-believed her. The dominant half being hope.

I parked my car in the lot and left everything in the backseat. There wasn’t much of value, so I wasn’t too worried about it getting stolen.

As many times as I’d hidden in the boat to get away from Millie, I’ve never done so at night.

Lightning streaked through the sky, but I didn’t pay it any mind. Since the confrontation with Millie was over, all I could think of was sleep. I was convinced a good night’s sleep would clear my mind, and then I’d have all the answers.

Salt and sea perfumed the air and made me feel at ease, despite the churning water beneath the dock. I’d never actually been inside the boat—hadn’t had the courage to defy Aunt Millie in that regard—but I’d find a way in, even if I had to break in to do it.

Boards creaked under my feet as I made my way down the slip at the end of the dock. Wind tore at my dark hair and lifted it off of my shoulders to whip around my face. Once I made it to the boat, I heaved myself over the rail, nearly tripping on the deck made slick by the mist of rain.

The boat wasn’t anything special; it wasn’t even that big. Aside from the upper deck, it had a wheelhouse up top and a bunkroom below with a bed—or, at least, that’s what I assumed. Millie supposedly had someone maintain it over the years, but I sort of doubted it. If it turned out the bed was infested with bugs or worse, I’d just sleep the night in my car.

I peered through the wheelhouse windows and frowned; they were too covered with sea salt and grime to make out anything on the inside, and the door was locked tight. I pulled at the edges of the windows, hoping to find one unlocked, but they were all glued shut.

Frustrated, I blew my hair out of my face and slapped a hand on the glass. Thunder rolled ominously, and I glanced back at the storm clouds threatening. The last thing I needed was to spend a night soaking wet so I doubled my efforts.

As the mist condensed into thick fat drops, I inspected each rim and crevice for a key to open the wheelhouse door. There was no way Aunt Millie would have kept it in the house—she’d be too worried I’d find it there. Plus, I’d searched every corner of it trying to find any clue about my parents. The few times I’d been on the boat, I didn’t fare much better.

Just as I was going to give up and spend the night in the cramped back seat of my car, my fingers caught on a piece of metal stuck behind the edge of the wheelhouse overhang. With my bottom lip caught between my teeth, I fished whatever it was out from between two boards and brought it close to study it.

It was a key. A strange-looking key. If I hadn’t found it on the boat, I would have never thought to use it to open the door. It looked more like a collectible than anything else. Its body was about four inches long and looked to be made completely of thick, heavy glass. For something so small, it was heavier than I would have thought. I turned it over in my hands, not sure if it would fit the door or not. It didn’t look like it matched the wrought iron handle, at least.

Shrugging, I fit the key to the lock and turned—the first step toward a new life for Phoebe and myself.

I wanted to look around, wanted to steep myself in the only connection I had to the father I’d never known, but the fight with Millie had exhausted me. The lower deck of the boat was a small bedroom with a galley kitchen. I was too tired to do anything other than curl up on the musty-smelling sheets and fall into oblivion. I had a fleeting thought that I should check the weather—just to be sure it wasn’t going to turn into anything serious—but the thought dissolved into nothingness. It didn’t take long for me to fall into a deep sleep, lulled by the lash of rain against the windows and the to-and-fro of the waves rocking the boat.

The fall into the ice-cold water woke me, and I inhaled deeply in order to scream. I had always been very at home in the ocean, but as briny seawater surged down my throat and scoured my lungs, I wondered if the very thing I loved would be the thing to kill me.

Above me, around me, waves beat the angry sea into a frothy white. Everything else was an inky black. Tossed by the waves, up became down and down became up. Lack of oxygen and desperate panic stole any common sense that remained, and my limbs jerked wildly with the last remnants of self-preservation.

There was no sun to light my way and guide me topside. Like an idiot, I had fallen asleep before double checking the lines securing the boat to the dock in my hurry to find a way in.
Had I unknowingly loosened the boat from its moorings to the dock?

Millie’s face crossed my mind as my vision started to waver. If I could go back to earlier that evening, I’d apologize to Millie and, most importantly, Phoebe. Even though I wanted out of that house, I didn’t want
this.

When I’d came home bursting with excitement about my acceptance letter to medical school at the University of Florida, Millie had wiped away any traces of happiness with the deep grooves of her scowl. It was her disapproval that sealed my fate. I wanted to be there for Phoebe, but we both deserved a better life.

My frustrated tears mixed with the water as the skeleton key and the boat—the only traces I had of my father—drifted down into the depths, lost forever.

The guts of the boat bloated toward its surface and pressed against the glass then belched out of the windows in a soundless explosion of air and bubbles.

With their guidance, I kicked. Around me, the wreckage from the boat fizzed the surface. I slapped uselessly against the surface until my hands came in contact with a life preserver.

My situation dire, I clung to the life preserver until my arms drained of blood and became numb. When I could hold on no longer, I propped my feet on it and stretched out on my back, but water kept sloshing into my mouth and nose.

I was tired.

Bone tired.

All the sleepless nights studying and working to afford medical school and I’d never been so tired. Even the time I pulled all-nighters for three days straight for finals before graduation.

I kept drifting into unconsciousness only to be startled awake by yet another wave crashing over me. I didn’t know how many times—enough that I eventually gave up keeping my eyes open and returned to clinging to the preserver with my numb fingers.

The life preserver tore from me with one ruthless wave and I went under. All I could do was kick my aching legs and work my arms to reach the surface—except, I didn’t know where the surface was. I could have been swimming toward the ocean floor, again, and I wouldn’t have known.

I had never felt the keen edge of life so acutely as I did so close to death.

Everything I’d never done, and everything I wished I had, rushed through my thoughts. At the forefront was Phoebe.

Eventually, I gave up trying to claw my way to the surface and relaxed into the buoyant motion of the water. It was nice, peaceful even. Dark and quiet. I’d never known such peace. It was seductive to give in to it. To forget the stress and disappointment of my very short life.

A roaring sound startled me out of the stupor, and I sucked in even more saltwater, gagging, then sucking in some more, only to repeat the cycle until spots danced in front of my eyes. Something rough dug into my back—coral, maybe.

I was too distracted trying to draw a fruitless breath to care. Endless moments passed, and I crested the surface, vomiting the contents of my stomach and hacking until my airways were screaming in pain but blessedly clear.

BOOK: Mechanical Hearts (Skeleton Key)
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