Authors: Jennifer Minar-Jaynes
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller, #Suspense, #Young Adult, #Adult
Never Smile at Strangers
Copyright © 2011 by Jennifer Minar-Jaynes
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Inkbug Media. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the publisher.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover Design by Brian T. Jaynes
Photograph of “Girl” on Cover by dolgachov
Photograph of “Curving Road” on Cover by Hank Shiffman
Interior Design by Jera Publishing, LLC
“Sometimes you have to get to know someone really well to realize you’re really strangers.”
- Mary Tyler Moore
There are many people to thank for making this novel finally happen.
My husband, Brian, who believed in me from day one. His encouragement, support, creativity and insight have meant the world to me. I’m very lucky—in so many ways—to have met you. Reida and Terry O’Brien who have always been incredibly supportive of everything I do—and who have always been there during the tough times.
Ken Atchity and Chi-Li Wong at AEI for offering to represent me. Todd (
) Grover, the best boss ever. Thank you for reading several drafts of this book and offering such valuable advice. The late and very talented Diane Domingo; Vanessa McDaniel, Ayla Dyer, Chris O’Brien, Brian Cartee, Andy Corso and Augie Corso.
My good friend, Mark Klein, who, for over a decade and across many projects, has read my work, offered honest critiques and boosted my confidence. Your friendship and support have been priceless. You deserve many more glamorous roles in upcoming movies.
I’m also extremely grateful to my handsome and spirited twin sons, Christopher and Ryan—who helped me learn what’s truly important in life and whose existence taught me to push past fear in order to achieve my dreams and pursue work that fulfills me.
THE BOY OPENED his eyes and turned to the window. It was late, and the screen door to the back of the house had just slammed shut.
Thunder rumbled and raindrops struck the glass in loud, maddening beats. He clutched the wool army blanket that reeked of urine, and brought it closer to his body; then, wide-eyed, watched the downpour through his tiny bedroom window.
A burst of lightning streaked across the sky, illuminating the branches and the Spanish moss that clung to them. As quickly as it arrived, the beam disappeared, and the world grew pitch black.
A branch from the giant oak outside scraped the dingy glass, and the screen door to the back of the house banged shut a second time. A restless energy filled him. Something wasn’t right, and it wasn’t the door
His small room, not much larger than a closet, always smelled of mildewed wood. When it stormed, the nasty odor grew thicker, more menacing. Gulping musty air, he reluctantly crawled out of bed and tiptoed down the hallway. He stood outside his mother’s bedroom door, listening for her usual drunken snores. All he heard was the ticking of her wind-up alarm clock.
Something was smeared against the door jam.
His heart skipped a beat as he gazed down at the floor. There, too, was blood. An image of his mother’s torn body filled his mind, and he smiled.
Grim faced, he moved past her bedroom to the tiny kitchen, the scarred linoleum cool and bloody beneath his bare feet. He stood at the window and watched the storm. The weeping willows leaned, overpowered by the screaming wind. He looked out at the moonless night and tried to remember if he’d flipped the
, the small boat they kept out back.
Earlier that afternoon, his baby sister, Allie, had followed him to the pond. Her small eyes had been teeny, mischievous. She wasn’t supposed to wander past the small yard, and he’d been too worried about convincing her to follow him back to the house to even consider the small boat. But he worried now. If Mother saw it filled with rainwater, there’d be trouble.
They usually didn’t lock the house, but he now flipped the latch on the screen door. He grimaced, imagining his mother in the morning, her thin mouth angry, set in a stiff line, furious about the slamming door that had kept her up at all hours of the night, whether it did so or not.
He couldn’t risk it.
Lightning struck again, illuminating the rusted Buick that for all of his nine years, had sat snoozing on top of concrete blocks next to the old, splintering shed. The night became dark again, and in the blackness, he sensed something move. A moment later, he saw it again.
He flipped on the porch light, bathing the yard in a dull yellow haze, and had to blink twice before he believed what lay before his eyes.
Trembling, he backed away from the window.
His mother, naked and standing in the yard, stared up at him through a tangle of rain-soaked hair, her eyes wild. As he bolted from the window, he could hear her calling out to him.
“It’s going to be another muggy day in Grand Trespass with a high of 91 degrees and a relative humidity of 94 percent. Expect it to be partly cloudy with wind gusts from the West Southwest. Not entirely unpleasant, but none too comfortable either. Now, here’s Billy with the traffic.”
HALEY LANDRY FOLLOWED her best friend, Tiffany Perron, into Provost’s, a small bar that lay at the fringe of Grand Trespass, Louisiana.
The town was little more than a post office, filling station, man-made ponds used to harvest crawfish and catfish, a diner, a tackle shop, a church, and an old general store with a faded, oversized RC Cola billboard. Grand Trespass was so inconsequential, its name was rarely uttered outside a ten-mile radius of its rusted welcome sign. The fact that it was so insignificant naturally made certain locals feel rather insignificant as well.
Nineteen-year-old Haley was one of them. Her only dream for as long as she could remember was to escape Grand Trespass. To find out who she was. Who she
be. Something she envisioned being able to do only by going away to college. But college was increasingly becoming more of a fantasy and less of a reality. For the first time in her life, she had responsibilities. Huge ones. . . ones she wasn’t sure she could handle.
The two girls wove through a crowd of men: truck drivers, mechanics, carpenters, metal and agricultural workers and quite a few who were unemployed. The bar was also peppered with women; mostly thirty-ish and forty-ish divorcees done up in the past decade’s fashions, hoping to spear a new man.
Haley hadn’t been to Provost’s for a long time. She hadn’t been anywhere for a long time. And she didn’t want to be anywhere now. All she wanted was to be at home. For her life to return to normal.
They found a table near the bathrooms. After the waitress left with their orders; Tiffany produced a pack of cigarettes, plucked one out and held the box out to her. “Want one?”
Haley shook her head.
“You okay?” Tiffany asked. “You look a little pale.”
“I’m fine.” These days going out just to have fun seemed wrong. Her father was killed in a gruesome accident seven months earlier and she’d barely been out of the house since, but she didn’t want to ruin Tiffany’s evening. She straightened in her seat and tried her best to look more okay than she felt. But even she knew the illusion was thin.
Tiffany blew a stream of smoke over her shoulder, then her green eyes narrowed. “You know, you have to start getting out. It’s been like seven months since—”
“I know,” Haley interrupted. Cigarette smoke, sweat, a mixture of cheap colognes, and the smell of fried food were making her queasy. She wanted to go home.
After the waitress returned and set their cheese sticks and sodas on the table, Tiffany leaned forward, her eyes serious. “Look, I’ve got something to tell you.”
“What?” she asked, glad to change the subject.
Tiffany watched a bearded man stroll to the jukebox and drop quarters in the slot. After a long moment she turned her attention back to Haley.
“Okay, now don’t freak. It’s about a guy. And it’s not Charles.” She lowered her cigarette. “I know it’s not right, especially after Tom and all.” She paused and her eyes grew wider, more emphatic, the way they always got when she was trying to sell Haley something. Most times it ended up being either a really bad idea or an outright lie.
“You know how much I love Charles. I mean, I love
about Charles. Certain wonderful things. . . but then there are things I don’t love. Like, how he’s so disgustingly infatuated with me.”
“I thought that was one of the things you love?”
Tiffany sighed, and pushed her long, strawberry-blonde hair from her face.
“I did. It felt cool at first, but I’m so over that now. He always wants to be with me. I don’t do well on a leash.”
“He’s your boyfriend. He should want to be with you. Besides, it’s hardly like he has you on a leash.”
Tiffany tilted her head and twisted a gold necklace around her thumb, a nervous habit of hers since Haley’s mother had given them matching ones for their high school graduation. Twenty-four karat necklaces with monogrammed heart-shaped pendants.
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m not cut out for a boyfriend,” Tiffany decided. “I mean, I like too
boys.” She untwisted the necklace from her thumb and let it fall back against her long neck. She smirked. “Maybe my mama’s right. I’m hopelessly boy crazy, and Jesus is gonna make me pay for my lust in the afterlife.”
Haley had no reason not to like Charles Johnson. He was bright, warm, polite. . . decent. Although she’d been as surprised as everyone else in town that Tiffany had decided to date a black boy, the difference was she had no problem with it. She thought he was good for Tiffany. But Tiffany wasn’t so good for him. Especially after her affair with Tom Anderson, a professor at the community college—an ordeal for which Charles had just forgiven her. And now they were having
“I think Charles wants to marry me. Say I marry him. Then what am I supposed to do? Stay here? Grow old and decrepit in Grand Trespass with a
man? It’s bad enough to think I might be stuck here at all. But being with Charles in the first place was more about screwing with my mama’s head than truly loving
Haley groaned. She hated how her friend treated boys. Everything always had to be about
when it came to them, with little to no consideration of him.
“Don’t get me wrong, Charles is a doll. An absolute doll. Well, usually. But since the
with Tom, he’s become almost, I don’t know, obsessed.” She sighed. “Well anyway, there’s this guy. I’m not going to tell you his name because. . . well, you’re just going to have to, um, trust me on why.”
, Haley thought. She loved Tiffany, but trusting her, well, that was a lot to ask. The guy probably had a girlfriend or wife and Tiffany knew Haley wouldn’t approve. Or it could be something even worse.
Just then, Haley saw Charles work his way through the crowd. Several of the locals gawked as he walked past. One shook his head. Another sneered. The man walked past all of them, his posture ramrod straight, his face expressionless. His eyes quickly settled on the two girls and he walked toward them.
“Anyway, this other guy and me,” Tiffany continued, “we’ve been kind of flirting and I think that he likes me. I mean, of course, he likes—”
“Shhh,” Haley interrupted, her voice low. She lifted her chin in Charles’s direction. “He’s here.”
“Who?” Tiffany asked, and turned to see.
Charles stopped at their table, an overhead light in the hazy room casting a shadow across his dark face. “Thought you two were hanging at Haley’s tonight.”
He took a seat at the table, and crossing his arms across his chest, fixed his eyes on Tiffany. “Stopped by her house and was told you came here instead.”
“We changed our minds,” Tiffany said, irritation thickening her words. “Haley needed to talk and wanted to get out of the house. Her mother’s still in a bad way.”
Charles looked at Haley and his expression softened. “Your mother still having a tough time?”
She nodded. It was true. Her mother had been grieving ever since the accident, and it hadn't lessened. The woman, who was once brimming with life, an eternal optimist, was now silent and much too thin. She lay in her bed night and day, detached from the world.
The part that
true was the original plan to stay at her house. She wasn’t sure what lies Tiffany had told him and didn’t want to get involved. Her friend lied too much and Haley wasn’t in the business of keeping track.
“If there’s anything I can do to help out, let me know, okay?” Charles said.
Haley studied the crowd and saw Troy, an old family friend, standing in the distance. “Excuse me,” she said, relieved to have found an excuse to get up. Any excuse. “I see someone I should go and say hi to.”
A moment later she was across the room, and Troy was beaming down at her. “Look at you. Growin’ like a weed,
!” His smiling lips gave way to tobacco-stained teeth. His face was ruddy and sagged with years of alcohol and too much Louisiana sun. “Ol’ Sudley sure did make one pretty youngster,” he gushed.
No, she wasn’t pretty,
She was plain and hopelessly unmemorable.
Tiffany. She was the pretty one.
Troy stood too close and had sour breath. He was one of her daddy’s childhood friends from Weston. Haley’s father had become a math professor at Cavelier de La Salle Community College; the college the kids from Chester, Truro, Weston, and Grand Trespass usually went to after high school, before they dropped out and started their own families. The four towns were in spitting distance of each other and were all so pathetically small one could set foot in all four within the span of twenty minutes. Troy had become a mechanic and moved to Truro.
Though a jovial and pleasant person, Troy was one of the last people she wanted to be around right now because he was just another painful reminder that her daddy was dead.
He took a long swig of his beer, and Haley glanced past him at her friends. Charles was leaning across the table. Tiffany’s face was drawn. She twirled the necklace over her thumb and shook her head.
“I never woulda thought I’d outlive ol’ Sudley,” Troy said, slurring his words. “No sir. He was always the responsible one. Level-headed. Always did what was safe. We used to make fun of him as kids, ‘cuz he never seemed like he
one, you know? An old soul that one was.” He wavered and held both hands in front of him to steady himself. “Whoa there.”
“You okay?” she asked.
“Depends on yore definition of it, I reckon,” Troy replied, and let out a big-chested laugh before taking another swig.
Haley looked up in time to see Tiffany march out the back door. Charles got up and followed her.
“Folks just don’t look right at their funerals.” Troy said, his eyes glazed from the alcohol. “Hardly look like themselves. Such a shame. It’s a good thing yore daddy had a closed casket. I’ve been to funerals where folks looked plain different than they had in—” He stopped abruptly and his ruddy cheeks grew red. “Sorry,
. So, how’s yore mama? She doin’ all right these days?”
Haley took a step backward. “Excuse me,” she said. She hadn’t heard anyone say her father’s name in seven months, much less talk about him dead in his casket. She hurried to the bathroom.
After splashing cool water on her face, she locked herself in one of the stalls and leaned against the rusted out avocado-colored door. She knew she shouldn’t have gone out, but Tiffany begged her. Now she was fighting with Charles in the parking lot, and who knew how long they’d be? She took deep breaths through her mouth and focused on the wall in front of her, because if she closed her eyes she knew her mind would take her places she was too afraid to go.