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Authors: Vanessa Gray Bartal

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Pecked to Death

BOOK: Pecked to Death
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Table of Contents

2012 Vanessa Gray Bartal




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.






“I’m wearing a bra.”


“Ew, Sadie, gross. I don’t want to know that.” Luke turned his face sideways, pressing it into the dirt as he placed his hands over his ears.


“But you need to know, Luke. This is monumental.”


“Why?” he asked. He shifted when he realized his nose was resting on an ant hill and the ants were beginning to swarm.


“I don’t know, it just is.” Sadie made some anemic plucking motions toward the crab grass, frowning in frustration when none of it pulled from the earth. “I think I’m a woman now.”


“You’re twelve,” Luke said. The ants were angry and bent on revenge for their ruined domicile. He sat up and scrubbed at his nose with the back of his hand as he shuffled farther away from them.


“Exactly. If I were Jewish, then I would have a Bat Mitzvah. Everyone would know I’m a woman.”


“You’re not Jewish; you’re Presbyterian. And no one knows you’re a woman because you’re not; you’re a girl.” When she didn’t reply, he thought that was the end of the conversation. He lay down again, far away from the ants this time, and stared at the leaves, thinking. Where was the best place to find interesting rocks? Probably near a stream. They could be hidden by mud and water, disguising their worth and beauty.


“I think we should kiss.”


Luke sat up again, giving Sadie his full attention. For the last few months, she had been slowly going insane. Sometimes he thought maybe he didn’t even want to be best friends with her anymore, but then he quickly pushed the feeling away before it could take root. Even crazy, Sadie was still the best and most fun person he knew. There was no reason to throw away twelve years of being friends just because she was becoming irrational. It was probably a phase. She would get through it, and things would be back to normal again. He hoped.


“What are you talking about? We don’t kiss. What is wrong with you?”


“We’re twelve,” Sadie reiterated. “Other kids in our class have already kissed. Some have done other stuff.” Neither of them had any idea what other stuff was, but everyone spoke about it cryptic hints and whispers, piquing Sadie’s curiosity. “Think of it as a science experiment.”


“A science experiment?” Luke asked, sounding mildly interested now.


She nodded. “Yes, to see what all the fuss is about. To say we’ve done it. To get this part of things over with so we can move on.”


He rubbed his index finger against his nose. One of the ants must have bitten him. Or he was getting a zit. They had been popping up all over lately. Sadie hadn’t mentioned it, but she had quite a few zits of her own. He was glad he hadn’t made fun of her a few months ago when she started getting them. He had been tempted. If it had happened a couple of years ago, he definitely would have teased her, and she would have laughed. But now she was touchy about stuff. He didn’t like that, didn’t like feeling like he couldn’t say whatever he wanted to her anymore.


“I don’t want to kiss you,” he said now, clenching his fists in case being honest was enough to set off her newly developed habit of going into hysterics.


“I don’t want to kiss you, either,” she returned, sounding so much like her old self that he smiled a little. “But I think it’s important for our development.”


“What does that mean?” he asked.


“I don’t know, but my mom says it a lot whenever she wants me to do unpleasant things.”


“Why is it important?” Luke asked. A scientist at heart, he couldn’t enter into any venture without knowing all the facts.


“Because we’re falling behind.”


“We’ve always been behind,” Luke said. It had always been just the two of them—neighbors and best friends for as long as either could remember. For a while in elementary school the other kids had made fun of them because they didn’t segregate into sexes to play. They had played with each other, before school, during school, and after school. The last few years other boys had begun to pair up with girls, and now it wasn’t so weird to spend time with a member of the opposite sex. Now kids made fun of them for other stuff—their zits, their clothes, their taste in books, movies, or music. Luke had already learned there was no pleasing the other children. He was doomed to be an outcast no matter what he did. At least he had Sadie. Together they were an impenetrable force, like a superhero and his sidekick. Though in that scenario, he was probably the sidekick, and he didn’t like to think of that. Sadie had always been the leader. She probably always would be. Even as he hatched the resentful thought, he found himself curious enough to want to follow her latest plan.


“What would I have to do?” he asked. In the movies, kissing seemed to involve a lot of work on the part of the guy. It was the weekend; he didn’t want to have to work too hard.


“Nothing. Just stand there, I guess.” She bounced lightly to her feet and he stood, feeling suddenly nervous.


“Don’t get spit in my mouth,” he warned.


“How would I do that? I’m going to kiss you, not slobber on you. Stand still.”


He stood still and closed his eyes, his hands jammed at his sides. Sadie leaned in and took off his glasses, tucking them into his pocket, and then she pressed her lips hard against his and pulled away with a gasp. “I cut my lip,” she announced.


Luke opened his eyes and saw that she had nicked her lip on her braces. A tiny drop of blood settled on her lower lip. He reached out to swipe it away. “I should type your blood. I’ve been meaning to for a while, but I didn’t think you’d let me cut you.” He stared at the blood on his finger. To his dismay, she burst into loud, messy tears. “Did that hurt?” he asked.


She shook her head.


“Then what’s the problem?”


“I don’t know,” Sadie said. Everything felt wrong lately. The kiss wasn’t what she thought it would be at all. She had expected to feel something, anything, but she hadn’t. She felt the same way when she slugged Luke in the shoulder, which she was tempted to do now for no reason at all. “My mom wants me to enter a beauty pageant,” she added, and then cried harder, covering her face with her hands.


“Why?” Luke said. She wasn’t pretty. In fact, she was sort of gawky with her fluffy blond hair, glasses, braces, and bad complexion.


“I don’t know,” Sadie sobbed. “She keeps saying all this stuff about ducklings and swans and getting my braces off. I feel so confused all the time, and I want to cry for no reason. I think maybe I’m going crazy, Luke.”


Luke didn’t disagree. He had never seen her like this. The only time he had ever seen Sadie cry was when she fell out of a tree and tore a huge patch of skin off her knee. Even then she had only cried for a minute before drying her tears and limping home in stoic silence. And now she was blubbering all over the place. What was worse, the sight was making him want to cry, too. Of the two of them, he was the one who tended more toward tears. He hardly ever cried anymore, but he still had a tender heart.


“Sadie,” he said, trying to use the same tone he used on the dog whenever she was choking on a bone. “It’s okay. Don’t cry, okay?” He rested his hand on her shoulder which was probably a mistake because Sadie shuffled forward and pressed herself against him. They were the same height. She slid her arms around his waist and laid her head on his shoulder. And that was when it happened—a jolt of electricity shot through Luke’s middle, followed by the sensation of a large bird swooping and diving in his stomach. He put his arms around Sadie because he thought he might fall over from the surprise of the uncomfortable feelings.


“Sadie,” he repeated. His voice sounded odd, even to himself. Sadie stopped crying and pulled back to look at him. Her face was very close to his. Without his glasses and with so many tears softening her features, she almost looked kind of pretty. For the first time in their lives, Luke did something totally unplanned—he leaned in and kissed her again. This kiss wasn’t hard—it was soft, and now the feeling of having a bird trapped in his midsection increased until it felt like powerful wings were beating against his insides, vying for release.


Sadie tipped her head to the side and edged her fingers into his hair. The action was so tentative and so very unlike Sadie that Luke was confused. It was almost like this wasn’t him and Sadie, but two other kids who were doing and feeling something he and Sadie would never do or feel.


When the kiss ended, he was cupping her face in his hands, breathing and blinking hard. “What just happened here?”


Sadie backed up a step until she bumped the large tree in Aunt Abby’s yard. Then she turned and ran away, leaving him without an answer to his question.

Chapter 1



Abby Atwood of Atwood, Virginia, sat at her desk and rewrote her will. There were no changes, only additions. She had no doubts about leaving her family’s Victorian manse to the person she had selected years ago. He had been a small child the first time she made the will, but so full of the promise and responsibility he had grown into. In some ways, he had been born a grownup. His one chance at having fun seemed to have escaped his grasp forever. Abby hoped her will might do something to change that, but she didn’t count on it. Human nature was too capricious to try and control.


That thought brought her back to her task at hand. She finished the changes to her will, wrote a letter, and sealed it, knowing it would be found after her demise. She had a prickling apprehension that the end was near. Some had accused her of being an overly dramatic attention seeker, but she knew the truth: she was about to be a murder victim.


Three months ago, she stumbled upon a secret that changed her life. Someone she knew, someone she counted as a friend, was going to kill her. She wasn’t the fool people pretended she was. Maybe she was old, but she still had her faculties. So she intended to catch her killer after her death. If he followed through and murdered her, then she would ensure his arrest and capture. But she couldn’t come out and accuse him. She had to make sure and leave a trail, the same subtle trail she had discovered, the one that led to her upcoming death.


Her doorbell rang, the sound echoing through the grand old home as it had since Abby was a child. She paused, circling the room with her eyes. She was going to miss this old place. A wave of sadness threatened to overwhelm her, but she soldiered on, pasting a smile on cheeks that retained a rosy glow of good cheer despite her age and coming doom.


On the other side of the door stood the person who would soon end her life, but Abby’s smile didn’t waiver. Nat King Cole had it right so many decades ago; she would smile when her heart was breaking and no one would be the wiser. Wasn’t that what she had always told Sadie? Yes, and her protégé had learned the lesson well.


“Come in,” Abby said as she stood aside and made a gracious wave with her hand. “How nice to see you on this beautiful day.”


Her visitor paused and looked outside. “It’s raining, Abby.”


Abby bit her cheek. She hated it when people treated her like she was an old fool. Then again, it was probably best if her adversary underestimated her. “So it is, but some of us like the rain; it provides the opportunity to have a good think now and then, and I’ve had so much to think about lately.” Her target hit the mark. Abby’s smile grew as she watched her visitor squirm. “Won’t you come into the parlor for some tea?” At that moment, neither of them was sure which was the spider and which was the fly, and that was exactly how Abby wanted it.


She also wanted to throw the boiling tea in her visitor’s face and exact her vengeance today. Instead she patiently poured the tea and arranged a plate of shortbread cookies. She wouldn’t be the one to make him pay; she would let Sadie do that. Abby’s smile of satisfaction grew; if possible, her guest became even more uncomfortable.


“You look happy today, Abby,” the guest noted.


Abby didn’t reply. Let him think what he would. Inside, she sent a mental message to the closest thing on earth she had to family.
I’m counting on you, Sadie Cooper. Don’t let me down.




Sadie Cooper was having the worst day of her life when the letter arrived.


First she woke up late. A storm knocked out the power, turning off her alarm. An irony, since she was a meteorologist and hadn’t seen the storm coming. Though, truth be told, she wasn’t much of a meteorologist. In college she had majored in fashion design, become a makeup artist for the studio, and took a correspondence course in meteorology when one of the producers liked what he saw in her. With so little training, she had little hope of ever getting out of this tiny town, but that was okay; she liked it here. Her life was here. Rick was here.


She did the morning weather, which meant she was supposed to be at the studio by five so she could be ready to go by six. But on The Terrible Day she woke at five fifteen with a scream. Her apartment was still in total darkness, so she used the light from her cell phone to run around gathering clothes and shoes, which she haphazardly threw on.


There was a plug in her car. Though it wasn’t ideal, she would be able to straighten her hair while she drove. With enough hairspray, no one would be able to tell she hadn’t washed it in a couple of days. She hoped.


As the straightening iron heated, she applied her makeup. Anyone who thought being pretty wasn’t hard work had never applied eyeliner and mascara while driving seventy miles per hour on blind curves. Why did the studio have to be in the middle of nowhere? If it was in town like her apartment, she would have made it in a few minutes. As it was, she would barely make it before the first show started at six. Even now she would probably have to bulldoze her way through lest they give her spot to Celia Raker, the cow. Even in the boonies the industry was competitive, and Celia had been gunning for her spot for months.


That thought put more lead in Sadie’s foot. She arrived at ten ‘til six and sprinted through the doors, thankful the studio was too small and too financially strapped for a security system that might have caused a delay.


“Sadie! Everyone has been going crazy. Where have you been?” One of the technical assistants frowned at her as if anything that had happened that morning had been her fault. She wanted to give him a sarcastic reply, but there was no time. Instead she took off her coat and threw it over his head as she ran past. He peeled it from his face, sputtering. “Wait! Sadie, wait!”


She didn’t wait. She didn’t have time for recrimination or conversation or whatever he wanted. He was a tedious little man, always trying to correct her vocabulary when she used the wrong meteorological term, something that happened far less than it used to. She read books and studied up, not wanting to look like an idiot on live television.


One last glance at the mirror showed her hair and makeup were perfect. If she could get her ragged breathing under control, no one would ever know what a hectic morning she had suffered. She forced herself to calm, sucking air slowly and holding it a few seconds before she let it out. The thing that made AM weather such a prime spot was that, after the initial greeting by the anchors, she started the show. Everyone was anxious to hear what their day would hold weather-wise. As Sadie watched Rick give the introduction, she didn’t have to fake a smile. He was beautiful; he was perfect; he was hers.


“And now let’s see what the weather has in store for us today,” Rick said. He turned his beaming smile on her. “Sadie?”


The light went red as the camera pointed at her, and Sadie was “on.” Being in front of the camera came as naturally to her as breathing. She loved her job, loved being recognized at the store when she went for groceries, loved being asked for her autograph at the gas station. She even loved it when old ladies sometimes scolded her for wearing sweaters they deemed too tight. There was no way to tell them that was part of her appeal. She was a throwback weathergirl, there for her charm and beauty more than for her knowledge of the atmosphere. She gave her opening schpiel for a minute, the usual blather about what a great day it was despite the weather, never mentioning her lapse that had failed to predict the powerful storms in the night.


She turned to the green screen behind her to point out the various fronts heading toward them, and that’s when the mood of the room shifted. Sadie didn’t falter, though. She was a professional. Maybe something important had just come over the wire. The newsroom was always looking for the next big story. Her theory was confirmed when Rick interrupted her not even halfway through her broadcast.


“Thank you, Sadie. Let’s take a look at sports.”


Sadie made sure the red light was off before she turned around to frown at him. What was that about? They never did sports until the end. But when she turned around to look questioningly at Rick, he was pointing at her. “What?” she mouthed.


“Your skirt,” he mouthed, flailing his finger furiously toward her torso.


Sadie looked down and stifled a whimper of mortification. The back of her skirt was tucked in her pantyhose. Worse, she had fled the house without grabbing any underpants. Her face flamed crimson as she jerked the skirt free of her hose and smoothed it down over her posterior.
It’s okay, it’s a small market. I was only on for a minute. It’s six in the morning. Maybe no one saw, maybe no one noticed.
In her boss’s office, the phone began to ring, and a sense of dread settled deep in her stomach.


A half an hour later, she was fired.


“Fired?” she gasped when the station manager, Merv, delivered the news. “It was one little mistake.”


“You showed your butt to the audience, Sadie!” he said.


“But, Merv, surely people understand that I didn’t do it on purpose. I would never.”


“It doesn’t matter. You alienated your fan base. I’ve had no less than thirty calls from little old ladies demanding justice, demanding your butt on a platter, so to speak. We’re a small market, and we can’t afford to offend our bread and butter. Old ladies are our bread and butter.”


“But, but…” she blinked at him, her eyes welling with tears, and Merv softened. He pulled out a tissue and handed it across the table.


“Don’t take it so hard, honey. You’re a pretty kid, and we’re in the middle of nowhere. This will be an anecdote that will get swept under the rug. You’ll go on and have a big career. You’re a natural in front of the camera, Sadie. This might be a good thing. We’ve been holding you back.”


Sadie blew her nose, refusing to take comfort in his words. There was a chance he was right, but she had built a life here. And there was Rick to consider. They had only been dating a few months, but she loved him. How could she not? He was perfect.


She was still crying when she let herself out of his office, still crying an hour later when Rick showed up at her door. He had never seen her cry before—usually she tried to keep her needs and emotions in check. But not today; today she was a wreck.


“Oh, Rick,” she wailed. She walked into his open embrace and enjoyed the comfort he offered as he patted and soothed her.


“Sadie, sweetheart, I’m so sorry,” he murmured against her temple. He smelled amazing. He was undoubtedly the nicest looking, most talented, most perfect human on the face of the earth. And he was hers. Or so she thought.


“This is terrible timing, Sadie, but I think we should break up.”


She took a step back and looked up at him. “You’re dumping me because I got fired?”


He swiped the tears from her cheeks and bestowed an affronted look. “Of course not. What kind of man do you think I am? But, let’s be realistic, you’re going to have to move, and I’ve never been good at being a long-distance boyfriend.”


She blinked in confusion, sifting his words because they felt unreal. “I’m still here. Maybe I could get a job in town.”


“Doing what? Delivering pizzas?”


He had a point; the town was small and depressed. Theirs was the only news outlet for miles. “I’ll think of something,” she said with far less conviction than she felt. He was probably right and she would have to move, but her mind was still absorbing the shock and hadn’t arrived there yet. Besides, she didn’t want to lose him. She had thought they were on the path to forever. “You said you loved me,” she reminded him. She sounded as pathetic as she felt. She had never begged a man for attention before, and there was a part of her that resented Rick for making her do it now. The other, bigger part of her was too desperate for comfort to care.


“And I do, honey, but it’s just not working out for me. It’s not you. It’s me. I need space.”


Her mind formed the word that her voice refused to say. If she opened her mouth, there was a chance she might beg him to stay. Her pride had been crushed beyond recognition. There was no way she was going to lose what little she had left. Then she did just that because Rick leaned down to kiss her goodbye, and she threw herself at him, her lips clinging to his as hot tears slid down her cheeks. At last he peeled her off him and set her away. Uncurling his fingers from her biceps, he turned and let himself out of her apartment.


And that was when Sadie found the letter informing her that Aunt Abby had died. That, more than anything, caused her to collapse to the ground, sobbing until her tears ran dry.

BOOK: Pecked to Death
10.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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