Authors: Tess Oliver
A Sinful Suspense Novel
Copyright© 2015 by Tess Oliver
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This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.
All Rights are Reserved.
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Table of Contents
It was the kind of scar that was so hard to look at, you couldn’t look away. It was the kind of scar that made you flinch because it was impossible to fathom the amount of pain that had come with it. It was the kind of scar that changed a person’s life. I had that kind of scar too. Only the pain that I’d endured had not been acute but rather a long, drawn-out stretch of hurt and confusion. And my scar was invisible to other people’s eyes, to other people’s pity. I was thankful for that.
The girl spun around with her grape slush held high in her right hand. The grim ridges of pink, puckered scars had erased the knuckles of her hand as they smeared along what had once been the smooth skin of her forearm and upper arm, disappearing beneath the sleeve of her t-shirt and reappearing again on her right thigh. I was no expert, but it seemed there was only one monster that could do such horrific damage to a human and that was fire.
The girl’s bright blue eyes smiled with confidence. “I highly recommend this,” she said pointing to the slush with the long fingers of her left hand, an unmarred version of the right. “It leaves your lips and teeth stained purple, but it’s totally worth it.” She spoke to me as if we were good friends rather than two strangers standing at a roadside burger stand. Something told me she spoke to everyone she met in the same neighborly tone. Even with one leg encased in the thick, unwieldy scar, she walked past me with a graceful stride.
“Thanks. I think I’ll take you up on your suggestion,” I called to her. “I don’t mind a little purple on my teeth.”
She looked back at me with a triumphant grin, obviously pleased with herself for having set another person on the right path toward the proper refreshment choice.
The bus driver honked his horn once to let us know that we had five minutes until departure.
I was at the end of my long trip, a journey that would more than likely prove to be a big, fat zero. I was chasing vapors, streams of memory that had evaporated into a mist that only occasionally solidified and rarely ever made any sense. But the missing chunk of my life, that piece of my history, the only dark spot in my existence, had left a hole in my heart and in my soul. My Aunt Carly had filled in most of the hollow with unconditional love and a wonderful childhood, abundant with books, art, music and laughter. But there was still a void to fill, questions to answer. Carly, with all her usual thoughtful understanding, had stood at the bus stop, hugging me good-bye through a hurricane of tears and sobs. She’d promised not to worry too much, and I’d promised to write her every day.
It had been hard leaving behind The Grog, an off-the-grid commune of artisans, craftsmen and self-proclaimed philosophers, people who, like my Aunt Carly, had found true happiness living off the land and worshipping nature and all the beauty that came with it. Carly had become my accidental guardian after my dad, my only other family member, died when his delivery truck veered off the road. I was seven and my life up to that horrible heartbreak had been perfectly wonderful.
For the last sixteen years, Aunt Carly had stepped into the emptiness that my dad left behind. But the brief space of time between his death and the bizarre day when I’d found myself alone and confused, wearing a forest ranger’s coat and sipping a chocolate milk in the middle of a ranger station, had been lost forever, gone, as if someone had reached into my skull and erased that section of memory just like the flames had erased the smiling girl’s knuckles.
While some people traveled across country to meet up with long lost relatives or to fill their picture albums with amazing memories, I’d packed my khaki duffle with my thrift store clothes, my blank postcards and Aunt Carly’s homemade molasses muffins and hopped on a bus in search of some independence and that missing chunk of time. I wasn’t delusional. I knew I’d probably never find what I was looking for, and that was all right. I wasn’t worried about failing. In fact, I was far more worried about succeeding. Something deep inside, some instinctual form of self-preservation, had blacked out those memories. Uncovering them terrified me.
I ordered my very purple, very frosty drink and took it from the woman behind the counter. The first sip did not disappoint. Artificial colors and artificial flavors had been strictly prohibited in The Grog. I’d always found it slightly humorous and more than a little hypocritical that drug induced highs from mushrooms and opium were tolerated, but maple syrup from a plastic bottle was taboo.
I swirled my straw around in my cup and took another refreshing, completely artificial tasting sip. It momentarily carried me back to my kid years with my dad, back when I drank Kool-aid for dinner and prepared neon orange macaroni and cheese from a box.
The bus was filling up. I hurried across the parking lot with my slush. We’d stopped in an area where, much like my last home, the trees far outnumbered the people. As the deciduous maples and oaks faded away, tall evergreens stood in their place. According to the map I’d drawn on the postcard I’d written to Carly, we were just fifty miles from my destination, Blackthorn Ridge. I’d decided to start at the beginning, at the first moment when my dad and my life had taken a completely wrong turn.
I climbed on board. The girl with the grape slush was already patting the empty seat next to her. She held up her drink. “This is the row where the people with purple teeth sit.”
I readily joined her. I’d had to endure more than one annoying seat neighbor on my eighteen hour bus journey, including a man who’d smelled strongly of an aftershave that burned my eyes. For two hours, I got to hear how much money he made and how fancy his car and house were. I pretended to be impressed and had to hold back questioning why he was on the bus instead of in his
car. Yet, he was still better than the woman who kept blowing her nose. At one point, I was sure her red face would explode from it.
I sat down.
“I’m Everly, by the way. So?” She motioned to the drink in my hand. “Was I right or was I right?”
“I bow to your slush expertise.” I reached across to shake her hand. “My name is Tashlyn, but friends call me Tash.”
She stuck out her scarred hand, and I shook it. It felt smaller and harder, almost like plastic in my grasp. I let her hand go, and she sat back with a sigh. “I knew you wouldn’t shrink away. I could tell you were cool from the start. It’s really rotten of me, but I sometimes use
as a test.” She held up her hand. “Some people pull back in horror. Some just pull their lips real tight and take my hand, not wanting to hurt my feelings.” She rolled her eyes. “As if. I mean, I went through my junior high years with this warped skin, and, as I’m sure you know, junior high is the place where bullying and uninhibited cruelty reign supreme. Am I right?” She took a long sip of slush as she looked at me. “Although, you look like one of those lucky girls who basically came out of the womb ready for your modeling portfolio. I’ll bet you’ve never had an ugly day in your life.”
I laughed. “I assure you that is definitely not the case.”
She waved off my statement. “You’re just saying that. Jeez, just look at you. You’ve got that whole blonde-haired, blue-eyed perfection thing happening. Love your little crocheted top, by the way. You look like you just came out of the sixties.” She sat forward and nearly upended her drink. “Who was that curvy blonde with the long bangs and long black lashes? Oh my gosh, she was a big ole deal back in the sixties.” She snapped her fingers, but the scars absorbed the sound. “Bridget Bardot, that’s who you look like. But without the heavy eyeliner and teased hair.”
I smiled. “She was white blonde but mine is more, to use the less poetic term, dirty blonde. I think it’s just the shirt.” I felt my cheeks warm, something that happened easily. “And the boobs, I guess. The people I lived with were sort of left back in a flower child time warp. Don’t get me wrong, I love them all, but whenever I step out into the twenty-first century, I feel really awkward. I don’t even have a cell phone.” I pulled my empty, stamped postcards out of my backpack. “I have to write letters to my aunt to tell her about my trip because she doesn’t have a phone and the internet connection out at The Grog is sketchy, at best.” I chuckled. “We even bake our own bread.”
“Don’t ask me how they came up with that name. But, it fits the place.”
“Uh oh.” She reached forward and took hold of the empty gold link on my necklace. Holding a tiny object in fingers that were thick with scars took some effort but she managed. “I hate to tell you this, but whatever charm you had on this necklace has broken off.”
“No, it’s been lost for awhile.” I started to explain to her but stopped. “It’s kind of complicated.” She accepted that explanation. I’d been wearing the chain forever, and the empty link meant something. It was part of that lost time. I’d kept the necklace hoping it would help jar my memory. I couldn’t remember what had been there, but I knew it had had some significance.
The bus driver clamped shut the doors. The motor rumbled, vibrating the windows and the floor beneath our feet. The rest of the travelers settled into their conversations or naps or whatever suited them.
Everly rested back with a thoughtful expression. “I can see you growing up in a place like that.” She swirled her hand in a circle in front of me. “You’ve got that whole inner peace thing going on—at least on the outside. Which, of course, sounds like a total contradiction. But I can tell inside you’re a whole, big gobbly mess.”
I looked down at the intricately crocheted pattern on my shirt. It had been made by a woman named Lacy, who spent most of her day feeding the birds in her garden and crocheting clothes for the people in The Grog. It was my favorite shirt. “You are extremely perceptive, Everly.”
She placed her hand on my arm. The scars somehow felt softer, more like skin this time, as if now that I was getting to know how special Everly was, the scars were fading. “Call me Ever, since we’re friends and all.”
She sat back against the seat. “I would totally love that lifestyle. I could see living like a beatnik or bohemian or whatever, but I do need my technology. Not that I use my phone much except to call my mom and to find out my work schedule. God, that sounds so pathetic now that I’m saying it out loud.” She grew quiet and glanced out the window for a second. “Some of my friends”—she paused—“well, it was too hard for them to get used to my new look.” She shrugged as if it didn’t matter but it was obvious she’d suffered. “Ironically enough, I got the scars trying to save my best friend from a fire. She’d been really upset about something and I’d gone to see her. She died and I lived. My uncle pulled me from her burning mobile home. It was one of those weird things. He was in his house three miles away, and he was sure he heard me screaming. Guess it was like one of those superhuman moments when the mom lifts the car off her kid. He glanced out the window, saw smoke and raced to the mobile home. He managed to get me out, but some of the flames followed.” The last few drops rumbled in her cup as she sucked hard on the straw. There was never any self-pity in her tone. “So, where are you headed?”
“I’m heading toward a town called Blackthorn Ridge.”
“Get out of here,” she said excitedly. “That’s my hometown. I was visiting my mom back in the last town. She lives in a group home for recovering alcoholics.” She covered her mouth and laughed. Then dropped her hand. “Holy crap, can I lay out any more of my dirty laundry? You must think I’m a real basket case.”
“Nope, and it takes one to know one. I’m at the top of the basket case heap. I would lay out my dirty laundry, only I can’t find it.”
She spun sideways on her seat and leaned against the side panel of the bus. “O.K. now you have my complete and undivided attention. Tell me what the heck that means and why the heck you are heading to Blackthorn Ridge, the most uninviting, unimaginative and any other adjective that starts with
town in the western hemisphere. We’ve got at least an hour, so don’t rush. I want every gritty detail.”
I’d grown tired of the slush, and it was now just an icy, wet perch for my fingers. I stuck it in the cup holder. “That’s the problem. I don’t have any details, gritty or not. And, I’ll be getting off the bus at a place called Trumble’s Bridge.”
She had dimples that deepened when she twisted her mouth in question. “Why the heck would you get off there? It’s like the dirty, ugly stepsister of Blackthorn. And trust me, Blackthorn is no Cinderella.”
I laughed. She was already one of the most interesting people I’d ever met, and I’d been living in a colony of freethinking, artsy people, who were, to say the least, colorful. “I’m planning to walk to Blackthorn Ridge. There’s a place along the road called—”
“Phantom Curve,” she finished for me. Her blue eyes blinked in sympathy as she astutely figured out why I wanted to walk the road. “You lost someone. You lost someone at Phantom Curve.”
“Wow, you are a mind reader.”
“Nope. I wish I were, but you aren’t the first person to make the journey. There are at least ten makeshift memorials running along that curve in the road. The state has sent experts in to find out what it is on that piece of highway that sends so many drivers over the edge, but they can’t figure out the problem. They decided that if the night is black enough and the moon is at the right angle and the oncoming traffic just happens to have headlights at the right level, it creates a few seconds of blindness for the driver coming from the opposite direction.” She rolled her eyes. “Isn’t that ridiculous? I mean, I’m surprised they didn’t add in that the stars have to be twinkling at just the right brightness while a solar flare erupts on the Sun.” She took a sad, long breath. “Who did you lose?”
“My dad. And, in a way, a little piece of myself.”