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I see the match strike between the curtains, and the spark that follows, but I can’t focus on anything but her screams. I pee my pants, even though I haven’t done that in forever, pressing my palms to my temples, because she’s making my head hurt. Her begging twists my tummy in knots. My mouth won’t stop watering, and I want to be brave, a big boy, but I need to throw up first.
My eyes scan the yard, squinting against the fading light of the midnight sun, which casts spooky shadows even though we ate supper hours ago. I’m desperate, searching for a weapon. I’m going back inside that house. Nothing catches my eye, so I creep toward the garage. I hate that place and usually avoid at all costs, but there are tools inside, maybe even a box cutter.
Whatever. I just need the screaming to stop.
Forcing myself toward the slanting structure, I notice sunlight glint off of something in the weeds near the entrance. I inch closer, staying low, afraid I’ll be seen from the windows of our cabin. I reach out for the thing in the weeds, and when my fingers close around its curves, I know it’s just what I need. A tire iron.
That will hurt.
Wicked laughter erupts from somewhere nearby, freezing me mid-motion. The Twinkie and chocolate milk I had for dessert revolt, and I spill them right in front of my holey sneakers. Wide-eyed and gasping for breath, I cover my sticky mouth with my sweaty palm. My heart gallops at breakneck speed, threatening to burst from my chest. I’m so afraid I might have been heard, but her screaming is even louder now, so I doubt it.
Glass breaks, and by the time I muster the courage to come out into the open, I see flames. In seconds, the smoke is so thick that I can’t see my own hand in front of me. I try to cry out, even though I know there is no one around to help me.
A piercing squeal jolts me awake and I gasp for breath, one foot still firmly planted in my nightmare. Disoriented, I blink at the bright sunlight. As with every other morning I’ve woken from that dream, it takes several seconds to realize I’m no longer the boy in the woods, but a grown man. This morning, I’m a grown man tangled in my blankets on LuAnn Campbell’s living room floor. Vague memories of tossing and turning on her lumpy couch claw their way into my addled brain. At first, I can’t remember why I’m not in my own bed down the hall. Then reality bites back. Andi’s here, and even with a wall between us, I couldn’t sleep that close to her.
“Lie!” Connor growls out his nickname for my “sister” Delilah.
A slamming door ripples the floor beneath me, pulling my focus back to what woke me. Rapid footsteps approach, and bolting upright, I watch as a flash of frizzy brown hair and dark limbs tears through the living room and into the kitchen beyond. Leaping to my feet, I hurry after Delilah, heart hammering and a single thought floating through my foggy mind.
He better not have fucking hurt her.
“What the hell?” My other surrogate “sister” Andi blurts, and when I round the corner, Andi’s staring at Delilah with a furrowed brow. Lilah appears completely uninjured, performing some sort of victory dance. I breathe deeply, trying to steady my hammering heart.
Sleep deprivation has me off my game. Every one of us has been on edge recently, and with good reason. The trials of the three surviving men who abducted Delilah and Andi’s mother, LuAnn, have been delayed again, and we’re all more than ready to just have them over with. I’m not sure why I’ve been called to testify; the powers that be should know I’ve got nothing to contribute. Even if I had anything to say—which I don’t—everyone knows I’d never be able to form a sentence in open court. I wonder if I’ll be held in contempt when I refuse to answer questions. I think I’d rather be dead than end up in a jail cell again.
Delilah and her fiancé, Connor Garrett’s, version of events is literally front-page news. So is the discovery of the last of the missing Aurora gold on Connor’s property. Delilah and Connor got famous back in high school for finding some of the missing stolen gold that had dropped out of a hijacked airplane before they were born. Everyone and their dog had been searching for the missing pallets for years, and the fact that two high school kids found one had been international news. Now that the same couple turned in the final missing pallet—worth twice as much as the rest of them—the infamous pair are back in the spotlight once again. Our small town of True is bustling with more press than Alaska has seen since Sarah Palin ran for vice president, and scads of tourists are making the trip north from Anchorage to catch a glimpse of the notorious “Con and Lie.”
“You nearly gave me a fucking heart attack, Lilah. I thought we were having another aftershock.” Andi’s accusation seems to fall on deaf ears as Lilah showboats like she just scored a touchdown.
My nerves are just as jangled as Andi’s seem to be, but my head is always on a swivel these days. The steady string of earthquakes and the forest fires caused by the persistent drought have kept those of us who work in search and rescue busier than ever. Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, fires continue to rage down on the Kenai, and a good chunk of the peninsula has been burning all summer. I’ve been picking up slack for my coworkers in every other aspect of our job, since it’s no secret that fire evacs aren’t in my wheelhouse. Everyone has a part of this job that is a hard no. Fires are mine.
While the flames haven’t reached Connor’s property yet, between the trial preparation and the obnoxious and invasive press, he’s already walking the line between steady and batshit crazy like a drunken monkey. Add in planning for a wedding, and I really can’t blame him for skating the edge, but he made me promise not to let him hurt anybody again. Especially not Delilah. Connor was very clear about that one night when we’d had a lot of steak and little too much whiskey.
“Take me out,” he’d said, his scarred brow furrowed and his hazel eyes pleading with me to take him seriously. “I mean it, Boone. If I ever hurt her, even a little. I couldn’t live with myself.”
I know that incident at his mom’s funeral wasn’t intentional, and so does Lilah. I also know Connor, a former Green Beret, is a trained killer. If he goes off the rails, the consequences won’t be pretty. A promise is a promise and, though it makes me sick to even consider it, it’s one I intend to keep. Considering all that’s going on, giving him my word on that issue fills me with anxious dread. Even with all the hours he’s logging in therapy to cope with his PTSD these days, Connor’s bound to erupt if things don’t settle down soon.
I run my palm over my stubbled face. I need coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.
Scalding my hand on Lu’s battered percolator, my traitorous eyes seek out Andi, like always. She’s still staring at Lilah, and her wide eyes and gaping mouth make me whip my head around to see what I’ve missed.
In one hand, Lilah holds a gleaming pair of scissors. In the other, she’s got a fistful of scraggly dark curls. A thunder of footsteps approaches, and Connor stalks into the kitchen, shirtless, his long hair still wild from sleep. The former Green Beret’s brisk arrival would cause most people to cower, but, frankly, we aren’t most people. Delilah crinkles her nose with amusement, and Andi and I both burst into laughter. Three-fourths of Connor’s beard is missing, cropped right up to his chin.
“Good morning to you too, assholes…” Connor exhales, his deep voice resonating with mild indignation.
“It’s almost noon, you lazy ass,” Andi teases him, and her playful tone is a kick in the groin.
For as far back as I can recall, Andi’s been my closest confidant. For nearly a year, we’ve been actively avoiding each other, and watching her enjoy life without me is pure torture.
Even though it’s masochistic, I can’t stop looking at Andi. Bright-eyed and raring to go, she’s probably been up for hours. Extended daylight has always made it hard for her to sleep, and when we were kids, she often ended up nestled up against me in my bed. The thought sends a shiver up my spine.
Even though I slept, I don’t feel well rested. Every time I close my eyes these days, I see fire. Last night was no exception, and each time I came close to drifting off, I’d replay the last night the four of us spent together in this house. With those memories front and center, I can’t look at Andi anymore, so I turn to the coffeepot and pour myself a cup.
LuAnn Campbell, the foul-mouthed bush pilot who took me in when I was a child, went missing ten months ago. At the time of her disappearance, her estranged daughters, Andi and Delilah weren’t on speaking terms. I had to email Delilah, breaking the news of her mother’s disappearance, since Andi wasn’t about to acquiesce. In typical Delilah fashion, she rushed back to Alaska, ready to lead the search. Somehow, she convinced her then-ex, Connor Garrett, to lend a hand. Since Lu and Connor’s mom, Claire, had always been tight, he agreed, but things were tense as hell, since Connor and Lilah had an ugly breakup just before graduating high school.
While half the town was scouring the wilderness for Lu’s missing plane, some opportunistic asshole broke into Lu’s house, where Delilah and Connor happened to be staying. Andi and I came to help put the place back in order. Old grudges came to a head but to my surprise, everyone somehow mended fences. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, though, and Andi and I, who had always been inseparable, lost our way that night, and we still hadn’t managed to recover.
Andi’s laughing at something Connor said, tucking her hair behind her ear. A jagged scar mars her cheek, and I recall how it killed what was left of her confidence. Her scar doesn’t change the fact that she’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, and even though he’s one of my closest friends, I have the driving urge to deck Connor. I hate Andi’s sunny smile aimed at anyone but me, even though I brought her anger all on myself. I’m hot from my neck to my scalp, and I turn away, hoping no one will notice.
Reaching for more coffee cups, I’m thankful I rearranged Lu’s illogical cupboards right after moving back in last fall. Lu was in pretty bad shape after Connor rescued her, and none of us trusted her to take proper care of herself. Working per diem for search and rescue like I do, my schedule has flexibility, and it made sense for me to come help her out. But trying to help LuAnn is like trying to talk a toddler down in the throes of a tantrum. Hobbling around in a sling and walking cast, she took charge of the local airport just days after her discharge from the hospital. Her promotion was poetic justice since the vacancy was left by Ronald Warren, now rocking an orange jumpsuit for his role in her kidnapping. Lu obviously has the airport whipped into shape, because she’s currently off on the first actual vacation I’ve ever known her to take.
“Good riddance!” Delilah’s melodramatic declaration rips me out of my musings. She disposes of Connor’s defunct beard with a shudder. I hand her a cup of coffee as a silent trophy, then give one to Connor as a consolation prize.
“Thanks.” Connor throws piping-hot coffee back like he’s doing a shot. “Wow, that’s nuclear.”
“You dumbass.” Lilah rocks her shoulder into him before sidestepping me to dump half and half into her cup, nearly overfilling it.
“I’m a little sad to see the beard go. I was looking forward to the bigfoot-abducts-the-bride photos,” Andi jokes, and I smirk over the rim of my coffee cup.
Always the comedian, Connor’s been relentlessly teasing Lilah about poses he’s compiling to pass along to their wedding photographer when they finally get around to making things official. The battle of the beard has continued to escalate since she accepted his proposal in May.
Connor smiles broadly, his wonky manscaping causing him to resemble a dimwitted pirate. “I’ve got plenty of time to grow it back.”
Andi snorts, and she and Connor clink their coffee cups together.
Delilah rolls her eyes. “My vote is the only one that should count. Kissing you with that thing is like making out with a muskrat’s ass.”
“You weren’t complaining about my mouth last night.” Connor chuckles and tosses an arm around her neck.
Lilah sucks in a loud breath as she dodges some of her coffee, which slops out of her cup.
Andi groans, broadcasting her distaste. “Don’t ruin my appetite. I’ve already got breakfast on the stove. We’ve got to get an early start on Dad’s place or we won’t make a dent.”
“That ain’t no lie,” Connor murmurs, and Delilah sighs vacantly.
Still reeling from LuAnn serving him divorce papers, Dick went on the bender of all benders. Then he pulled a complete one-eighty the day she left for vacation, and he asked me to drive him to rehab.
“And for the record,” Andi continues, her tone playful as if she wants to lighten the mood, “if I find even one piece of hair in my food, I’m kicking both of your asses.”
The entire conversation plays out like I’m watching it on television, wondering if they’d still include me if I could tell them what I was thinking. My selective mutism is my barricade. It keeps the world at arm’s length, but it keeps me safe. All three of these people have spent years doing everything they can think of to make me feel like one of them, but I’ll always be an outsider.
Andi brushes past me to retrieve the eggs from the fridge. Her fluid movements mesmerize me as she crosses back to the stove top and reaches up for some spices, her long hair trailing behind her like ribbons of Kentucky bourbon. Yoga pants hug her every curve, and she may as well be naked from the waist down. My thoughts are so damn wrong right now; I bite the inside of my cheek as a private penance.
Oblivious to my existence, she tosses her highlighted hair over her statuesque shoulder as she turns back to Connor. “Go get dressed before this shit gets cold. And brush your teeth while you’re at it, for all our sakes.”
“I’ve gotta go fix this mess first.” Connor points to his ruined beard, then snags a piece of bacon from the serving platter.
Andi swats at him with the spatula she’s wielding, and he dodges surprisingly well for someone of his size, slipping down the hall like a cat burglar avoiding searchlights.
“And I’ll be recording that blessed event for posterity.” Delilah hurries after him, smiling wryly.
They vanish into the back of the house where Andi, Delilah, and I grew up, leaving Andi and me alone with our awkwardness and the echoing hiss of bacon fat. Normally, quiet is my happy place, but I’m drowning in the absence of her usual bubbly chatter. The fact that she’s not talking to me has tragic symmetry, after years of her enduring my fragmented muteness.
This is my fault. I knew better. God knows I was warned.
End of Excerpt