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H_NGM_N

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Chapter One
_N  E_RLY  GR_VE

Saturday, June 23

Something—or someone—caught Brooke’s eye, and she leaned over the kitchen sink. With her nose pressed to the window, she studied the woods beyond the gravel drive. The dark oaks loomed over the brambles, and a breeze rustled the branches of the trees and the bushes, but she saw no one there.

Brooke scolded herself and laughed at her overactive nerves. Obviously, she’d imagined the movement. It wasn’t the first time. To be honest, she never wanted to live this far out in the Florida backwoods. It was too isolated. Too dark. Too quiet. And even more so tonight, it didn’t feel safe.

She looked down at the coffeepot that’d been sitting in the sink since early that morning. Turning on the faucet, she ran a sponge under the water, and then saw movement again from the corner of her eye. This time she knew she saw branches move. She turned off the tap. The running water gave way to the stillness of the kitchen, and she listened. Her eyes focused. She blinked and peered closer to the windowpane. Searched the tree line.

The branches brightened—a quick flash a few feet off the ground. What the heck was that? A flashlight? She focused on the trees. A light glowed and shined in her eyes.

Startled, she jumped backwards and bumped into her husband, who was suddenly standing behind her. She let out a short gasp.

Ash didn’t seem to notice he startled her, or maybe he just didn’t care. “You’re home late.”

He held an empty Jack Daniel’s bottle in one hand and placed his free hand on her shoulder, moving it downward to grip her upper arm. He towered over her. At six foot four, he had the body of an ex-athlete that showed surprisingly little evidence of the amount of alcohol he consumed.

She twisted her arm to break his grip. “Someone’s out there.” She turned and peered out the window. The woods looked dark again.

Ash shoved her aside and leaned over the sink. His breath fogged the glass. “I don’t see no one.”

“I saw a light—a flashlight or something.”

He looked down at her. “Where you been all day?”

“You know. I was helping Winnie with the float. We lost track of time.”

He chuckled as if he knew more than he was letting on. “You were there all day?”

“Of course.” She almost spat the response, as if the faster she answered him the more likely he would believe her. “Like I said, we lost track of time.”

“Winnie dropped by this afternoon.” He removed a cell phone from his pocket and dropped it on the granite island in front of her. “She said you left it behind when you bailed on them.”

Avoiding eye contact with Ash, Brooke picked up the phone and examined it. The screen was black, the battery dead. Her breath caught in her throat. How could she be so forgetful? So careless.

“Where’d you go?” He stepped closer, crowding her personal space.

She set the phone on the counter. The truth would instigate a bigger, angrier fight. Running a hand through her hair, she looked away. “I had errands to run.”

“You were seeing him again. You were with that fake-tanned, pansy-ass principal again.”

“Of course not.” Sighing, she smoothed her red dress. The feel of the expensive fabric soothed her. “You’re being paranoid.”

“Am I?” He paused, as if giving it some thought, and stepped away from the sink. He slammed the empty bottle onto the island countertop. The glass reverberated against the hard granite and nearly fell as he walked to the fridge. He reached toward the upper cabinets and swung the doors open. He grabbed another bottle of Jack. The top popped with a quick thwap that made her cringe. She decided not to comment on it.

“I had work to finish.” She faced the sink again, glanced out the window. It was the truth. Sort of. “At school.”

“On a Saturday night?” Ash demanded, his words slurred.

She didn’t answer. He stood behind her, and she could feel his breath on the back of her neck. She could smell the liquor. It made him sound raspier than normal.

“Kinda dressed up, huh?” he whispered in her ear. “For working on a Saturday … during summer.”

She turned away. Yes, she was wearing her favorite red dress, but it was old, really. Nothing special. And it certainly didn’t mean anything. “I wasn’t with him.”

“You’re lying. Again.” He paced the kitchen, raising his arms, spilling whiskey from the open bottle. Swinging around, he moved behind her. “You and him got somethin’ planned, don’t you? Whatever it is, you ain’t takin’ my daughter.”

Not this again. She put her hands on the countertop and squeezed her eyes shut. “Ash, you always get like this when you’ve been drinking. Your imagination is—”

“Darla is my little girl. She’s my daughter.”

“I’m done.”

She pushed past him, out of the kitchen. He followed her into the dining room.

“You’re not taking her.”

“Ash, please.” She forced her voice to remain calm. If she got emotional, the argument would spiral out of control. Again. So, she inhaled before continuing. “I should’ve never told you. I knew it was a bad idea. I knew you wouldn’t be able to handle it, but I didn’t have a choice.”

“You had a choice.” He grabbed her arm, jerking her and sloshing more whiskey from the bottle. She turned to face him. He leaned down to meet her eye to eye. “You chose him over me.”

“That’s not what happened.” She took the bottle from his hand. “I can’t talk to you when you get like this.”

“Don’t turn this around on me.” He grabbed the bottle and threw it at the wall. The glass shattered.

Brooke jumped at the sound, and it brought a heavy silence to the room.

“You an’ that pretty boy,” he said, his voice growing louder, “ain’t takin’ my daughter.”

Brooke stared at the wall. Wet streaks ran down to the glass shards at the baseboard. She couldn’t take her eyes off it. He stepped closer to her, opened his mouth as if to say something more, and waved an arm at her. He stumbled out of the dining room. She watched him a moment and considered leaving him alone. She could retreat to the kitchen. Avoid him. Let him sleep it off.

Then she thought of Darla—he was going after their daughter.

“Ash? Ash! What are you doing?” She followed him to the front entry and grabbed his arm to prevent him from heading up the staircase.

He yanked his arm free. “You ain’t takin’ Darla.”

“Ash, stop it. This is all in your head.”

“Get outta my way.” A quick shove with his right hand to her upper chest pushed her downward.

With a loud crack, her right shoulder hit the narrow table beside the front door, knocking over the family photos and sending a vase of white lilies crashing to the tile floor. Glass shattered, spilling water and the large trumpet flowers across the floor. Brooke felt her dress fabric give and then rip along the seam. She got up onto her knees and thrust herself forward on shards of the shattered vase, to the bottom step of the staircase. She scrambled up after him, reached for his left leg, grabbed the bottom of his jeans. She pulled. He fell facedown, hitting the steps. She held tight to his leg. He mashed his boot heel into her face.

She grunted but held tight. She gripped his leg with both hands, struggled to pull him down as he inched upwards. He shook his leg. She let go and fell backwards. He scrambled up another step. She regained her balance and launched after him. She grasped his foot. Tugged. Pulled his leg as hard as she could. Her right hand slipped. His foot sprang out of the boot, knocking them both off kilter. Gravity took over and they tumbled together to the floor.

Brooke wiped blood from her lip and stood up, now towering over him. “Just leave. Leave, if that’s what you want, but you’re not taking our daughter. She won’t go with you.”

“Why?” He got to his feet. He reached for her, wrapped his fists around both her arms and shook her. “Did you tell her? Did you?”

“No,” she screamed, sobbing.

He released her.

She looked away. “No, I didn’t say a word.”

“You turn’n her against me?”

“No.” She faced him, looked into his eyes. She clenched her jaw, swallowed her tears. “We’re a family. You’re my husband. Darla is our daughter. None of that has changed.”

“We ain’t a family.” He raised an arm, causing her to flinch, but he pointed at her instead. “You broke this family.”

“We can move past this.” Her voice was a whisper, audible over her sobs. But she knew he heard.

“Can we?” he said, spitting a drop of blood as he spoke.

“Yes. I love you. You love me. Right?” She moved closer to him, waiting for an answer. “Right?”

“I don’t know.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his left hand but wouldn’t look at her. “I don’t know anymore.”

She tried to process what he’d said. The words made her tremble.

“I don’t know,” he repeated.

After several moments of silence, he removed his wedding ring and flung it at her. It bounced off her chest and landed on the floor with a dull clink. His head turned, his eyes seemingly focused on the small gold band, and slowly, he looked back at her. Without another word, he brushed past her and opened the front door. It slammed shut behind him, followed by the sharp squeak and bang of the screen door.

She dropped to her knees, listening. His angry footsteps crunched the gravel in the drive. The truck door slammed. The engine started, followed by spinning tires and upended gravel. He sped away.

When all was quiet again—and dark—she looked up. Her little girl was watching her from the upstairs landing. Her face peeked out between the spindles of the staircase.

“Everything’s okay, baby.” Brooke got up and returned to the dining room. She didn’t want Darla to see her cry. “I’ll be up in a minute to tuck you in.”

“But Mommy—”

“Bed. Now.” She yelled louder than intended and caught herself. She took a quick breath. “I’ll be up there in a couple minutes.”

Standing in the dining room, she looked down at the front of her dress and studied the split seam running along her thigh. Maybe she could sew it, she thought as she noticed the broken glass on the floor. Picking up a couple of the larger pieces, she watched the drying amber streaks of whiskey run down the dining room wall and pool along the baseboard. She left the puddle and went into the kitchen. When she placed the glass in the sink, a nauseated churning in the pit of her stomach chilled her and the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end.

She became keenly aware of the silence. Like before. Turning her head, she listened, and glanced out the window over the sink.

Two eyes stared back at her.

Large and white, they widened, staring into the kitchen. They moved ever so slightly, as if to get a better view. She could see no other features of the face, just the eyes. They blinked.

Brooke exhaled and stumbled backwards, almost falling. She looked away. Her hands gripped the edge of the granite countertop and she steadied herself. She looked back at the window. Darkness.

Running to the entry hall, she locked the deadbolt on the front door. Her other hand flipped off the porch light. She leaned across the table and peeked out the front window. A moth fluttered in the upper corner of the porch. Wind scattered dead leaves across the weathered planks of the porch. The old swing swayed back and forth, its chain squeaking. Beyond it was blackness. It lay heavy over the drive, and the woods, and everything hiding within it.

She held her breath and concentrated. Her eyes squinted to find a body moving in the darkness. Some shape. Something. Anything to confirm that she had in fact seen someone out there. It couldn’t just be her nerves. Not this time.

She let out a breath as a face popped up in the window. Their eyes locked, inches apart, separated by a single, thin pane of glass.

Her mind scrambled to process what she was seeing. A figure. Was it male? Female? Was it wearing a ski mask? She could see nothing but the eyes. They stared back at her. Studied her. She screamed. The eyes widened, as if startled, and vanished from the window.

Brooke looked to the front door. The screen door outside squeaked as it opened. The doorknob turned, twisted back and forth. It stopped, only to be followed by a knock.

At first it sounded faint, almost polite, then intensified. Pound! Pound! Pound! Something outside wanted in.

She ran to the kitchen. Her cell phone lay on the island countertop. It wouldn’t turn on. There was a landline phone hanging on the wall. She grabbed the receiver. The black coiled cord wrapped around her arm. The dial tone blared over the pounding on the front door. She stretched her neck to look behind her, into the entry hall, and a sideways glance out the window. The pounding on the front door grew louder. Turning back to the phone, she mashed the buttons. An operator came on the line.

“911. What’s your emergency?”

“There’s someone outside my house.” Her voice wheezed. She could barely speak. She hyperventilated. “They—they’re trying to break in.”

The knocking stopped. The screen door slammed shut against the frame. The house turned quiet again. The operator on the phone asked another question, but Brooke wasn’t listening. She stared out the kitchen window over the sink. A shadow moved across the porch. Something rustled along the side of the house … a faint scuffle that started at the foundation and rattled up the wall.

She scanned the kitchen, listening. A paralyzing fear rippled through her body. Above her, the disturbing knocks turned to blunt footfalls along the upper edge of the ceiling. Someone was walking on the roof over the porch. The footsteps stopped as quickly as they began, replaced by an unnatural silence.

The operator on the phone spoke again.

Brooke dropped the handset, shrieking, “Darla!”

She ran out of the kitchen and stumbled back into the front entry. Taking the steps two at a time, she screamed for her daughter and scrambled onto the upper landing. She burst into Darla’s room. Flipped on the light.

“Darla?”

The room was quiet, the window open. The bed empty.

The wooden rocking horse sat in a corner, with the purple plush elephant sitting atop it.

“Darla?” Brooke moved to the closet and flung open the bifold doors. No. She turned to the bed, dropped to her hands and knees, and looked under it. No. She sat up. Wind whistled through the open window, disturbing the curtains. She rushed to it and looked outside.

The bedroom overlooked the front porch, and she squinted, focused, tried to see her daughter in the yard. Brooke’s eyes searched the yard and then the woods.

On the horizon, the silhouette of the water tower overshadowed the trees. Below it, the abandoned orange grove spread out like dead shrubbery. Wind weaved through the brittle branches. Even from the upper bedroom window, she could hear the ghostly whine.

She scrutinized the gravel drive beyond the front porch roof. Her minivan was barely visible, covered by the solid shadow of their old farmhouse. Ash’s black truck was gone.

“Darla!” She leaned out of the window as far as she dared. Her voice echoed through the woods. It reverberated and then disintegrated into silence. Brooke pulled back into the bedroom, when a flash of light caught her eye.

Coming through the dead branches in the grove, it rippled like a strobe light. Like a flashlight. Bright, then dark, then bright again, moving toward the old water tower.

Brooke screamed for her daughter.

She pulled her head from the window and left Darla’s room. Racing down the staircase, she slammed into the front door. Unlocked it. Swung it open. Burst onto the front porch.

“Darla!” Her voice rang out as she stumbled into the yard, to the edge of the driveway. No one was there. She looked back at the house, up at Darla’s open window. The curtains moved. She turned her head. Branches snapped in the grove. Something, someone was running through the trees.

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