I wrote a previous post back in December about Next Day Gone ... why the short story was written and why I decided to expand it into a novel. With this post, I'm not going to explain it. I'm going to let you read it. A little bit of it at least.
This is my second thriller as well as my second bestseller. (Is the Universe telling me I should be writing more thrillers????) Hmmm ... I'll have to think about that.
Please keep in mind, this is copyrighted material.
Willow kicked her feet, or thought she was kicking them. They dangled, no longer touching the ground below her, and the rope around her neck was getting tighter. Her head felt stuffed with cotton, and the man’s breath in her face was hot and wet.
She tried to draw in a breath, needed to desperately, but she could find no air. She opened her mouth, and in her mind, she could see the first fish she caught as a little girl, its mouth opening and closing, gasping for air until it asphyxiated and lie still on the bank of the James River.
No air …
Can’t breathe …
It was cold and getting more so as the seconds ticked by. Her fingers were numb, and she couldn’t feel her toes. All she could feel was the thrum in her head and the burn in her lungs. Oh, the burn!
Her mind felt fuzzy, and what she saw in front of her made no sense. His face. She knew that face. Why was he here? Why did he want her to die?
The only unhazy thought that dwelled in Willow’s battered brain as she hung there above the rocks and rushing water was Drew. Her beautiful baby boy.
“Mama loves you,” she told him, her voice floating through the dark cave between her ears. “I’m so sorry, baby … I don’t think Mama’s gonna make it home to you tonight. Sleep well, my sweet boy …”
She might have been crying. Willow wasn’t entirely sure. Her lungs were on fire, about to explode out of her chest.
There was no air!
Willow’s eyes rolled up, and the last things she saw before she died were the icy stars above blinking from an ink black sky.
“Goodbye, my baby … I love you …”
Willow squinted down at the book that lay open in the cradle of her crossed legs. Her Nike’s were tucked beneath her thighs, but the feet inside of them didn’t want to sit still while her brain tried to memorize what happened in the world a hundred years ago. She’d read about Friedrich Nietzsche, the Zeppelin and the Eiffel Tower, and she knew she needed to remember all the details attached to each one, but the sun was hot on the top of her blonde head, and she wanted to hear the rush of Crabtree Falls so much it nearly made her skin itch. She’d been waiting a week for this particular adventure, and it was hard to think about anything else.
She heaved a sigh and forced her eyes to focus on the words in the text. She saw them. She might have even catalogued a few of them in the recesses of her brain, but she simply couldn’t concentrate. She slammed the book closed and felt a strange sort of triumph in the sound the pages made when they smacked together. Edie was going to be mad. Edie was going to be quiet, fuming, eyes blazing pissed off. Not because Willow had decided not to study on this beautiful afternoon, but because she was about to do something unsafe. After a moment of contemplating this, Willow shrugged, threw the big, heavy book into her well-worn backpack and unfolded her legs.
“Sorry, E,” she said to her best friend, even though the small flame-haired dynamo was off with the cheerleading squad, probably exerting her enormous amount of school spirit by being a flyer and getting tossed, then caught in a cradle catch. At least that’s what Willow hoped was happening. Last year before the Spring Fling Dance, one of the girls didn’t have their cradle or their catch game going on and Edie fell, breaking her right arm. Willow shook her head as she brushed the seat of her jeans free from blades of dried grass before hefting the strap of her pack up onto her shoulder. Even with her dominant arm in a cast, Edie went in, and with her left hand, wrote an essay for her mid-term that solidified her A for English that quarter.
Willow shook her head and headed in the direction of the trail. “Some of us need more than good grades and a cheerleading uniform to make us happy, my friend,” she said, squinting into the afternoon sun. “Freedom.” She took a deep breath of air. “Freedom is what this girl needs.”
That and a boy.
That afternoon, Crabtree Falls was the gateway to the freedom Willow was after. She’d been planning it for a week. It was no wonder she couldn’t concentrate on that stupid history book.
Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, the campground was a popular site for both tourists and residents of the area. It was October, which meant cooler temperatures and an explosion of fall colors. All of that added up to more people roaming around the trails Willow thought of as her own. The only good thing about that was the odds were high that one of those people would be willing to give Willow a ride to where she wanted to go.
A pebble popped beneath the sole of Willow’s shoe as she walked. She turned her head and her long, blonde hair blew across her cheek like a sail. She couldn’t wait to get her driver’s license. She had her permit, but she wasn’t allowed to practice until she got her grades up.
Her brother, Elias, knew she wanted to drive, and he frequently broke the rules when it was just the two of them. He’d been teaching her on the sly. Her sixteenth birthday wasn’t even a month away. She was ready to take the driving test, but she knew it probably wouldn’t happen.
School bored her. It was too easy. She didn’t feel challenged. Her grades were near perfect, but even a 3.8 wasn’t good enough for her mom. She couldn’t prove it, but she was pretty sure Elias hadn’t produced straight A’s in high school, either, and she wasn’t the first Larsen kid to make skipping classes a well-practiced hobby. The similarities between her and Elias, and the different ways in which they were dealt with, had been brought up with her parents a few hundred times, but Willow was convinced all her words fell on deaf ears.
Willow often got rides from her friends, but she wasn’t beneath hitchhiking if it came to that. That’s why Edie would be so angry when Willow wasn’t there after school, and her mother would pass out cold if she knew how often her daughter caught rides from strangers. So many things Willow did had that effect on Corinne Larsen. Willow shook her head. God knew Elias hadn’t done his part in relaxing the woman nearly enough throughout his lifetime. Hell, he’d had seven years to loosen her up before Willow entered the world red-faced and hollering. Willow would’ve thought all the scraped-up trucks, bar fights, general carousing and carrying on Elias had done would have settled her at least a little bit, but it had been made clear time and time again that in Corinne’s eyes, what was good for Elias was not necessarily good for Willow. Some old, stale crap about him being a male and how the acceptable social standards the world had set were different for girls. Blah, blah, blah. Willow rolled her eyes just thinking about it.
Willow walked backward along the side of the road, her blue eyes squinting against the sun. She’d left before the final bell, but a quick look at the Nokia phone she pulled from her pocket told her that all her classmates were now free from the clutches of mediocre learning. Some of her friends would be coming this way soon―the ones lucky enough to have their own set of wheels, or even borrowed ones they called their own while in the driver’s seat― and one of them was bound to stop and let her ride with them the ten miles between there and the visitor’s center. She hoped whatever job Elias was working this afternoon would keep him occupied for a while longer. The two of them got along fine, and he would be sure to pull over if he saw her on the side of the road, but he’d want Willow to come home for dinner. It was Friday, and that meant Dad would be working late at the hospital. It would surely cause another argument with her mother, but she just wasn’t in the mood for small talk in the Larsen household during another evening meal. Especially not without her dad to occasionally take her side and help make her not feel like such a disappointment.
“Ain’t you afraid you’re gonna run into somethin’ walking backward like that?”
Willow reached up and pulled the hair from her face as the truck moved to the shoulder of the road. She tucked the strands behind her ears and recognized the driver even through the cloudy haze of dirt he’d kicked up with his tires.
“Well, I’ve been walking this road for a long time now. I haven’t run into anything or gotten hit yet.”
“Came close this time.”
“That’s only ‘cause you’re a godawful driver.”
Parker Holt grinned at her, crinkling up his dark eyes. “Where you headed?”
Willow had been walking for at least thirty minutes, and she knew if she wanted to get to the trail with enough time to enjoy it, she’d best let Parker take her there.
“Crabtree Falls.” Parker was one of Elias’s friends, and she’d known him most of her life. He’d started flirting with her when she was about ten. He’d been seventeen at the time. It had been disturbing back then. It was still disturbing now.
“It’s kinda creepy once you get back off the main road, don’tcha think?”
Willow couldn’t help the look of annoyance that crept across her face. “You afraid of the falls?” she asked, in a teasing voice. “You’re all big and strong, throwing dirt and fixin’ roads all day long, and you’re afraid of the falls?”
“Shit,” Parker said, drawing the word out. “I ain’t afraid of nothin’.” He made sure to look her in the eye when he said it. “That’s quite a way from here.” He directed the conversation to a less uncomfortable place. “You can’t throw a stick in any direction without hittin’ a dozen different trails from where you’re standin’ right now. Why you wanna go all the way up there?”
Willow wasn’t in the habit of explaining herself. Especially not to Parker Holt the Dolt. “The heart wants what it wants and all that,” she told him. “I ain’t in the mind to put you out. If you don’t have the time, you can just go on.”
Parker studied his friend’s little sister for a moment before he reached up and scrubbed the weeks’ worth of stubble coloring his cheeks and chin with a work stained hand. “Would Elias take you up there?”
Both of them already knew the answer to that question.
“I ain’t gonna rat you out if that’s what’s got your panties all in a twist,” Willow said with another dose of sarcasm. “But if you’re not comfortable with givin’ me a lift, I’ll find someone else who will.”
She held Parker’s eyes and tried to come off as nonchalant, even though it was getting later and later, and every second the Neanderthal messed around with her meant one less second she got to spend at the falls.
“Nah.” He gestured with his dark head, and his hair moved against his neck. “I’m headed to Little Switzerland. Got me a girlfriend up there.” The way he delivered this news almost made Willow want to congratulate him, but the smirk on his face made it easy to squash the urge. “I’ll be passin’ your little campground on my way up. Hop in.”
The circumstances weren’t optimal, but she’d get to Crabtree Falls. She tossed her pack into the footwell of the cab and hoisted herself up. Parker hit the gas before her door was completely shut, and she didn’t even bother with her seatbelt. It felt better knowing she wouldn’t have anything slowing her escape from Parker’s truck once they got to where they were going.