Do Not Go Quietly excerpt - "To Write" by Annie Neugebauer

By Lesley Conner
on May 24, 2019
To Write
by Annie Neugebauer

 

Tonight I dreamed

my mouth was zippered shut,

like some macabre doctor

had taken the school teacher’s gesture

quite literally    

and replaced each lip with one half a zipper.

 

Like any fresh surgery,

the flesh ached and burned,

far too tender for me to even think

of touching it with the gentlest fingertips,

much less grasping the metal pull

and opening the angry little teeth.

 

I wandered down a street I knew well

surrounded by strangers who my dream told me

I knew well as well

and every one of them

sealed at the mouth:

      a zipper,

      a line like melted wax,

      sutures stitched across like a rag doll,

      a single, large button pulled up over the top lip,

      staples,

      the particularly vicious stretch of super glue,

      and, most terrifying of all, a perfect, smooth melding of bottom to top lip

              no line or seal remaining where mouth used to be,

              only a vague bump out of the teeth beneath the flesh,

              caged.

 

I was desperate to tell them something.

Wild with the need.

I don’t know what it was.

I don’t know if I even knew, then, in the dream.

I know only that I raced from person to person

forcing myself into their paths

and trying

again and again—oh, sleeping eternity—

to speak.

 

Silence.

 

The words piled up against the inside of my zipper,

stacked up on my tongue,

brushed the roof of my mouth

and gullet

and down my clenched throat,

choking,

tears stinging my fresh wounds,

and still,

still …

 

Never has there been a dream

with such a perfect lack of sound.

 

When I awoke,

reader,

I did not speak.

 

I picked up the notebook

I keep by my bed

and I began to write,

the scratching of my pen

against this page

pulling and clicking

like the long, metallic freeing

of a zipper.

 

Do Not Go Quietly edited by Jason Sizemore and Lesley Conner is available now!

An excerpt from Severance by Chris Bucholz

By Lesley Conner
on October 27, 2014
1 comment

Preorder Severance by Chris Bucholz

 

Chapter 1: A Distinct Odor

Laura Stein rolled onto her side, taking care to not crush the bag of urine strapped to her thigh. Through the vanes of the air damper, she could see the upper side of a suspended ceiling facing her. An art studio lay underneath that, assuming the occupancy database was accurate, which it occasionally was. She waited a few seconds, listening for any sign that art was currently happening, and after hearing nothing, pried open one of the damper vanes, creating a gap wide enough to drop through. Feet first, she passed through the damper and set herself down on the suspended ceiling, confident the frame would support her weight. She repositioned the damper vane in place, then rolled to her side and opened a tile in the ceiling, peering into the space below. Empty.

She lowered herself out of the ceiling and dropped to the floor. Standing on a chair, she repositioned the tile above her, then made her way to the closet at the back of the studio. From the webbing strapped around her waist, she withdrew a tool to remove an embedded floor panel, exposing a dark cavity. She descended feet first into the hole, again mindful of the flexible package of urine, then awkwardly positioned herself face up and dragged the access panel into place above her. In darkness again, she tapped a luminescent patch on her shoulder, shedding a dim light in front of her. Rolling over onto her stomach, she began dragging her way down the crawlspace, scraping her hands, chin, and every other part of her body as she went.

Designed for maintenance robots, utility crawlspaces could theoretically accommodate human-sized travelers — the theory essentially being: "but they really have to want to be there." The number of scrapes, abrasions and calluses on Stein's hands and knees attested to the number of times she'd really wanted to be in such places. Typically for work-related reasons, but she wasn't working tonight. Stein was one of the enviable few Argosians whose profession — ship's maintenance — overlapped significantly with her hobby — light burglary.

Reaching a junction, she checked the identification tag on the wall. L3-UC-3401. The odds of her being in the wrong place were slim, but the next section would be a dead end, and she didn't want to back in and out of any more side passages than she had to. She patted the satchel of urine strapped to her hip for the tenth time since entering the crawlspace, reassured that it was still dry to the touch.

She shimmied a few meters down the side passage, counting the number of panel seams above her as she went. When she reached the sixth seam, she stopped. Reaching behind her, she fished a cutter from her tool webbing, then began to roll over. She stopped abruptly, perilously close to wetting herself, shivered, then rolled over the other way, maneuvering her body until she was lying on her back. Exhaling, she tapped the terminal on her other hip and spoke softly, "How we doing?"

"Still clear," Bruce replied. "I told you, this guy's definitely befouling someone's party right now. Take as long as you want."

"Well, just keep watching. I've got a shy bladder," Stein whispered.

"Just relax and it will come. Imagine you're in a really crowded room and everyone's watching — that's what I do when I need to go."

Stein laughed.

"Or maybe imagine my mom. That sometimes works for me too."

She grinned and adjusted the controls of the cutter. "Okay, here we go," she whispered. Positioning the tool, she drilled a tiny hole in the panel above her. Applying light pressure to the cutter, she listened to the torch as it cut through the sandwiched materials into the room above. A change in pitch announced the end of the cut, at which point she turned off the tool and tucked it back in her webbing. Her hand returned with a micro-lube gun. Positioning it in the hole she'd just made, she began threading the sturdy tube up until she was confident it had breached the threshold of the floor above. Pausing, she rolled her shoulders, releasing the tension that had crept into her neck. After a deep breath, she reached down to her right hip and delicately detached the sack of urine from the webbing. Carefully, she twisted off the cap of the sack and slid the lube gun's feed tube into it. She exhaled. Slowly, she depressed the trigger of the lube gun.

"Ahhhhhhhhhhhh."

The contents of the satchel traveled up the tube at high velocity, ejecting over a small patch of floor in the room above. The donor of the urine was not Stein herself, but a gentleman by the name of Gerald Lehman, a Marker. Lehman had not known he was donating the urine at the time, and indeed would have been impressively paranoid if he had. A small device attached to the trap underneath his toilet had been collecting his urine for days, a trap implanted during a similar subterranean raid a week earlier. But however upset Mr. Lehman might be after discovering the theft of his urine, it would pale beside how he'd feel if he knew its ultimate destination: the living room of Sebastian Krol, leader of the Markers, and his nominal boss.

Throughout the course of human history, peeing on your boss's living room floor has always been regarded as a pretty bad move, but in an organization like the Markers, it was particularly ill-advised. The Markers were a club/society/street-gang — one of many on the Argos — that distinguished themselves from their peers by pissing on things and off people. Markers, when queried about this behavior, would usually expound on the importance of keeping in tune with humanity's ancient mammalian roots, or recite a prepared speech about the tyranny of indoor plumbing. Everyone else, when queried about this behavior, would suggest that they just liked being dicks. Markers were a particular annoyance for those whose work involved crawling around in poorly drained and ventilated areas, people such as Laura Stein and Bruce Redenbach.

Stein and Bruce's scheme involved placing an ambitious junior's Mark within the leader's home, which they hoped would incite an internecine conflict within the Marker organization and possibly some mild bloodshed. "And if it does lead to some murders," Bruce had noted, "then so be it. Horrible smelling murders that security doesn't try very hard to solve."

The satchel empty, Stein withdrew the tube and stowed everything in her webbing. As gracefully as possible, she scuttled her way back down the corridor. "All done," she whispered.

"Bet that feels better," Bruce said. "Coast is still clear. Do you smell? I bet you smell."

Stein ignored him, concentrating on her awkward backpedaling retreat. Five minutes later she was back in the closet, sealing the access panel shut. Standing, she peeled off her coveralls covered in the dirt and grime of the crawlspace, and stuffed them into an expandable bag she extracted from her webbing. Now somewhat presentable looking, she exited the closet back into the art studio. Her hand fluttered to the terminal to call Bruce and check if it was safe to leave by the front door, before she stopped.

A strange buzzing noise was emanating from somewhere, and she turned, looking for the source. A half-dozen canvases lay in a stack by a set of shelves. Beside them, a pair of easels toiled, holding up a wall. The shelves themselves contained art supplies, a selection of horrible clay pots, and a thin layer of dust. She frowned. She wasn't surprised to find the studio abandoned — there were a lot of similarly disused rooms scattered across the ship. But she hadn't thought this was one of them. When they were planning out her route for the evening's excursion, the occupancy database — admittedly not always reliable — said this room was still in use, owned by an M. Melson.

The strange noise was still there, growing louder. Out of a sense of professional curiosity she continued searching the room, thinking it might be a short circuit arcing behind a wall panel. She stooped to peer behind a bookshelf in the corner, nudging it slightly.

Bright blue light obliterated everything. She jumped back, falling on her ass, scrambling backwards like a crab, one hand clamped over her eyes. A piercing noise filled the air around her. Stein opened her eyes a fraction. The blue light was still there, still blinding. Blinking, she could see the negative afterimage, a bright slash of orange imprinted on her retinas. Strange black images danced in her vision. Keeping her eyes shut, she clamped her hands over them, squeezing. The images floating on the bright sea of orange coalesced into distinct shapes. They almost looked like letters.

 

ISBN: 978-1-937009-27-4
Copyright 2014 by Chris Bucholz

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An excerpt from Midnight by Mari Adkins

By Lesley Conner
on October 02, 2014
1 comment
1985
September

 

 

Running away without a plan sucked.

Running away without any direction also sucked.

At least Sami knew how to get into Harlan County. Beyond that, she didn’t know much else and kept an eye out for road signs, anything that might spark her memory.

Ahead, the sign for Loyall stood at a slight angle beside the main highway, and she turned the car onto the smaller road. Her chest constricted. Her Steve. They had never dated, but she had always considered him 'her Steve'. Maybe he could help her, give her sanctuary for a few days. She hoped to find a gas station attendant or anyone who could help her find him since she had only a post office box number.

She grimaced as she took a double track railroad crossing too fast, which bounced the car and jostled the cat awake in the carrier on the passenger seat.

Ahead on the corner, at the only stoplight in town, a large red and white sign glared in the darkness. The convenience store, The Market, listed that day's specials—gallon of milk $1.50, all candy bars 2 for 75¢—on the marquee below the sign.

Morrígan help me.

After driving three hours, she pulled her car into a parking space and shuffled, yawning, into the store. At the counter, her hands trembled as she dug through her purse for her wallet and what little information she had about Steve—scribbled in haste on the back of some miscellaneous business card two years ago. Fighting tears, she asked the clerk, whose nametag announced her as Angela, “Do you have a phone book?”

“Sure.” Angela brought a slim, yellow-covered volume from beneath the counter.

“I can’t find the listing for Loyall,” she said, unable to focus well on the tiny print inside the directory.

“Oh, Harlan and Loyall are together,” Angela said. “I guess you’re not from around here.”

Sami’s teeth rattled together as she spoke. “I need to find Stephen Young—”

“Steve? Steve Young?” Angela's eyes grew round with surprise. “Steve owns this place.”

The news sucked the air from Sami’s lungs. Her fingers curled around the lip of the counter, her knuckles white from the force exerted to hold her upright. He owns a store now? Steve’s never owned anything in his life. Is this why he never came back to the university?

Angela came around the counter and guided her into a booth in the dining area off to the right side of the store. “I’ll call him for you.”

Her throat constricted to fight sobs, but she had no way to stop the tears from pouring down her cheeks. She heard Angela make the call back at the counter and describe her as 'a small, blonde lady who's really upset'; she almost laughed through her tears.

“He'll be right here,” Angela said, standing a bottle of cold water on the table. “You just sit here and rest a minute.”

A nod conveyed her gratitude. Too restless to remain inside, she left the booth to sit on the back bumper of her car. She could hear the Cumberland River rush around the town on its eventual way to the Ohio River. In other circumstances, the sound of the shallow water flowing over rocks and boulders might have soothed her. Now, she sat with her elbows in her palms, tears continuing to stream down her face, desperate to focus her racing mind on what she would tell Steve. She had never once considered she would find herself in such a position, and having to admit to Steve that she should have listened to him in the first place tore at her.

Headlights shined on the pavement.

Steve.

“Oh my god. Samantha?” he said over the roof of his car when he got out.

She couldn’t stop staring at him. Her Steve had changed. Had he gotten taller? She wasn’t sure. But his brown hair had grown long, a small, single silver circle hung from his left ear, and he had grown a mustache.

They met halfway.

“Yes,” she whispered.

“Gods,” he said, “you look...” He drew the pads of his thumbs along the dark hollows beneath her eyes.

Wincing as his fingertips brushed the bruises on her face, she grasped his forearms as if that alone would allay the pain.

“What happened to you?”

She looked into his eyes and begged him to read her mind so she wouldn’t have to relive the abuse. But she knew this was impossible. She would have to tell him everything. “You were right about Adam,” she said.

Anger flushed Steve’s face, dark light flooded his eyes, and his fists clenched and unclenched at his sides. “I’ll kill him—”

“No, you won’t. It’s over. I got away.”

Steve asked, “Do you need to stay with me?”

Tears filled her eyes again. “I don’t have anybody else.”

“Fine.” He helped her into the passenger seat of his car and fastened the seatbelt around her. “I need your keys,” he said.

“My keys?”

“It’s not safe to leave your car here overnight. I’ll have Angela bring it to the house after she closes the store.”

“Why not?” Sami asked, not understanding.

“Someone could steal it or strip it,” he explained. “Harlan County just isn’t safe, Sami.”

She fished her keys from her purse and handed them to him and watched him go into the store and converse with the clerk for several minutes. His lack of questions gave her comfort, although she knew more than enough would come later. When he returned, she said, “Sugar—”

“You brought your cat?”

“Our things are in my car.”

“They'll be okay. Angela won’t be long. You got here just before closing.” He got them under way, back the way she had come to a little clapboard house on the other side of the railroad tracks. There, he helped her from the car, and they sat together on the porch swing, not speaking but holding hands, Sami leaned against him, until Angela arrived. “Do you want to ride back with us?”

“No.” Tired from her escape from Richmond and the most nerve-wracking drive of her life, she waited where she sat alone on the porch swing until he returned.

Without words, they carried her things into the house, him taking charge of the heavier items.

He set up the cat's things in the back before he stomped across the living room to throw open a door and flip on the overhead light, three bare bulbs, their glass globes long gone or perhaps never installed. “This was my parents' room,” he said, his voice hard.

She came to the doorway to peer around his bulk. Unable to remember when or if she had ever had a bedroom with new furniture, she moved around Steve to slide her fingertips over the top of the dresser near the door, leaving a trail in the layer of dust there. Then she stooped to try one of the drawers. It glided out with ease, filling her nostrils with the scent of wood and glue. Shaking her head, she slid open the closet door to peer inside. Empty, void of even a single clothes hanger. In pieces, propped against the front wall and windows, the bed wasn’t made, the mattress and box spring still wrapped in their shipping plastic. Mini-blinds alone, no curtains, hung in the windows. A highboy stood beside the bedroom door.

“I meant to clean it up. You know, rip everything out, paint, and put in new carpet. I only got as far as clearing out their things and buying new furniture.”

Had his parents died? Had that taken him out of her life? Why hadn’t he told her? She lay a hand on his bicep. “Thank you.”

“Thank me later,” he said, “after you’ve been here for a while.” He rubbed the back of his head, mussing his hair, same as he had before they lost touch. “So this can be your room if that’s okay with you.” Although the sun had set some time ago, Steve pulled open one of the front mini-blinds. “It has a spectacular view of the railroad track, rooftops, and the ridge on the other side of the valley.” With a nod, he indicated the smaller side window. “You won’t see anything but the house next door and the ridgetop that way.” He took them back to the living room. “Since the bed isn’t together, you can sleep here tonight.” He moved the coffee table and removed the cushions from one of the couches to reveal a fold-out bed. “It’s not the best—”

“It'll do.” Sami didn’t care where she slept, as long as she got to. Soon.

He stooped to kiss the top of her head.

“Steve—”

“We’ll talk tomorrow after I get home from work. Right now, you need rest...Come to the store when you wake up if you want to, okay? I’m there until twelve on Saturdays.”

But she couldn’t sleep. Steve had comforted her, yes, but her body ached, her mind raced, and the unfamiliar surroundings gave her no respite. The pure darkness inside the house unsettled her further when she left the couch-bed to look for the cat. She eventually gave up on both sleep and finding Sugar and crept through the house to Steve’s bedroom. Without knocking on the door, she pushed into the room. “Steve?” she whispered.

“I’m right here.”

Her dating someone else when they met had been the only thing that had kept them from sexual intimacy. She didn’t seek such intimacy now but the reassurance of familiarity. Unable to see, she made her way to the bed with careful steps and her sense of touch. The mattress jiggled as Steve moved over to make room for her. The warmth of his body and his energy guided her into his waiting arms. There, she cried herself to sleep.

 

“We’ve got to talk about us,” Sami said the next afternoon when Steve came in from work. She sat on one of the two couches in his living room, her hands folded palms up on her lap.

Steve cleared his throat, a lazy smile playing on his face. “Yes,” he said.

She glanced away. “I love you,” she said. “I always have. But I need time. Adam...” She needed a best friend, and she needed Steve to fill that void.

“I know. Adam Rollins fucked you up.” He touched her cheek with his fingertips. “I know you’re hurting.”

She hadn’t lied; she had always loved Steve from the time they had met—when she was twenty, he eighteen. Before he had been called home. Not caring about dating, they had focused more on building a friendship. With him, she had been part of something. She had belonged. Over the short time they had together, she had told him many of her secrets, things she had never told anyone else. After he had met Adam, Steve had told her he had a bad feeling about him and had begged her not to allow him to move into her apartment. While Steve had only ever seen one of the physical injuries Adam had inflicted, he had held her enough as she cried—before he had moved back to Loyall.

He placed his fingertips on her lips. “I’m seeing someone.”

The news shouldn’t have shocked her; his words emphasized how out of touch they had become. Even more to her surprise, a pang of jealousy tightened her chest. She had no right to be jealous over anything in his life and would never deny him any relationship. “Have you told her I’m here?”

“Not yet,” he admitted. “I’m going to tell her later today. But you and I have to decide how long you’re going to be here.”

Sami shook her head. “I don’t have a plan.” Indeed not. She had grabbed up what she needed immediately before running out of Richmond the night before. Until she had reached Corbin, she hadn’t given a thought about where she was going, just that she had to get far away from Adam as fast as she could. She hadn’t consciously realized she had been coming to Harlan County to find Steve until she had gotten to Pineville.

“Then you need to come up with one.”

She clasped her hands together on her lap and bit her lip.

“Hey, don’t worry. You can stay here as long as you want.” He lit a cigarette and watched the smoke curl off the end, the cigarette pinched between thumb and forefinger so that the ash dropped into his palm. “You’ve got to figure out what you need to do while you’re here and what you’re going to do about the things you left in Richmond.”

He included Adam in that, she knew. “I don’t have much—”

“I know that, but what you do have, you can’t let that bastard destroy. Make me a list, and I’ll have it brought down here.”

“Brought down?” Confusion wrinkled her face.

He jabbed the air with a finger. “You are not setting foot in that apartment again.”

She could manage only a small, “Yes, sir.”

“I don’t want to see you hurt any more than you already have been.”

“I’ll pay—”

“You won’t pay me a dime for anything. I said you could stay here. I didn’t say anything about rent or about anything else. Stay here, rest, heal. And do what you need to do.”

She loved him; she did, even though she found him different now, but she had difficulty justifying those changes..

More had changed.

His beautiful, strange eyes contained a dark drowning gravity that threatened to draw her into their bottomless whirlpools. Something murky but unthreatening hung around him, almost as if he hadn’t properly metaphysically cleansed himself for a time. No, this was different, deeper. Something that made him distant, kept him from her. Something she filed in the back of her mind to figure out later.

She knew she had changed.

Adam's countless acts of abuse had closed many doors and had left major scars on her psyche. She couldn’t comprehend how Adam could have been so cold, how he could have treated her as badly as he had.

Tears welled in her eyes. “Steve.”

He put down the cigarette and opened his arms to her.

She went to him but cried out when he held her too tight. The bruises on her body would take some time to heal.

“Are you okay?”

“No,” she said. “No, I’m not.”

He held her with more care.

 

Later in the day, Sami moved through and around the house to get her bearings.

She would never forget her first good daylight, outside view of the house.

Wild rosebushes choked the chain link fence across the front and along the far side of the square yard. Two apple trees framed the front of the yard, with a maple midway between them and the small house. More rosebushes grew along the front of the house-wide porch.

Back inside.

The living room, with its two mismatched couches, armchair, sturdy square coffee table, a television on a wooden storage stand, and one large window in front with two smaller ones on the side. A bar separated the living room from the kitchen, a counter along the outside wall, one lone window above the sink, a pie safe and large appliances in the rear, a frame without a door to the enclosed back porch with a washing machine and a dryer, and an oblong table in the middle of the room.

Her bedroom. My space. My space. She hadn’t had her own space since Adam had moved into her apartment in Richmond a little over a year after she rented it. It had been the home she had created for herself with much care and planning.

Chills pricked her skin at the unbidden thought of 'home', and she rubbed her arms. Corbin. Growing up with her grandparents. She hadn’t ever belonged there, hadn’t ever been wanted. And those around her had reminded her often of this and of the 'burden' she had been to her grandmother after her grandfather had died. After graduation, she had started college early during the Summer session and had gotten a job in the university library. She had gone back to Corbin only once, one year later, and then to retrieve all of her belongings, including Sugar. Over the three years since, she had done her best not to think about any of it, about any of her blood family. Doing so caused her to fall into depression even though she never could quite pinpoint what she had lost in leaving them all behind.

Until she had met Steve, she had never belonged anywhere, had never been truly important to anyone.

Now, turning to leave the bedroom, she caught her reflection in the large, ornate mirror hanging above the dresser. Even from this distance, she could see the midnight purple contusions on her face and knew the others on her arms, torso, and legs were as bad if not worse. Tears welled in her eyes. Without thinking, she gave her head a sharp, fierce shake to thwart the deluge and cried out in pain, her hands flying to her face and the back of her neck.

The tears fell.

 

The next morning late, Steve woke Sami to ask if she might like to help him open the store and perhaps drive to Middlesborough for lunch afterward. She protested because of the bruises on her face but gave in at his insistence.

“Before we go, I need your list and your apartment keys.” At The Market, he told her what needed to be done and took her to the storeroom. “But I think you might enjoy closing the store more than opening it,” he said. “If you need me, just yell. I’ll be able to hear you.”

While she worked to ready the coffee makers and the fast-food cappuccino machine, and to fill the soda fountain with ice, gratitude filled Sami. If she hadn’t had these tasks to accomplish, she knew she would still be on the couch-bed at Steve’s, either sleeping or crying. He had given her something to focus her mind upon other than the events of the last handful of days. A smile came. She winced in pain and, with a sigh, bit her lip.

His arms full with two tills, Steve came into the dining room to find her sitting in a booth filling a dispenser with napkins. “Are you doing okay?” he asked.

“I’m just fine.”

“Angela will be here in a bit. She has keys, so you don’t have to worry about letting her in.” He went into the main part of the store, around the counter, and busied himself with the cash registers.

Sami watched him work.

He went about his duties as though they were second nature.

Now and again, he would grin at her, and she would grin in return.

 

In Middlesborough, they took a tour of the mall after lunch at the J Milton's steakhouse.

Though Steve offered to buy Sami anything she might want or need, hesitancy and embarrassment held her back. She had to learn to help herself again, and she couldn’t do that by holding on to other people. Getting back to Richmond and starting her life over in the place where she had made her home was her priority. To do this, she told herself she would get a job and put the money she didn’t need for everyday essentials into savings. With what she already had saved and still hidden away, she would be able to give herself a nice, fresh start.

Two months before she left Richmond, she started keeping anything important in the trunk of her car. With some of the money she had saved over the last three years and managed to keep hidden from Adam, she bought a suitcase and an overnight bag and filled them with new clothes and personal supplies and put them in the trunk with everything else. Two days before she left, she closed her savings account and hid the cash in a sock inside the suitcase.

She planned, after she started working here, to open a new savings account and pad it with the money she had brought with her. For now, the cash remained in its sock, tucked safely away in the back of a dresser drawer.

There wasn’t anything she much needed from any shop in the mall. Even so, at the Soap Factory, she allowed Steve to buy her a couple of shower gels, shampoos, lotions, and bars of soap.

After this, Sami slept on the forty-five minute drive back to Loyall.

At the house, he woke her and helped her from the car. “I have one more surprise for you,” he said.

“Steve, please.”

Strange light twinkled in his eyes. “You’ll like this one. I promise.”

Wary, she went inside the house. “Oh,” she said, her hands covering her mouth. The houseplants she had left in Richmond stood on the coffee table, the bar, and the kitchen table. Others had been hung from hooks in the ceilings of both rooms. The cat slept in a pot filled with soil beside the kitchen sink. “But—”

Steve placed a finger on her lips. “That’s not all. Close your eyes.” He turned her around, placed his hands over her eyes, and guided her into her bedroom.

“I feel ridiculous.”

“Keep your eyes shut.” He sat her upon an armchair. “Okay,” he said.

Familiar things, her personal things, filled the room. And someone had hung brand new curtains over the windows and had made the bed with a matching sheet and comforter set. She picked at the chair arm—her more-comfortable-than-ugly chair—with a fingernail as she saw her desk and chair, her bookcase and books, her cedar blanket chest, and other things. “How did you do this?” Then she wondered what magic had been wrought to fit it all into the small room.

Steve smiled. “Friends of mine.”

“I should thank them—”

“No,” he said. “You can’t do that. It’s not necessary, anyway.” He drew his fingers through his hair. “Now, do you need help putting your things away?”

After they unpacked everything, they stuck glow-in-the-dark stars he had bought her on the ceiling and hung her pictures and framed snapshots on the walls. Then she went outside to sit on the porch swing, something she found herself doing with some regularity thereafter.

The beauty here in the county captured the eye; the atmosphere exuded rest; but she found it a bit too restful, that something in this peaceful-on-the-surface county was, instead, only the opposite.

 

On Monday, Steve came in from work early and showered and put on everyday clothes. He left his long hair loose instead of pulled back in the neat ponytail he wore for work.

“Do you have a date?” Sami asked when he emerged from his bedroom.

His full mouth pressed a thin line across his face. “No,” he said. “It’s more of a business meeting.”

It must be for The Market. “Can I go?” It would give her something to do, and she could learn more about Steve and his life in the process. “Please?”

“This isn’t for the store. So, no. Have you been out to the mall?”

Sami was supposed to be looking for a job, but with the bruises on her face, she was reluctant to go out in public alone. It had been hard enough to go out with Steve the day before. “No, but I will soon.”

“Make sure you go to Belk's first.”

A tattoo of knocks rapped across the front door.

“That’s Jeremy.”

“Jeremy?”

Steve opened the door instead of offering an explanation. “Hey, come on in.”

“Oh hey,” Jeremy said upon seeing Sami in the living room. He introduced himself with an extended hand. “I’m Jeremy.”

“Hello.” Sami shook his hand and couldn’t help but notice that he and Steve shared the same energies, that strange something she couldn’t quite put her finger on and had never encountered before.

“And we're going to be late if we don’t get going,” Steve said. “It might be late when we get back,” he told Sami. “So you’re on your own for supper.”

“I’ll be just fine.” She watched them pile into Steve’s car and back out of the driveway.

Jeremy had parked in the divot beside the road to keep from blocking anyone in. He drove a three year old Lincoln Mark VI, and Sami wondered if he had left his keys in the ignition. Probably not, given as stealing-what-isn’t-nailed-down seemed to be all too common here. Still, she wanted to drive it. It looked like it had a mean engine that ran smooth as glass. She shut and locked the door and went into her bedroom to examine her face in the mirror. Her bruises hadn’t faded in the least yet, and she wondered what this Jeremy had thought of them and if he were discussing her with Steve.

Sugar, meowing, twined around Sami’s ankles.

Sami bent to pick her up and buried her face in the thick, long hair on the cat's soft belly.

 

Steve insisted Sami meet his girlfriend Beth and arranged for the three of them to have supper together one evening later in the week.

At the front door, Sami watched the pair exit Steve’s car laden with packages of food from the deli at The Market. A restless energy around the small red-headed girl put Sami on guard. Something obscure in Beth’s aura, even from this distance, made Sami feel she couldn’t trust her, and she wondered why Steve chose to be with someone with such repellent energy. The energies twisted Sami’s stomach inside out. She bit her lip hard enough to hurt because she couldn’t judge Steve when she had stayed with Adam against all of Steve’s protestations.

Due to the dearth of counter space in the kitchen, Steve and Beth had to place the bags on the stove. Steve opened containers and set them on the table with serving utensils.

Nervous and uncertain of what she should be doing or saying, Sami sat and began to eat.

Beth’s lack of table manners did nothing to improve Sami’s opinion. Not only did she speak and drink with food in her mouth, she failed to acknowledge that a napkin had been placed beside her plate. “So, Beth,” Sami asked to fill the silence, “where do you work?”

“Rick's Music Store at the mall,” Beth said around a mouthful of chicken. “I work every day after school for a couple of hours.” She also talked so incessantly once she got started that neither Steve nor Sami could comment on anything or steer the conversation, as it were, in different directions.

At the point Beth asked Sami a question, she missed it, and Steve kicked her ankle beneath the table. “I’m sorry,” Sami said. “What?”

Beth shrugged, her lipstick-plum lips pursed. “I was wondering why somebody would move to this place. Most people I know are trying to get out of here.”

Sami forced a smile. “I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

This seemed to confuse Beth even more than Sami moving into the county. Her brow knitted and her mouth turned downward. “How can you not have anywhere to go?” She tossed her bottle-red hair over one shoulder.

“It’s complicated.” Sami’s plastic smile hurt her face. The longer they sat, the more she questioned Steve’s choice in girlfriends. She also pondered how isolated someone's life could be that he couldn’t imagine someone else not having a family.

Steve said, “Sami grew up in Corbin with her grandparents.”

“Oh,” Beth replied as if that explained everything.

After supper, Steve and Sami cleaned up the kitchen while Beth remained at her place at the table. She continued to speak nonstop, chain smoked, and didn’t once offer to help with anything. Sami didn’t know if her refusal to help stemmed from the mountain custom of it being rude for guests to help in the kitchen or from a plain lack of giving a damn on Beth’s part. Given the way things had gone so far, Sami settled on the latter.

Steve left to take Beth home, and Sami sat at the table with her fingers wrapped around a cup of fresh coffee. Supper hadn’t gone well, but it hadn’t been pleasant either. The coffee refused to tell her anything about the present or the future, so she sipped at it until Steve returned.

He joined her at the table. “Well?”

Unable to stop herself, Sami asked, “Do you want the truth or would you rather I lied?”

His deep frown drew his entire face downward. Even his mustache drooped more than usual. “It wasn’t that bad, was it?”

“I’m trying to understand is all.”

“I hope you'd be honest with me, like always.”

Sami heaved a deep sigh. “Could you please explain to me why and how you can be with someone like Beth?”

“What do you mean?” Steve stood to take down a coffee cup from a cabinet, then bent to retrieve a bottle of Woodford Reserve bourbon from beneath the sink. This he poured a generous helping of into the cup before topping it off with coffee. Back at the table, he took a hefty drink.

“Beth’s, what, sixteen?”

“She has been all year.”

Sami knew he tried to make a joke, but this wasn’t the time. “She’s rude, Steve. I’ve seen better manners in feral dogs.”

The words hit Steve like a slap in the face. “I’m not apologizing for her behavior.”

“If she behaved properly, you wouldn’t need to. Is she like this in public, too?” Something inside her wanted to ask what his parents would think; she restrained it to keep from hurting him.

Steve downed the last of his coffee. “Would it make any difference if I said I was lonely, and Beth happened to arrive at the right time to fill a void?”

How could men get away with this behavior? If women thought of such a thing, they faced ridicule. “Surely there were other options?”

“It’s not like going to the grocery store, Sami,” he bit.

She knew. Still, that didn’t answer her original question or make her feel any better. “How did you meet Jeremy?”

“What do you mean? He lives right over there,” he said with a dismissive wave toward Loyall.

 

Want to read more? Buy Midnight by Mari Adkins! Available in print and eBook editions in the Apex Store.

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