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Weathering Stormy



Auburn J. Kelly

Copyright © 2017 Auburn J. Kelly

All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, scanning, or otherwise without written permission from the publisher. It is illegal to copy this book, post it to a website, or distribute it by any other means without permission.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.



To my loving husband and my two awesome children for their love and support.



Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty One

Chapter Twenty Two

Chapter Twenty Three

Message To Readers

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Finding Grace – Sneak Peak

*** Warning: Contains mature subject matter that may not be suitable for all readers. ***



Chapter One

The sun sat lazily on the horizon, illuminating the clouds in layers of orange, red, and the most striking shade of pink. The colors mingled and danced across the shimmery surface of the lake below, and it was so stunning that it nearly took her breath away.

Sturdy, muscular arms wrapped her in a cocoon of warmth, love, and safety. She was content and completely at ease with the world at that moment. She wanted to stay that way forever. She wanted to feel that way forever.

But as the sun slowly sank below the horizon, it took all of its warmth and radiance with it, leaving the sky dark and ominous-looking. A breath of cool air brushed over her skin, sending a chill up her spine and causing her to shiver. And a strange whirring, buzzing sound emerged in the distance. She tried to ignore its intrusion, but it only grew louder and louder.

Foreboding washed over her when thunder crackled through the air. And the warm, comfortable arms that held her just moments ago suddenly vanished. She was instantly grief-stricken over the loss. “No,” she cried out, “Please don’t go!”

Stormy!” Someone was calling her name in the distance. “Stormy….”



“Stormy!” BANG! BANG! BANG! “Stormy Rae!”

Pulling the sheet over her head, Stormy grumbled at the intrusive noise, “Enough already, Mama.” Stormy’s exhausted body told her to stay in bed, despite the annoying ray of light streaming through the part in the curtains.

BANG! THUD! CRASH!

“Ugh…” The bumping and thudding coming from her mother’s room was competing with the dull pounding in her head.

Reluctantly, Stormy peeled back the sheet and reached over to slap at the obnoxious screeching coming from the clock on the bedside table. She squinted at the illuminated red blobs on the clock until they morphed into numbers. They read seven-twenty. “Oh, no, no, no, no.” Why hadn’t the alarm gone off? Knowing full well she’d set it the night before, Stormy picked up the traitorous object and stared at it. Dammit! It was switched to radio instead of alarm, and she had slept through the static of the faded out radio station.

It was the one and only time she was thankful for her mama’s bellowing. She scrambled out of bed, tripping on the comforter that somehow ended up on the floor, and reached for the light switch. Her fingers hovered over it for a few seconds, but then she drew them back. If she played her cards right, she might be able to slip out of the house undetected.

As quietly as possible, she shimmied into a pair of jeans and grabbed a random tee-shirt from a hanger in the closet. After a quick peek down the hallway to make sure it was clear, she tiptoed to the bathroom to brush her teeth and wash her face, ever grateful for having showered the night before. Then she made a quiet dash back to the dark bedroom to grab her shoes and backpack.

Gently pulling the bedroom door closed, Stormy snuck silently down the hallway while mentally crossing her fingers. Getting past Mama’s bedroom was going to be tricky, but if she was really, really lucky….

Screeeak! The ratty old trailer with its squeaky floors gave her away.

“Just where in the hell do you think you’re sneaking off to, girlie? I’ve been trying to get your attention for nearly an hour. Didn’t you hear me calling you?”

Shit!

Stormy backtracked down the hallway and leaned against the doorframe of her mother’s room with an exaggerated sigh, “What is it, Mama? I need to get to school. I’m already going to be late enough as it is.”

Marni reached over to grab her pack of Winstons from the bedside table, letting her faded floral bedspread slide to the floor in the process. “School? Well then who’s going to take care of me today, Stormy Rae?” she croaked in that gravely, two-pack-a-day voice of hers. “You know I’m sick.”

Surveying the mess in the room, Stormy’s obsessive compulsive tendencies drew her over to her mother’s bedside to pick up the discarded bedspread. She fanned it out over her mother and collected a couple of empty beer bottles from the dresser. “Take the aspirin I left for you and drink that bottle of water there on the table. You’ll be fine, Mama. I have to go. Now.”

“What? You can’t just leave me here to—”

Oh yes I can. Stormy closed the door and continued down the hallway with the muffled tirade trailing behind her. “Stormy Rae! Don’t you walk away from me, girl! This is my house and you only live under my roof because I allow you to. Do you hear me, Stormy Rae Black?”

Stormy cringed at the sound of her full name. For some reason it always sounded dirty coming out of her mother’s mouth, as if it was a curse. And that same old tired rant had been beaten to death—how she owed her mama her life, and how Mama sacrificed everything just to give Stormy a home…blah, blah, blah.

Marni Black—always the martyr.

When Stormy reached the living room she eyed the empty hook by the front door. No keys. Rolling her eyes at the incessant ramblings that were still trickling down the hallway, Stormy dropped to her knees and began searching the couch. Her fingers worked their way around the edges and between the cushions, producing nothing but some crumbs and some loose change. Then she eyeballed the mess of overflowing ash trays and empty bottles on the coffee table, but they weren’t there either. “Keys, keys…. Where could they be?” Time was ticking and she needed to get out of the house before Mama had a chance to stumble out of the bedroom and all hell broke loose.

Stormy braced her hands on her hips and closed her eyes while she tried to remember the last place she’d seen them. With all of the commotion last night they were liable to be anywhere. But it was hard to concentrate with her mama’s ranting and raving drowning out her thoughts.

“You’re so damned ungrateful, Stormy…after everything I’ve done just to keep a roof over your head….”

She bit down on her lip to keep from engaging in what could easily turn into an all out battle. After all the cleaning up after that woman, the sleepless nights, and the endless berating…. Maybe she should have just left her on the bathroom floor last night instead of cleaning her up and dragging her sorry butt to bed. Her mother was deluded if she thought there was any truth in what she was rambling on about. Stormy had earned her keep around that house…and then some. How dare her mother insinuate otherwise?

She dragged in a much needed breath and counted to ten. Breathe through it and then let it go. It was an exercise she used when the dark thoughts threatened to take over. She tried to remind herself that the raging lunatic in the bedroom wasn’t really her mother. It was the version of her that Stormy had learned to put up with over the years. The real Mama was buried underneath somewhere. At least that’s what she told herself. In the recesses of Stormy’s mind there was another Mama—a sweeter, kinder, gentler Mama. But it was getting harder and harder to remember that one.

****

Nine Years Ago

Stormy stared at the slushy green mess on the floor in horror while the vinegary odor permeated the air of the tiny kitchen. There were pickles and glass shards everywhere. The crash was loud so there’s no way her mama didn’t hear it, and she was going to be livid.

It had happened so fast. One minute she was making a bologna sandwich, and the next, the pickle jar was flying over the edge of the counter. She’d tried to catch it, but she just wasn’t quick enough.

Stormy was reaching for the roll of paper towels when her mother stormed into the kitchen. Her eyes were blazing and a snarl marred her normally pretty face.

“Mama, I’m sorry. I’ll clean it—”

Her teeth were clenched and her eyes pierced right through Stormy. “Look what you did! What were you thinking? Do you think I like cleaning up your messes? I ought to beat you black and blue, just like my daddy….” She reared her hand back and Stormy flinched. This was it. Mama was finally going to make good on all those threats to beat her senseless. Reflexively, she braced for impact, turning away slightly and arching her shoulder upward. Standing stone still, Stormy squeezed her eyes shut and balled her hands into fists until her fingernails bit into the soft flesh on her palms. She was ready for the impending blow…but it never came.

The only sound cutting through the thick silence was that of her mother’s heavy panting. When Stormy mustered up the courage to open her eyes, her mother was just standing there, hand still raised and a pained expression painting her face. After several agonizing seconds, and without a single word, she turned and retreated to her bedroom.

A bewildered Stormy just stood there…in the middle of the kitchen in her pickle juice soaked socks. Waiting. Was Mama coming back? Surely that couldn’t be the end of it…could it?

The thought crossed Stormy’s mind to run, to haul ass out of there before her mama got back. But she knew better than that. She had nowhere to go, and it would only prolong the inevitable. So she stayed. With the threat of punishment still hanging in the air.

When the suspense got to be unbearable, she swallowed her fear and crept down the long hallway to her mother’s bedroom. When she pressed her ear to the bedroom door, the only sounds coming from the other side were those of muffled, gut-wrenching sobs. Stormy knew right then that something in that house was broken…something other than the pickle jar.

****

Stormy pulled her thoughts back to the present, where time short and her keys were still missing.

Rummaging around the living room for them proved to be fruitless, so Stormy darted into the kitchen and let her eyes roam over the tiny space. Aha! She snatched the keys off the counter, slung her backpack over her shoulder, and darted for the door.

She flew down the steps of the dilapidated trailer and then took some frustration out on her poor old truck by slamming the door. Hard. Once inside the truck, she pushed big sigh of frustration through pursed lips, willing herself to calm down. Drama was the last thing she needed today, and she’d already endured a week’s worth before even leaving the house.

A quick check in the visor mirror revealed walking death. Her lack of sleep was evident in the big, blue-gray rings under her eyes. Her normally tan skin looked ghostly and, to top it off, her hair was a big frizzy mess. She looked like an extra in a zombie movie.

There wasn’t much she could do about it at that point so she slapped the visor back into place and put the truck in reverse. The mud sloshed under the tires on her way down the driveway and Stormy mumbled a curse under her breath. She was tired of the depressing gray skies and the soupy winter weather that was so typical in Southeast Texas.

As she made her way down the waterlogged dirt road and headed toward the highway, she imagined what it was going to feel like when she left Mama behind for good.

“Five more months,” she uttered to herself.

****

Twenty minutes and several potholes later, she pulled into the deserted student parking lot of Yaupon High School. A gargantuan yellow and white banner was strung across the main building that read Home of the Fighting Yellow Jackets. “How original,” she whispered a sarcastic sneer. Nothing about the current situation was okay and it had her in a foul mood. It wasn’t fair to be starting a new school so close to graduation, and looking up at the red brick monstrosity in front of her was like staring down the barrel of a shotgun. Thanks a lot, Mama.

The plain red brick and double-hung windows reminded Stormy of a prison, but at least the place looked clean. As far as she could tell, it hadn’t been tagged with any graffiti and she didn’t see any trash or debris scattered around. Yellow and white striped awnings covered the sidewalks that connected the four main buildings. The pop of color was a nice contrast to the dark brick and bland concrete; she’d be able to stay dry when it rained…unlike her last school where she was guaranteed to get soaked on her trek from class to class. And she had to admit that the landscaping was decent. The oak trees dotting the courtyard were a nice touch. They made the place look and feel a little less institutional.

The absence of people milling around told her that she was more than a just little bit late, kicking her anxiety up another notch. She groaned internally. So much for slipping into class undetected. There was no way to avoid the awkward staring that was sure to come—no better way to draw attention to oneself than to interrupt a classroom.

She pulled the heavy glass doors open and wondered what kind of label she’d get stuck with this time around. Her presence—new kid in the middle of the school year—was bound to set off a few rumors. She didn’t quite understand the phenomenon, but she’d seen it time and time again…the pointing and whispering and sideways glances. Over the years she’d been branded everything from a practicing witch to the daughter of a psychopathic serial killer.

But she let them think what they wanted. Because sometimes the rumors were better than the truth.

Stormy practically tiptoed down the hallway, silently cursing herself for not having worn sneakers as her footsteps echoed off the cinderblock walls and concrete floors. She was so focused on her footfalls that she didn’t notice the other presence in the hallway. “Shouldn’t you be in class?” a petit brunette woman barked from out of nowhere.

Startled, Stormy gasped and ended up stumbling over her own feet. Where the hell did she come from?

The woman stood there tapping her toe in overly starched slacks with her arms crossed over a white, poufy-sleeved satin blouse. She might have been pretty if not for the sour expression that tainted her features. Stormy didn’t appreciate her accusatory glare, as if she’d caught her committing some sort of felony. She shoved down the urge to pull the woman’s pouty bottom lip up over her snooty little head. She was so not in the mood to be antagonized. Be the bigger person, Stormy. She stood up a little taller, squared her shoulders and looked the woman straight in the eye. Since she was in her face, she may as well make use of her. Masking her disdain in syrupy sweetness, she said, “If it’s not too much trouble, could you please point me toward the registrar’s office?”

With an exasperated sigh, the woman mumbled and pointed down the hall, “It’s the third door on the right.”

Stormy forced a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Thank you.” With a not-so-subtle eye roll, the woman clopped down the hallway, her shiny black hair bouncing on her collar, and then she disappeared around the corner. Stormy mentally shook off the strange encounter and mumbled to herself, “I sure hope she’s not one of my teachers.” The idea of having to deal with that pompous princess every day…. Ugh. A disturbing thought. As if she didn’t have enough problems already.

A little further down the hall, she spotted the sign that read, Registrar’s Office. She took a second to smooth her long frizz and dragged in a deep breath. “Okay, here goes nothing.” Again.



Chapter Two

“Mr. Knight, please have a seat.” Principal Flint nodded to the faux leather chair across from his expansive mahogany desk while extending a big, meaty club of a hand.

“Good to meet you, sir,” Brylan replied while taking in his potential employer. Arliss Flint wasn’t quite what he had pictured, and he couldn’t help being a little intimidated by the guy. Towering over Brylan’s six foot frame, Flint was every bit of 240 lbs., with wide shoulders and a thick neck. If memory served, he was a former college football star. Aside from the protruding gut and the severely receding hairline, the guy certainly looked the part.

Brylan’s nervousness festered under the scrutiny of the man’s gaze. Heat crept up his neck and he could swear that someone had sucked all the oxygen out of the room. He straightened his tie and tugged at his blazer, cursing his hands for refusing to be still.

Mr. Flint raised an eyebrow and peered at him over his thick-rimmed eyeglasses. “You alright, Mr. Knight?”

Humiliation seeped out of his pores. “Yes, sir. I’m fine.”

“Well. Let’s skip the formalities and get to the point, shall we?”

Brylan gave a slow, apprehensive nod. “Sure.”

The big man leaned back, his chair squeaking in protest, as he laced his fingers together over his large belly. “As I’m sure you’ve heard, our last history instructor was dismissed for some rather…disturbing behavior,” he began. Brylan nodded again. Anyone within a hundred mile radius of Yaupon, Texas knew about the high school’s assistant football coach slash history teacher who got caught with his pants down. Literally. The dumbass made a cliché of himself by romancing the students. Two of them, actually. Both of them cheerleaders, and one of them happened to be the granddaughter of the school’s superintendent. Brylan wasn’t too sure about the particulars of it all, but he’d been told that it was the biggest scandal the town had seen in decades.

“I have to say,” continued Flint, “I’m a little apprehensive of hiring someone so young. Personally, I would have gone with a female instructor after our latest debacle; however, I need a quick replacement, and you already have a little experience from subbing from time to time. Our faculty here thinks very highly of you.”

He let out a breath and picked up a manila folder with Brylan’s name handwritten across the top of it. “Your resume says you ranked in the top ten percent of your class at Sam Houston State. I understand that you were a pretty fair ball player too,” he said with a little more enthusiasm than he started with.

“I was, yes. But I haven’t played in a long time.”

“Yeah. Damned shame about your shoulder.”

A shame indeed. Playing professional baseball was all Brylan had ever wanted to do ever since he was big enough to hold a bat. But all those hopes and dreams vanished after a game of tackle football with his brothers. Yeah. Football. In addition to the torn ligaments and tendons in Brylan’s shoulder, it had also ripped out a chunk of Brylan’s soul.

His father’s voice drifted through his head: “You know…you had about a snowball’s chance in Phoenix of ever making a living playing ball anyway.”

Leave it to his old man to pour salt in the wound.

“Mr. Knight,” Flint’s voice broke through his thoughts, “I want you to take what I’m about to tell you very seriously.” The big man leaned over his desk with his thick hands still clasped together, “Fraternization with students outside of an academic setting will not be tolerated—under any circumstances. We may never recover from the backlash we received because of that asshole’s actions. I still have pissed off parents calling at least once a week, asking me what the hell kind of place I’m running.” He paused and hung his head with his eyes closed. The tension in the office was palpable. Flint had been on a roll, but something had knocked the wind out of his sails, causing him to suddenly look small and defeated. When he lifted his head, he fixed his gaze on Brylan. But he wasn’t looking at Brylan, he was looking through him.

Brylan squirmed uncomfortably while some sort of internal dialogue played out in the big man’s head. You could cut the awkward silence with a dull butter knife, and Brylan desperately wished Flint would return to the present.

Then, without warning, Flint raised a brawny fist and brought it crashing down onto his desk. “Dammit!”

Brylan nearly pissed himself. His physical response to the outburst—his nearly jumping the hell out of his seat—seemed to snap Flint out of his reverie.

“I’m sorry, son. I just get a little riled up when I think about how many years I’ve worked to keep this place in reputable standing, only to have our reputation nearly obliterated in the span of five minutes by some shithead that can’t keep his hands to himself. Do you see what I’m getting at, Knight?”

Brylan swallowed the grapefruit-sized lump in his throat. “Yes. I do, Sir.”

He hadn’t even been officially offered the job yet, and here he was having his ass handed to him by the boss. Uneasiness slithered over him, making him rethink his decision to teach full time. He was suddenly wishing he’d majored in something a little less…violent. Like basket weaving. Surely there weren’t any scary-looking, fist wielding ogres in basket weaving.

“I just wanna be clear, Mr. Knight,” His gaze burned through him, “I won’t be shamed again.”

“Yes, Mr. Flint. I hear you loud and clear. I’m here to teach. That’s all.”

He harrumphed, “Well I certainly hope so. I won’t hesitate to send you packing if I suspect otherwise.”

“Understood,” he said with a single nod.

At that, they both stood. Flint looked Brylan straight in the eye, extended his hand, and deadpanned, “Don’t screw this up.”

****

Two weeks after the strangest interview of his life, Brylan Knight was a bona fide teacher…and he was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. It was the middle of the school year and he had no idea how the students were going to receive him. He only hoped that they wouldn’t ask any questions about their old teacher. He had no intentions of going down that rabbit hole.

Anxiously awaiting the arrival of his students, he took a seat behind the metal, wood veneer topped desk and clasped his hands together. A faint ringing sound caused his stomach to drop. Surely that wasn’t the tardy bell. It was still too early for that. What the hell was that sound and where was it coming from?

He was starting to wonder if the noise was all in his head until he realized he was bouncing his knee. He patted his pocket and then chastised himself under his breath, “I’m such a dumbass.” He pulled out the handful of quarters, the ones he’d stashed to spring for a soda later, and tossed them into the desk drawer. Okay, Bry. Get your shit together.

Students started trickling in a few at a time. Brylan gave what he hoped was a friendly-looking smile, hoping they wouldn’t sense his unease. Some of the kids smiled back at him before choosing a seat, some of them looked at him curiously, and others just ignored him completely.

The tardy bell rang and Brylan cleared his throat to get everyone’s attention. It was time to sink or swim.

“Hello, class. Welcome to the second semester of American History. I’m Brylan Knight and I’ll be your instructor for the remainder of the year.”

He hoped.

****

“Hey Bry. How’s it going?”

Cooper Strausse sauntered into the teacher’s lounge while Brylan was picking at the stale bread on his turkey sandwich. He made a mental note to stop at the grocery store on the way home and pushed the sandwich back, his appetite suddenly gone. “I don’t know, man. I’m feeling a little bit like a fish out of water. These kids…they’re not what I expected.”

Cooper chuckled. “Let me guess. You were expecting a bunch of happy kids, thirsty for knowledge and eager to participate.”

“Well, I didn’t expect them to be plumb giddy with excitement or anything, but I hoped…. Ah hell. I don’t know what I expected.”

“Don’t worry about it. They’ll come around. You’re the new guy so they’re still sizing you up, trying to figure out whether you’re going to be a hard-ass or a marshmallow.”

Brylan sank against the back of his chair. “Maybe.”

Cooper dragged one of the plastic chairs over to the table and straddled it. “Hey, how’d the house thing go?”

Brylan was grateful for the change of subject. “I just signed the papers yesterday on a little place over on Pecan.”

Cooper cocked a blond eyebrow, “Pecan Street, huh? Not the best neighborhood.”

“Ah, it’s not so bad. I’ve seen a lot worse. The houses around there are just old. But the neighbors are quiet. Elderly people mostly. And it beats the hell out of paying rent. Plus, I don’t have to make that hour-long commute from Dad’s place.” In Brylan’s eyes the little house was a palace. It liberated him from living under his dad’s thumb. At twenty-two years old it was embarrassing to have to report his whereabouts to the old man, having his every move monitored and critiqued. It was time to move on…for the sake of his sanity.

“The house has a garage apartment too. It needs some fixing up, but—”

“Man cave!” Cooper cut in, his face lit up like Christmas.

“Uh, noooo,” Brylan corrected him, “I’m going to lease it out.”

Cooper chewed on the idea for a minute. “Yeah. I guess I can’t fault you for wanting to make a little extra income,” he conceded before snatching up Brylan’s bag of Fritos.

“Dude! There’s a snack machine right behind you.”

Cooper pulled the pockets of his pants inside-out. “No funds. Teacher salary and all.” A cocky grin spread over his face, “Surely you wouldn’t deny a poor man a meal.”

Brylan couldn’t help but chuckle. “I would hardly consider a few Fritos a meal.” He plucked the bag out of Coop’s hand. Anyway, changing the subject, are you game for giving me a hand on Saturday? I’m moving my furniture to the new place.”

“Yeah, sure. Just text me the address.” Cooper paused for a beat. “Speaking of new, have you seen that chick that’s been hanging around here?”

The week had gone by in a blur. He likely wouldn’t have noticed anyone if they’d been wearing a chicken suit while singing The Star Spangled Banner. He shook his head. “Nope.”

“She’s about yea tall?” For effect, Cooper flattened his hand so that it was horizontal to the floor and raised it to chest height.

“Dude, you’re gonna have to be more specific than that.” Brylan hated charades and he wished Coop would just spill it already.

“Come on, Bry,” he insisted, as if his clue should be obvious. “You must have seen her. She’s been hanging around the campus on and off for weeks. Been observing some classes and checking things out. She’s got kinda short, black hair. Walks like she’s got a stick up her ass….” Brylan bit back a laugh as Cooper strutted around the room with a pinched look on his face in imitation.

He couldn’t resist goading the guy a little. “Ohhhhh! You mean that chick!”

Cooper nodded excitedly, proud of himself for finally making Brylan see the light. He was such an easy target.

Brylan let his face drop, although mischief twinkled in his eyes. “Nope. I have no damn clue who the hell you’re talking about.”

Irritation flashed across Cooper’s features. “You’re such an ass,” he said, snatching up another Frito. “Anyway, this chick....”

Brylan wasn’t about to let him off that easily, so he interrupted him just to piss him off, “I’m pretty sure ‘chick’ is politically incorrect.”

Cooper rolled his eyes. “Whatever,” he continued in an exaggerated drawl, “This woman is going to be teaching geometry here next year. And she just happens to be Principal Flint’s niece.”

“Okay. So what?”

Cooper scowled. “It’s messed up, that’s what. It’s not like Yaupon High is desperate for applicants. Everybody wants a job teaching here because of our exemplary status. Hell, my aunt—who teaches math by the way—has been trying to get on here for two years. The school where she works is a zoo. It’s one of those schools where there’s always a fight going on, kids are dealing drugs in the hall, and you have to go through a metal detector to get in.” Brylan heard a tsk sound as Cooper shook his head slowly. “She actually had a kid follow her to her car one day after school. He threatened her, looked her dead in the eye and told her she better give him a passing grade...or else.”

Brylan swallowed hard. “No shit?” He’d heard the stories, but this one really hit home. Suddenly his job didn’t seem so bad after all.

Cooper’s shoulders sagged as he looked down at the floor. His expression was solemn, which was not a good look on him. It didn’t fit his easygoing persona. “It’s just not right.”

The two of them sat in awkward silence while Brylan searched his brain for something comforting to say. He was coming up empty.

“Oh well.” Coop returned his chair back to its rightful position and headed toward the door with his usual shit-eating grin. His quick change in demeanor was dizzying. “Don’t forget to text me your address before Saturday. Oh…and don’t forget the six-pack of beer you’re going to owe me.”



Chapter Three

It was Friday, and Stormy had survived her first week at Yaupon High. Aside from a bit of murmuring and a few sideways glances, she’d gotten through it virtually unscathed. It was as if the whole student body had made a unified decision to ignore the new girl, and it suited Stormy just fine.

When the final bell sounded, Stormy hustled her way across campus toward the parking lot. When she reached her beat up truck, she set her backpack on the hood while she fished her keys out of her pocket.

“Nice ride,” someone sneered in her direction.

Stormy glowered at the girl. Marissa something or other. She didn’t know why, but the girl had it in for her, always finding little ways to irritate her. A roll of the eyes, a death stare…nothing that Stormy couldn’t handle. But it was the first time Marissa had hurled a verbal insult. And at Stormy’s truck no less. And that just wouldn’t do.

Marissa huffed and kept walking, with her giggling group of blonde cronies trailing behind, and then they all piled into a shiny, new convertible Mustang. A sharp prick of envy stung her as the giggling carpool spun out of the gravel lot. She blew out a breath and forced herself to let it go.

She was in too good a mood to have it ruined by some materialistic Barbie doll with an attitude problem. She had a job interview to get to. Granted, it was only a cashier position in a gift shop, but it was a job. And a job meant money, and money meant freedom. Freedom from Mama. Her plan was to save every nickel she could between now and graduation. Then she’d be able to make her escape…for good.

She heaved open the driver-side door and slid her backpack across the worn out bench seat. Once inside, Stormy gave the dashboard a little rub and whispered, “It’s okay. Don’t you listen to those mean girls.” It was a silly thing to do, talking to an inanimate object, but Stormy’s truck was her most prized possession. For her, the old Ford was more than just a mode of transportation—it was a faithful friend. That truck had provided a place to cry when Mama’s tantrums got to be too much; it was a quiet place to think when the house was too noisy; and, it would ultimately be Stormy’s ride to freedom when the time came.

She cranked the truck and headed downtown, which, fortunately, was only a five minute trip. When she rolled up Main Street there were cars lined up end to end on both sides and there wasn’t a single available parking space in sight. Shoot! She made the block, scouring the street for a place to park as she went, but she still didn’t have any luck. She was about to circle around for the third time when she noticed the public library sitting on the next block over…and it had a big ole parking lot full of empty spaces.

Once parked in the library lot, she darted across the street, silently praying that nobody got their panties in a twist over her truck being there after hours. She hopped up on the curb and looked down the long sidewalk at all the shops. Trudy had said the store, Trudy’s Treasures, would be easy to spot, but as Stormy looked down the long row of businesses—all sandwiched together and all done up in the same shades of beige, cream, and peach—she wasn’t so sure. They all looked exactly alike. Stormy glanced down at her watch and relaxed a little when she saw that she still had fifteen minutes to spare.

The historic buildings showed their age with chipped bits of concrete and peeling paint. However, there was a certain charm to them that Stormy was drawn to. They were picturesque, and yet simple, and Stormy suspected that they looked much like they had a hundred years ago.

As she meandered down the sidewalk, she took in the artfully displayed items behind the plate glass windows. It was like stealing a glimpse into the past. Antique dress forms stood proudly, boasting of all the pretty garments they had once helped create while the handmade cloth dolls smiled their cheeky red-stitched grins. The rusty old farm implements sat like old men, exhausted from a long life of toil, now enjoying a subdued retirement.

An elderly man exited the nearby café and the mouth-watering aroma of fried chicken wafted over her, making her stomach growl. The man gave Stormy a smile and a curt nod of acknowledgement. She returned his smile with a slight wave before continuing her journey down the sidewalk. And then there it was. Three stores down, Trudy’s Treasures, in all of its purple, red, and neon green glory was practically smacking her in the face. It was such a stark contrast to the neighboring shops that it was a little startling, but in a good way. How she didn’t notice it sooner was baffling to her.

She checked her reflection in the glass, smoothing her ponytail and straightening her baby blue cardigan, before pulling on the heavy glass door. Immediately she was taken in by the vibrancy of the place with its bold colors and touches of whimsy everywhere. It was like something out of a fantasy. Every inch of the place was covered in bright colors and textured fabrics. Two plush, overstuffed, red-orange armchairs just begged to have someone curl up in them with a good book and a warm beverage. The scent of coffee and mint permeated the air. It was comforting and inviting and not at all what she had expected, since most old buildings smelled of dust and mothballs.

“Hello?” It didn’t appear as though anyone was there at first. The place was eerily quiet. Then she heard the faint rustling of paper coming from behind a shimmery, jewel colored, beaded curtain in the rear of the store. The beads parted and an attractive, fortyish-looking woman with a mass of purply-red curls appeared.

“Hey there! You must be Stormy, right?” Her burgundy-lipped smile was a beam of sunshine and her eyes sparkled with enthusiasm.

“Yes. That’s me.”

“Give me just a second, sweetie. Be right with ya!” The curtain swallowed her up again with a swish.

The sheer volume of stuff in the place was amazing. It was an amusement park for the eyes with its eclectic mix of quirky outfits, colorful trinkets, bold pieces of jewelry, and rustic home accessories. Everywhere Stormy looked there was something to ogle, and then her eyes landed on a pop of purple that looked out of place. Hanging amongst the tie-dye shirts and leopard print leggings was the most beautiful, most elegant dress she’d ever seen. She plucked it off the rack and held it up, admiring the way the light played off the satiny fabric.

Such a stunning garment—shimmering violet overlaid with delicate ivory lace—she was drawn to it, almost as if it was calling to her, begging to be worn. It was a stark contrast to anything in her closet, which wasn’t much, and she couldn’t help but run her fingers over the soft, cool fabric. For just a moment, she closed her eyes and imagined what it would feel like to wear such a dress, could practically feel the satin swishing against her legs.

Trudy’s voice broke through her thoughts. “You like coffee?” she hollered from behind the curtain.

“Yeah, sure.” With a small, reluctant sigh she placed the dress back on the rack and continued her perusal of the store. There was a brief clattering of dishes and then Trudy reappeared with two bright yellow ceramic mugs in tow.

“Here ya go, hon. I hope you like peppermint. It’s my own concoction and it might not be for everybody,” she warned with a half grin.

Stormy lifted the cup to her lips an inhaled deeply, “It smells heavenly.” She took a timid sip and couldn’t contain the little moan of satisfaction that escaped as the sweet, nutty, minty goodness rolled across her tongue. Trudy chuckled and gave a little wink, “Glad you like it.” Now let’s step into my office.” She waved Stormy over to the big orange chairs that had caught her eye previously. Stormy set her cup on the little wicker coffee table and resisted the urge to curl up like a cat on the overly soft piece of furniture.

Trudy sipped her coffee and placed it on the table. “Well, my name is Trudy Carmine. I’m the owner of this little jewel,” she said while spreading her arms out wide, “But I imagine you already figured that part out.”

Stormy smiled and nodded.

“Now, tell me. How in the heck did such a pretty little thing like you end up here in Nowheresville, Texas?”

“My mama’s boyfriend lives here….” Ugh. Stormy twisted her hands together in her lap to keep from burying her face in them. She should have anticipated that question and come up with something that didn’t sound so…pathetic.

Trudy cocked a perfectly sculpted eyebrow toward the pink ceiling. “I see,” she said knowingly. “Well, things do tend to happen that way sometimes.” She waved dismissively and moved on. “I’m a transplant myself. From Austin. Been here going on three years now. My uncle got sick a while back and asked me if I was interested in buying him out. He never had any kids of his own to offer it to, and I didn’t have much else going on at the time…so, here I am.”

Trudy, as Stormy soon found out, was blessed with the gift of gab. She and Stormy talked…and talked…and talked. And Stormy welcomed it. Trudy’s rich, twangy voice was like a warm blanket on a cold day. A stark contrast from her mother’s shrill bark, Trudy’s voice was comforting. And it made her forget the loneliness that awaited her at home. Trudy conveyed a genuine interest in what Stormy had to say—which was a drop in the bucket compared to Trudy—but Trudy clung to her every word nonetheless.

A half hour and another cup of coffee later, the pair stood and Trudy clasped both of Stormy’s hands in hers, “You’re going to be a wonderful addition here. We’re going to have so much fun! I can already tell.”

“I can hardly wait. Thank you so much for the opportunity,” Stormy said with a big smile. And she meant every word.

****

When Stormy stepped out into the remainder of the afternoon sun, she felt lighter. Happier. Her interview couldn’t have gone better and she felt more normal that she had in a long time. She sucked in a long, cleansing breath before crossing the street. As soon as she stepped off the curb, something brown and furry skittered past her, and she was unable to suppress a yelp. Stupid squirrel.

“Better watch out. Those things can be deadly to unsuspecting victims,” said a masculine voice from somewhere behind her.

A tall gangly guy with a mop of sandy blond waves was leaning against the end of the building facing the library.

She eyed him suspiciously. “What are you talking about? Squirrels aren’t dangerous.” Is this guy nuts?

His eyes widened and he glared at Stormy like she was the one with a few screws loose. “Ohhhh. You mean, you don’t know?” he asked incredulously.

She shifted her weight to one foot and put her hands on her hips. “Don’t know what?” she asked flatly. Her creep meter was tugging at her insides but she didn’t want to let her weariness show, so she tried to look bored and uninterested.

The guy was persistent. “That wasn’t some ordinary squirrel… It was el chupardilla.”

“Chupa…what?” her eyebrows scrunched in confusion.

“El chupardilla.” He made the l’s sound like a y. “According to Mexican legend, it’s a squirrel-chupacabra hybrid. They look and act just like regular tree squirrels…but don’t let that fool you. They have sharp fangs and a taste for human blood. If one of them latches onto you… you’re a goner.”

She lowered her eyes at him. “Bullshit.” She was ninety-eight percent sure he was making it up, but the other two percent had her glancing around for signs of the deadly squirrel.

The uncertainty was plastered all over her face and the guy burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter at her expense. “Nah. I’m just messing with you. Those things are more of a nuisance than anything,” he finally admitted. Then he added, “The ones around here are pretty tame actually. They’ll even let you pick them up and pet them.”

“Will they really let you hold them?” She felt stupid the moment the words left her mouth. She looked down at the gutter, thinking she’d like to crawl into it. How could she be so gullible? And what was it about this guy that had her second guessing herself?

His mouth turned up in a smirk, “Only if you don’t mind losing a finger. Bastards got sharp-ass teeth. And that part is true.”

His beaming smile was infectious, and now they were both standing in the street grinning at each other like a couple of idiots.

Stormy took a hair tie out of her pocket and twisted her hair up while thinking of something else to say. “Hey, aren’t you in Ms. Knoll’s biology lab?” She tried to remember his name. Buzz? Fozz? Fuzz?

“Yep. You sit at the second lab table on the left side and you always twirl your hair around your finger when the teacher starts asking the class questions. Like you’re nervous about being called on or something. It’s actually pretty cute.” He lowered his eyes and his cheeks flushed when he realized he’d said too much. He was cute, in a sort of puppy dog way, with those big green eyes and floppy hair. And he’d made her laugh, which was always a bonus. When it came to friendship material, humor was at the top of her list.

Starting to look uncomfortable from the strained silence that had settled between them, the guy shifted his weight from one foot to the other before extending his hand. “I’m Nozz, by the way.”

“Stormy.” She grabbed his hand for a quick squeeze. Another few moments of awkwardness passed. “Well, it was good to meet you. I should probably get going.” She started walking backward in the direction of her truck.

Nozz stuffed his hands into the pockets of his baggy jeans and rocked back on his heels. “Yeah, me too. See you at school.” Then the left side of his mouth turned up into a lopsided smile. “Be sure and watch out for those blood-suckers….”

He was a smartass. She liked him instantly.

****

The windows were down, whipping hair all over her head, and the radio cranked out a 90’s pop tune that had Stormy drumming her thumbs on the steering wheel. Optimism thrummed in her veins, and for the first time in a long, long time, she felt like things might turn out okay for a change.

And then she spotted the rusty yellow jeep in the driveway.

Dread hung over her like a dark cloud as she made her way up the wobbly front steps. Stormy and Mama didn’t get visitors. Stormy’s dad had always been a big question mark in her life, and there was no other family to speak of since Mama’s family had disowned her before Stormy was born.

Smoke billowed out the front door when Stormy pulled it open, and she was immediately overwhelmed by the stench of cigarettes and marijuana. She coughed and made a futile attempt to fan the smoke away from her face.

“It’s about time you dragged yourself in here,” Mama drawled. “This here is my Bill,” she said with a wink. She was draped over a big, hairy, all-too-comfortable looking man on the couch. The middle-aged biker wannabe lifted his cigarette wielding hand a couple of inches off his knee in a sort of half-wave of acknowledgement as he grunted a salutation, “Hey.”

Stormy echoed his flat greeting, “Hey.”

His heavily hooded, bloodshot eyes met hers for a split second before traveling all over her body and then settling on her chest. It sent creepy crawlies up and down her spine. She cleared her throat loudly as she protectively crossed her arms over her chest before shooting her mother a questioning glare. Hello? Do you see this?

Marni was oblivious to the silent assault to her daughter. “We were just about to go get somethin’ to eat. Then we’re heading over to The Rusty Fender. I hear they need a waitress. I don’t know how late we’ll be so you’ll have to fend for yourself for supper,” Marni informed her.

Stormy sat on the urge to say something sarcastic. She always fended for herself. Today was no different. It wasn’t like Mama was going to make a meal. She’d worked in bars for as long as Stormy could remember, so her schedule didn’t exactly put her home in time for dinner.

Not in the mood for a fight, Stormy opted for the simplest response, “That’s okay. I grabbed a sandwich earlier.” She flopped down in the broken down recliner on the opposite side of the room and covered herself with a throw pillow, the green one that reminded her of pea soup. Ugly or not, it provided a shield between her and the Neanderthal on the couch who was still molesting her with his eyes. She glared at him and wished he could read her mind. The silent message she was sending him was anything but nice.



Chapter Four

After Mama and Bill sputtered away in his sorry-looking jeep, Stormy felt restless. For the sake of having something to do, she washed the dishes, wiped down the counters, and got rid of the stench in the ashtrays that littered the living room. But after all of that, she was still too keyed up from the day’s events to relax. Glancing at the digital clock on the stove, she realized it was still early enough to head back to the school for a much needed run on the track. It would be a good way to burn off some steam and clear her mind. And the exercise certainly couldn’t hurt considering that her jeans were fitting a little snugger than they used to.

The absence of cars in the stadium parking lot was a good sign, meaning Stormy would have the whole track to herself. She pulled her keys from the ignition and grabbed her can of pepper spray from the glove compartment—because a girl could never be too careful—and then nudged the truck door closed with her hip. It was taking more and more effort to get the thing closed, and she made a mental note to get it fixed when she was able to afford it.

The football stadium was not as glamorous as she’d expected, considering the school’s reputable football standing. The grass field, where she had expected Astroturf, was dotted with brown patches and the red dirt track was in serious need of repair. The surface looked uneven and the white stripes dividing the lanes were barely visible.

The sun had begun to set, casting long scary shadows over everything, and the temperature had dropped several degrees just in the short time it had taken her to make the drive over. Her skin prickled a little, partly because of the chill, and largely because of how eerie and desolate the place looked. Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw something move amongst the shadows. Was something there, or was her imagination working overtime?

Just as she was about to completely psyche herself out and return to the safety of her truck, the stadium lights clicked on, illuminating the entire field. Figuring they must be on a timer, she shook off the heebie jeebies, did a few warm up stretches, and then commenced with her jog.

One lap.

Two laps.

Three laps.

Side stitch.

“Owe!” She pressed her hand to her side and pushed through the pain. She couldn’t believe how out of shape she’d gotten in just a few weeks. She used to be able to run two miles before breaking a sweat. Determined to make at least one more lap, she pressed on despite the trembling in her fatigued calf muscles. The pain in her side eased up though, thankfully, so she focused on keeping one foot in front of the other until she got to the finish line.

Just as she rounded the last curve, a figure stepped out from the shadows and scared the bejeezus out of her. For the longest time he just stood there, watching. Was he stalking her…or was she just being paranoid?

She was only a few yards from the gated exit, but the man was standing right next to the track…between her and the only egress out of there. She had no other option but to go past him. Shit.

It was time for fight or flight, and she chose the latter.

Her adrenaline bolted her into a full run. If the guy was a threat, then he’d have to catch her to kill her. If he was just some poor sap that happened to be there…then she’d just look like a jackass.

She wasn’t about to stick around long enough to find out.

****

It was the end of a long week and Brylan had just finished grading his first set of quizzes. His co-workers preferred to take their work home with them, but Brylan opted to leave work at work. He didn’t want anything looming over his head all weekend. Besides, his dad had invited him to go fishing on Sunday. And Brylan knew what that meant. It was code for I want to butt into your personal life.

He seriously doubted he’d be in any mood for grading papers after that, so it was better to go on and get it out of the way.

He wiped down the chalkboard and grabbed his jacket before flipping off the light and locking up. Something in the back of his mind nagged at him on the way to the faculty parking lot, but he couldn’t quite place it… until he started his car and the headlights came to life. “Damn it.” He’d almost forgotten about the stadium lights. Someone had reported that some of the bulbs were out, and Cooper had asked if Brylan could take a look so it could be reported to maintenance.

Brylan slammed the car door and zipped up his light jacket to ward off the biting wind. The chilled air put an urgency in his steps as he made his way across campus. The quicker he got this done, the better. By the time he reached the control shack his fingers were numb. He fumbled with the massive set of keys and cursed, “Damn it!” None of the damned things were marked, meaning he’d have to find the right one through process of elimination.

It was a rotten end to a rotten day, and all he wanted to do was stretch out in front of his TV and watch 80’s reruns in the warmth of his own home.

“Finally!” The lock clicked and the door pushed open. His eyes roamed the small room until they settled on a gray panel full of switches. At least they were labeled. He flipped the ones that were marked FB Stadium and headed out to the field. He passed underneath the bleachers and entered through the gate of the cyclone fence. Squinting up at the lights, he noted the dark spots in the set nearest to the scoreboard and made a mental note to inform the maintenance crew on Monday.

It was actually the first time he’d had an excuse to come down to the stadium so he decided to take a closer look around. He’d meant to come down and check it out sooner, but he’d just been too busy.

Big yellow splotches dotted his vision. He squinted and shielded his eyes, giving his pupils a chance to adjust after staring at the bright lights. From what he could tell, the worn out dirt track needed some repair, and the grass had been neglected. The handrails along the stadium seating looked like a case of tetanus waiting to happen, and they were in desperate need of a coat of paint. Other than that though, the place looked to be in decent shape.

When his pupils finally adjusted, he made out a slender figure on the track. Someone was running. He was a little taken aback at first, but then he remembered what Cooper had told him about the place being open to the public after hours. The idea was to allow the community an opportunity to exercise in a place where they could feel safe. It made sense.

The swinging pony-tail and the pink hoodie told Brylan that the figure was female. And she was fast. Really fast. Impressed, Brylan admired her athleticism for a few more moments. Just as he was about to turn and head back in the direction of his car, he heard it—the sickening crunch of gravel, followed by a howl so pitiful it would make a coyote cringe.

Jumping into Good Samaritan mode, he jogged toward the girl that was sprawled out on the track. She sat up slowly, clutching at her ankle and grimacing in pain. She didn’t notice Brylan’s presence until he was about ten feet away. Her pained expression suddenly turned to horror and she started frantically backing away from Brylan in a movement that reminded him of a three-legged crab.

“Don’t touch me! Get away!” she shouted.

“It’s okay. I just want to help.”

“No!” She fished something out of the waistband of her pants and pointed it at him. “BACK THE HELL OFF!”

Shit. Pepper spray. He recognized it because he’d bought one just like it for his sister last year. “Alright, alright. I’m backing off.” He put his hands up, palms facing outward, and took two slow steps backward. The look in her eye said that she had no qualms about blasting him with that stuff.

“Okay, let me at least call an ambulance.” Brylan slowly reached into his back pocket for his phone.

“No, no, no. No ambulance,” she pleaded.

Shit. What was the deal with this girl? His mind raced, trying to come up with something to make her trust him.

“Look, I know you’re in a lot of pain. Trust me. I know all about that kind of pain.” He pointed to his right shoulder, “Rotator cuff injury.” He paused to give the words time to sink in. “My name is Brylan Knight. I work here at the high school. I just want to help.”

The wildness in her eyes faded a bit and a muscle in her jaw ticked. She looked him up and down, assessing whether or not he was a threat.

“Show me your I.D.,” she ordered, pointing to the lanyard around his neck. He’d forgotten he was even wearing it.

He pulled it over his head and gave it a gentle toss in her direction. It landed about two feet away, and she winced when she leaned over to retrieve it from the dirt. Brylan wondered just how badly she’d been injured. It may have been more than just an ankle. She’d taken a pretty good spill.

After scanning the I.D. card she looked up and held it out to him. “My truck is over there.” She jerked her head toward the stadium parking lot. “You’re driving.”


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