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Sleeping Brides


A. E. Scholer


Fallen Sea


Sleeping Brides


Copyright © 2016 by Andrea Elizabeth Scholer

All rights reserved.


Published by Fallen Sea

www.fallensea.com


No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.


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


Digital Edition

ISBN: 978-0-9930993-5-9


Cover Design by Fallen Sea.

Cover Photos Licensed through Deposit Photos, Free Wallpapers, and Free Images:
Levitating Woman © thug1747, Vintage Clouds © pinkquilldesign, Shore © Rachel Gilmore



In memory of Theresa.

Forever my best friend. Forever my sister.


Also in memory of the other important people I lost during the course of writing and releasing this book including:


Grandma Evelyn
Uncle Lail

Grandpa Harold


And more



Dedicated to my mother, grandmothers, and foremothers.

Table of Contents


Prologue: Ghost-Angel

Chapter One: A Brother’s Fury

Chapter Two: Disappearance

Chapter Three: Goodbyes

Chapter Four: The Refusal

Chapter Five: Hope

Chapter Six: Her Death

Chapter Seven: Heaven’s Lair

Chapter Eight: Be Still

Chapter Nine: Bird Songs

Chapter Ten: Empty Tables

Chapter Eleven: While Grandpa Sleeps

Chapter Twelve: Happiness Amongst Beasts

Chapter Thirteen: Skin Breaks

Chapter Fourteen: Almost

Chapter Fifteen: The Parasol

Chapter Sixteen: Suspicions

Chapter Seventeen: The Call

Chapter Eighteen: Good Friends

Chapter Nineteen: Malaise

Chapter Twenty: Wool and Leather

Chapter Twenty-One: Breaking Cars

Chapter Twenty-Two: The Last Day

Chapter Twenty-Three: Hold Me Down

Chapter Twenty-Four: The Festival

Chapter Twenty-Five: Screams

Chapter Twenty-Six: Expectations

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Stolen Pastures

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Ghost-Angels

Epilogue: Seagulls

The Sea Bride
The Sea Bride: Chapter One: The Darkness
The Sea Bride: Chapter Two: Sticks
The Sea Bride: Chapter Three: The Mountains
The Sea Bride: Chapter Four: The Sea

About A. E. Scholer

Prologue
Ghost-Angel


Ronnie


Death was a frightening thing. It confronted us like a boarded window, hiding the truth of what it was. Perhaps it had to. Perhaps if we were to see beyond the boards, we would disregard everything sacred in our life, either out of anticipation or out of worry of what was to come. As we aged, we would see only the window out, and never the window in.

My experience with death was limited, I was still not quite sure what lay beyond, but from what I had seen through the boards, there was only beauty. It didn’t make dying any easier. Even that which is beautiful can frighten and break the heart.

Gabriela Murphy learned so one inconceivable evening as she stood out in the autumn cold and watched the apartment complex in which she lived burn down. I was not there when it happened, but I heard about it... later.

As the flames ate away at the old brick of the buildings within the complex and spat out its haggard ash, Gabriela did not care about her Miss Latina tiara that melted on top of her dresser or her small diamond earrings next to it—the only real pair of diamonds she had ever owned, a prize for winning Miss Latina. Watching the flames destroy her home, diamonds meant nothing to her. Her husband and little twin girls were the only jewels she sought to save.

“Where’s my family?” she begged a firefighter as he ran past her, the ash clinging to the sweat on his face.

He ignored her, refusing to stop, not when there were still people inside, held hostage by the midnight flames.

The apartment complex was on a quiet street in the suburbs, a street where children could safely walk to school underneath the maple leaves, but though quiet, its residents were many. As they poured out of the scorched buildings, clinging to each other in fear, crying out in anguish, Gabriela was surrounded by her neighbors. There were many near, and yet no one would talk to her, as if she weren’t there.

She tried addressing Mama Ramirez as the hunched elderly woman guided her grandson away. “Por favor, mi familia?” she pleaded, touching the woman on the shoulder.

Flinching, Mama Ramirez scurried on, her grandson tucked beneath her arm.

An explosion from a nearby building sounded, casting smoke upon the street like a black fog, obscuring the night, making even the ash invisible. The firefighters responded, fading in and out of the fog like soldiers in a battlefield. Instinctually, Gabriela covered her mouth with the sleeve of her knitted sweater and searched amongst the fog for her family.

“Henry!” she called out from behind her sleeve, trying not to choke. “Ashley! Emma!”

The night was a broken reflection of what it had been earlier. Gabriela was attractive and loyal, but she wasn’t a happy woman, not while her family was living in the two-bedroom apartment. She tolerated the apartment only because the cheap rent allowed her family to save for a down payment on a house, but she looked forward to the day they could move out, when she could unpack her clothes and her shoes from storage and invite her girlfriends over for dinner.

Gabriela wasn’t happy, but she managed to hide her displeasure with a pageant smile, which she had shown brightly on her twin girls when she tucked them into bed earlier that evening, and again on her husband when they had sat down to relax in front of the television, his hand strong on her knee from his labors as a carpenter. Gabriela had sacrificed her happiness for her family, but they offered her something so much better than happiness, and for that she was grateful.

Now, Gabriela was terrified. After her husband had gone to bed for the evening, she’d filled a glass with wine and fallen asleep on the couch to a black and white movie. She didn’t remember being saved by the firefighters. All she knew was that she was here, out in the street, and her family was nowhere.

“Henry!” she cried again.

Her husband did not answer, but from somewhere in the black fog, Gabriela was certain she heard her daughter Emma cry out for her.

“Emma! Mommy’s here!” she coaxed desperately, reaching her hand out into the unknown. “Don’t be scared.”

Don’t be scared, she said silently to herself, not knowing which direction to turn.

Gabriela again thought of her girls, of kissing their foreheads goodnight and running her hand through the curls of their hair. They were only four, but already they were showing their different personalities. Emma liked pretty little things and had a sharp wit, like her, but Ashley was much shyer, sticking to her model clay and puzzles, staring silently at the world as if it were a thing that intrigued her. Before leaving their room that night, Gabriela had folded a pink wand under Emma’s arms, and a dinosaur under Ashley’s.

The image of her girls sleeping kept Gabriela lucid. She had to focus, to keep a clear head until she found them, but she could not shake her dread, not even as someone grabbed her shoulders and rescued her from the fog, back into an evening haunted by ash and sorrow.

It was a firefighter. The woman was tall, much taller than Gabriela, and much taller than most of the firefighters at the scene. Her height set her apart, but so did her serenity. Gabriela did not understand how the woman could be so calm and accepting with everything happening around them.

“Come with me,” the woman instructed with a needed gentleness. “I’ll guide you to safety.”

Gabriela heard her, but she wasn’t willing to go. “What’s happening?” she demanded, tears falling down her cheeks, washing away the dirt of the flames. “Where is my family?”

“This isn’t the place. It’s not safe. If you’ll follow me, then we’ll—”

“No,” Gabriela refused. “I’m not going anywhere.” She took the woman’s hand. It was warm, like a hearth—a heat that healed, not destroyed. “Please, listen to me. My name is Gabriela Murphy. My husband is Henry Murphy. He’s tall and strong with kind blue eyes and hair as dark as mine. I know he wouldn’t leave without our girls. He’d save them. We live in apartment 4B. So please, tell me where they are.”

The serenity within the woman faltered. “Gabriela Murphy,” she repeated with recognition.

“That’s right,” Gabriela said eagerly. “Please, tell me why I can’t find them.”

“It’s difficult,” the woman claimed, reluctant.

“I don’t care.”

The woman took off her helmet. Firefighters never took off their helmets, not unless they had something awful to say. The fire continued its path of destruction behind her, but Gabriela no longer noticed. Before the woman spoke, Gabriela understood everything—why Mama Ramirez wouldn’t look at her. Why she was outside all alone. The night burned, but it was drenched with a cold despair.

“Because they’re not here,” the firefighter told her. “Not anymore. You were the only one saved from your apartment. Your family did not survive.”


***


For Henry Murphy, the scene outside the apartment complex was peaceful. There was no fire, no panic. He stood in the middle of the street, which was empty and silent, the leaves of the maples turned and ready to fall. Rain would soon come. He could smell it upon the earth, stronger than he ever could before.

“Mommy!” Emma called out beside him. “Where are you?”

Henry lifted Emma up into his arms while making sure Ashley held on tightly to his flannel pajama bottoms. They were alone, but on this night of sad wonders, he was afraid of losing them. He didn’t know what was to come, but he understood what had already happened.

Emma nestled her head against his dark blue T-shirt. Her hair smelled buttery, like her mother’s. It made Henry want to weep, but he held back, for his girls, forcing his smile much like he had seen his wife do at her pageants.

“We have to leave,” he explained softly. “We must go, but Mommy has to stay.”

Emma’s lips trembled. “Why?” she asked.

Henry couldn’t reply. He didn’t have the words to, but Ashley did. “Because we’re ghost-angels,” she said with the acceptance of someone beyond her years. “And Mommy isn’t. But she will be, one day.”

“Were we always ghost-angels?” Emma asked, her eyes wide and curious.

In his grief, Henry laughed. “Yeah. I guess we were.” He tapped Emma on the nose. “You ready to go?”

“I trust you, Daddy.”

Steadying Emma in one arm, he took Ashley’s hand. “And you?”

“No, not without my mommy, but I know we have to.”

Henry nodded and squeezed her hand. Inhaling the approaching rain one last time, he turned and walked down the middle of the dark street, ready to take his daughters home.


***


That which is beautiful can still frighten and break the heart. The Murphy family learned so the tragic evening of the fire, and again many years later when Gabriela ran a stoplight, her mind wandering to times past.

Everyone rips the boards from the window sooner or later. Death embraces us all. It was a bright, sunny afternoon the day I, Ronnie Whitmore, saw what lay beyond the boards, an afternoon when children jumped through sprinklers with crumbs of bread pudding stuck to their lips, when the mellow vocals of June Christy filled the streets, and when pecan trees provided shelter.

I was happy leading up to the moment I died. At least I could say that.

I should have been. It was my wedding day.


Sleeping Brides


Part I


The Rebel Bride

Chapter One
A Brother’s Fury


Ronnie


“You!” a boy shouted indignantly from beneath the stone bridge I stood upon. “Stop launch’n arrows at me!”

“They’re foam!” I hollered down at him, my foot firmly planted as I raised another shot in warning. “Get over it!”

Annoyed, he ran away, his legs pumping fast across the green. I had no remorse. He’d been hassling the smaller kids in the park all morning. I’d watched from the bridge the way an owl watches the night—silent and observant and ready to strike. Only it wasn’t night; it was a fresh Louisiana afternoon. Beneath me, the park was wide awake with color and people, the dawn of spring, but it felt like night. Most days felt like night to me.

My arrow remained taut, like my troubles. With its high walls, the bridge—an arch that connected two narrow stairwells, separating the green from the woods—was an ideal place to shoot, unleashing my frustrations. I rarely aimed at people. I wasn’t savage. I mostly bounced the arrows, bought in a toy section of a discount store, off of the loose trees within the park.

I aimed for a tree now, until a man with khaki pants and an expensive looking sweater strolled into the park, a phone to his ear. I hated khaki and everything it represented. Changing my aim, I released the arrow and watched it bounce off the man’s wide rump before it fell harmlessly to the grass. He barely noticed, looking behind him as if the arrow was nothing more bothersome than a fly, and he kept walking.

The man reminded me of my boyfriend Kyle, which was bad because Kyle was the reason I was on the bridge. He was the cause of my frustrations. My backbone suddenly gone, I let my bow drop, and I slid against the wall, shrinking away from the world as I zipped up my black hoodie.

I’d been with Kyle since my last year of high school. That was six years ago. In those six years, he’d evolved from an awkward teen to a sturdy, dependable man who was loyal to everything he cared about. His law firm. His family. Me. I was probably at the top of his list.

I wasn’t so sturdy. I’d evolved from an awkward teen to someone much more unruly. There was a weight upon my soul, forcing me to perceive the world in all of its extremes: The obscurity of the night. The anticipation of the day. The ache of happiness. The joy of loneliness. My aunt called it depression. I called it living wholly. Either way, it was pulling me away from Kyle and the life I knew he wanted to share with me.

Plucking at the string of the bow, I wished there was a way I could tell Kyle everything I was feeling. It wasn’t that I didn’t love him. He was one of few people in the world I trusted. Generally, I didn’t trust people. Only the elderly. The elderly were much more genuine than most people I knew. But I trusted Kyle. Loyal and kind, he was everything a man should be. But he wanted a wife and a mother for his future children, and I was neither of those.


***


The bus smelt of citric shoe polish. It was Mr. Glenn. The face of his loafers was torn and chipped, but he wore them with the pride of a man who had survived two wars and the death of his beloved wife. Every time I saw him, he wore the same aged three piece suit, his shoes polished, his tie tight against his collar. I didn’t know where he traveled to on the bus, coming and going at random intervals. Mr. Glenn didn’t speak. He only nodded at me when I got on, grim despite the pleasantry of his greeting. But Mrs. Fischer knew a bit about him. She had given me his history.

Mr. Glenn did not speak, but Mrs. Fischer never stopped. With her glassy yellow eyes and the heavy reek of cigarette smoke wafting off of her, the woman rambled on like clay pouring down a mountainside, choking everyone with its dust. Most of the time, she was coherent, but when there was nothing worthy of gossip, she would look out the window and mumble to herself, “Give the man hell.” Those were the moments I tolerated Mrs. Fischer the most.

Mrs. Fischer wasn’t on the bus now. I was off my normal schedule. I’d been called in early for my nightshift at the women’s shelter where I worked. It was a relief not to have to deal with Mrs. Fischer. Slumping into my seat with the dark blonde tangles of my hair, more rust than gold, pressed against the green plastic, I wanted to enjoy the end of my journey without having to entertain the woman. In that way, I was a lot like Mr. Glenn. I preferred the peace of my own company.

The commuter bus, which journeyed between the smaller towns within reach of Lafayette, passing through open fields and patches of woodland, was where I felt my most independent. Neither here nor there, I could be myself on the bus, wistful and silently ferocious, without the influence of others. There were no colleagues to make small talk with. No neighbors who watched with judgement as I crept into my studio apartment after my shift. Because I didn’t make it a habit to get to know my neighbors, I could only guess what kind of work they thought brought a young woman home long after sunrise. But most of all, on the bus, there was no Kyle.

When I reached my stop, I was reluctant to get off, but not as much as other days. It was a novelty coming into work so early. Usually when I arrived, the ambiguous dirt path that led off the road to the shelter was lit only by a soft twilight, but today the sun blazed above, making even the unsightly thorn bushes and gaunt saplings that lined the path look somewhat alluring, their branches inviting me into a secret hideaway few knew about.

About a mile up the path, beyond the harsh, deceptive brush, was a well-manicured lawn that rolled on like a green sea. At the heart of the sea was a guard of prim oak trees, their low branches interwoven, creating a ceiling of leaves that led to an old French manor—the shelter.

The property had been donated by an heiress, in honor of her grandmother, who had designed the peaked roofs, long-stretching windows, and elegant ironwork of the balconies of the manor. The balconies wrapped around every floor, held up by grand white colonnades. The rest of the manor was painted an unstately peach, providing warmth to the cracked souls who entered through its doors.

“I’m here,” I said to the daytime assistant, whose shift I was covering so she could leave early for her engagement party.

“Ronnie, hi,” she greeted, distracted as she thumbed through papers on the front desk. “I’m just finishing up. Give me a few minutes.”

“Sure,” I said, and I moved across the marble flooring to the gridded security gate that divided the foyer from the rest of the manor. French doors had once stood here, but they had been replaced by the gate when the manor had been converted into the shelter.

Narrow and without air conditioning, the hallways of the manor were stifling, especially wearing my black hoodie, which covered jeans and a plain T-shirt. There was nothing embellished about the way I dressed. Though the lack of air was suffocating, I refused to take my hoodie off, it was my armor, so I turned towards the kitchen in need of a glass of water.

I had worked as the nighttime assistant at the shelter for over six months, but I was still learning how to navigate the hallways. Pieces of the manor had been renovated to meet the needs of the shelter, such as installing the security gate and designating a wing to the infirmary, but much of the manor’s original features remained, including the hallways that seemed to zigzag rather than channel straight, forever twisting, taunting me like a mad labyrinth.

Thankfully, I knew the way to the kitchen much better than I did other parts of the manor. Once meant for servants, the kitchen was downstairs, its stairwell in the movie room, which had been converted from what was previously the formal dining hall. I entered the movie room eagerly, already trading the glass of water for sweet tea in my mind, but I stopped when I found a boy standing near the door to the stairs, alone and holding a small toy in his hand.

The toy was a plush wolf doll. Grey and white, a wolf was given to all who entered the shelter.

During the day, the shelter was a time of healing. There were activities and support groups and playtime for the children. There was laughter. The laugher was knotted with guilt and fear, but it existed. But some chains were hard to break away from. The night was different than the day. When the sun disappeared, so did the hope. It was hard to have hope when nightmares reigned. The manor was beautiful and strong, but it held a lot of heartbreak, similar to the women it protected.

A guardian, the wolf represented a higher, native force that watched over the shelter. There was a box full of them in the equipment room. They were effective. During my rounds on the nightshift, I checked on the women as they slept, and I saw them clinging to the wolves as strongly as their children did—as strongly as the boy in front of me did now.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, unsure of his name. “Are you lost?”

He shook his rag of brown hair. “Scared.” He glanced at the stairs. The door was open, lighting the stonework that descended down to the kitchen. “I don’t like the way my footsteps echo on the stairs. It sounds like there’s someone following me.”

“You have nothing to be scared of. What you hear is angels making sure you make it down okay.”

He moaned. “Angels? Really?”

Smart kid. I had never been great at selling what I didn’t believe. “Okay, it’s probably mice.”

He perked up, weirdly okay with that. “I like mice.”

“You do?”

“Sure. We have loads of them at home. I miss home. This isn’t home.”

“No, it’s not.”

No longer needing my inspiration—or lack of it—he bolted down the stairs. “Hey!” I called after him. “Slow down, kiddo! You’ll break your neck!”

I followed much more leisurely, taking my time down the stone steps. Around me, prisms reflected off of suncatchers the women had painted and hung from the stairwell over the years. There were flowers, stars, insects, and confectionary, but there were no hearts. There were never hearts.

The kitchen was where the women gathered to cook and do crafts, their supplies spread across the line of dated wooden tables as sunlight streamed in through the southerly window. Wicker baskets hung above the tables, full of basil and thyme and sometimes herbs that were not so fresh or legal, which the women hid beneath the soil.

“Ronnie!” Mrs. Danvers called to me. Round and formidable, Mrs. Danvers was the self-appointed mother hen of the shelter. “How nice to see you, my dear.” She held a patch of knit-work up. “Would you care to join us?”

“No thanks,” I said to her and the dozen or so women who sat around her at the tables. I only recognized a handful, and even less recognized me. That was the consequence of working the nightshift. Usually, I only saw the women when they were sleeping, an intruder to their nightmares. Those I did know were insomniacs, wandering the halls, unable to face what waited for them behind closed eyes.

“We’re weaving our fate,” Mrs. Danvers pronounced as I walked to the fridge and reached for a pitcher of sweet tea. “Just like the Norns of Norse mythology.”

“Powerful,” I replied before taking a sip of tea directly from the pitcher.

As I did, three kids ran behind me. The littlest, a tiny girl, smacked my butt as she passed. “You shouldn’t drink out of the pitcher!” she admonished. “It’s gross!”

I refused to look, but I could feel Mrs. Danvers smiling. She’d long given up scolding me for drinking out of the pitcher. When I was on break from my shifts, I came down to the kitchen, and I often found Mrs. Danvers sitting alone in the shadows beneath the baskets, looking out into the moonlit gardens. I think the kitchen brought her as much comfort as it brought me.

Resigning to her will, I grabbed a glass and poured the rest of the sweet tea in it. Then I set the glass aside and cleaned out the pitcher, knowing that within the hour, more tea would appear.

“Did you hear about the fire up north?” a woman with curly red hair asked as the group continued to knit. “My sister told me about it. It’s all over the news. An entire apartment complex burned down. Dodgy wiring. Eight people died.”

“I heard. What a tragedy,” Mrs. Danvers clucked. “One woman lost her entire family, the poor soul. But she’ll see them again, one day. Do you believe that, Ronnie?”

“Believe what?” I asked. I’d been listening, but I didn’t want Mrs. Danvers to know.

“That we see our loved ones again after we die?”

“Religion really isn’t my thing,” I mumbled as I dried the pitcher with a cloth, uncomfortable with the topic. Then, for the sake of my audience, remembering religion was the only thing helping some of the women in the shelter hold on, I added, “But I guess so. Sure. I mean, lots of people tell stories of talking to their loved ones after they die or receiving a sign that they’re near. A touch. A voice. A familiar scent. Some of it must be true.”

“What must be true?” Laney, one of the resident nurses, asked as she bounced into the kitchen.

It was a relief. This conversation was meant for Laney. With big Southern curls in her auburn hair, Laney was a sassy young church mouse—petite, loud, and extremely devout.

“That we exist beyond this life,” Mrs. Danvers informed her.

“Of course we do,” Laney piped. “We’re much more than we realize. Even science says so.”

Mrs. Danvers chuckled. “Science? I never thought I’d hear those words come out of you, Miss Laney May.”

“I’m a nurse,” Laney defended casually, admiring her bright purple nail polish that matched her scrubs. “That makes me a scientist, of sorts. I know prayer is only half the puzzle.”

“What do you mean?” a brunette woman asked her, setting down her knitting, curious.

“We’re stardust,” Laney told her. “I heard it in a documentary on the TV. We’re made of carbon, and the only place in the universe carbon is formed is in the core of a star. So we’re all made of carbon that has been released into the universe from a star that went supernova and died. We’re stardust.”

“Insightful,” Mrs. Danvers mused. “But what does that have to do with an afterlife?”

“God wouldn’t waste his stardust on us if our destiny was just to live and die. There’s something much bigger going on here. I know that doesn’t prove heaven exists, you have to have faith for that, but I like to think that it does indicate we are much more than we seem.”

Finished drying the pitcher, I left it on the counter to be filled and picked up my glass, ready to leave, too tired to think about anything too deeply.

“You frightened her away,” the brunette woman teased. “Those who wear black hoodies never like talking about church.”

“Are you depressed, Ronnie?” Mrs. Danvers asked.

I paused at the bottom of the stairwell, my hand tightening around my glass. I wasn’t offended, I was amused more than anything, but I didn’t like having the judgement of the room solely on me. “My hoodie is comfortable,” I said patiently. “And black shields against negativity.”

“So you are depressed.”

“She’s not depressed,” Laney said, coming to my rescue. “She just likes to be mistaken for a vampire.”

“Bye, kiddos,” I said, stepping away from the conversation. I swiftly made my way up the stairs, leaving the women to weave their fate.


***


A quiet settled upon the shelter as day waned into night. I liked the night. It had a reputation for bringing out the bad, but I thought it brought out truth. There was a calm to the night, a peace that existed beyond the fear. The sun was an invasion. The night was the earth in its true form.

Laney dropped a small pile of papers in front of me at the front desk then took a heart-shaped lollipop from a nearby canister—the only heart-shaped objects in the shelter.

“Do these need sorting?” I asked.

“It’s Melissa’s medical report,” she said, sucking on the lollipop. “It needs to go into her file.”

Melissa. She was the most upsetting case I had seen since working at the shelter. Many of the women who were admitted had bruises, but Melissa—her husband had nearly beat her to death. The police had brought her to the shelter after she was discharged from the hospital, and though she’d had several days to recover, she was still in bad shape.

“How did your date go?” Carl, the security guard, shouted to Laney from his spot on a recliner in the lounge of the foyer—a seating area full of secondhand sofas on white marble flooring, like paupers dancing on silk. At sixty-odd-years-old, Carl was a good-natured man with deep laughter lines in his black skin. I adored him, but his position was mostly for show. The security gate that divided the foyer from the rest of the shelter did most of the work in keeping out the ruckus.

“The date didn’t go,” Laney huffed. “I arrived early to the restaurant, just in time to see him take off his wedding band and hide it in his coat pocket.”

“I’m sorry, sunshine,” Carl said kindly. “But don’t give up. You’ll find a good man soon.”

Laney was far from discouraged, but she accepted Carl’s sympathy with a smile. “Are you sure you and your pretty li’l wife aren’t hiding a son away somewhere?” she chirped.

“Not that I know of, but I wouldn’t put it past my wife,” he answered, laughing heartily from the recliner.

Listening to the two chatter, I silently filed Melissa’s papers away, praying they didn’t ask me about Kyle. He had called me early in the morning, when I’d gotten home from working my previous shift.

“I’m home,” I’d told him, the strain I felt on the phone with Kyle evident only to me. I ran my hand over the weaving patterns of the Native American quilt on my bed. My studio apartment was cramped, the bed its centerpiece, but like the bus, it was one of the last places I felt truly independent.

“Just checking in,” Kyle claimed. “I’ll pick you up when I’m finished in court. I’ll be there early, before you leave again.”

I didn’t answer, but I didn’t need to. Kyle didn’t need an answer. He had our routine. After I slept, I went over to his, keeping my apartment to myself.

“See you soon,” he bid.

“See you soon,” I’d returned quietly.

“There are two reasons I’ll never do online dating,” Laney insisted, replying to a suggestion by Carl. “First, no good Southern man needs the internet to meet women. If he’s hiding behind a computer screen instead of sporting himself a good pair of boots and rattling his way across a dance floor, then he’s not worth a penny or a pig. And second, just because his profile says he’s thirty-two and Christian, it doesn’t mean he is. I’d take a church social over that social media nonsense any day. Jesus didn’t need Facebook to find his disciples, and I certainly don’t need it to find Mr. Right.”

“Carl, you know how Laney feels about online dating,” I warned.

“I know, I know,” Carl acknowledged, rocking in his seat. “But my youngest daughter found her Juliet online, so I just thought—”

The doors to the shelter burst open, and a dark-haired man of substantial height and bulk hurried a woman in. I assumed it was a woman. She wore a red blanket over her head like a cloak, hiding her face, but soft tendrils of pale blonde hair cascaded down from the cowl. Even though she was covered, it was easy to see how thin she was, her shape feminine but sickly.

“You’re safe now,” the man reassured the woman, but as he glanced behind his shoulder at the doors, he didn’t look so convinced. “He didn’t follow us.”

Carl jumped up from the recliner, a hand on his stun gun. “Do I need to call the police?” he bellowed.

“I hope not,” the man answered absently.

The woman was a statue, but the man shook with an unresolved fury, the type that arose out of fear for the wellbeing of a loved one. He was a threat to someone, but not to us. I waved Carl down. If danger did follow the pair in, like a dog late for the hunt, I had a panic button beside me at the desk.

“Who do you think might have followed you?” I asked, standing.

The man turned to me, his tawny brown eyes meeting my own. His leather jacket spoke of defiance, but there was an old soul buried in the leather. I did not feel as if I were looking upon a modern man my age, but rather a timeless man with all the wisdom and all the passion of the years.

“Her boyfriend…” he mumbled. “My sister needs help. Her boyfriend, he’s... She just needs help.”

“We can help,” I assured him. “What’s your name?”

“Dermott O’Brallaghan.”

“Dermott, I’m Ronnie. What can you tell me about what happened to your sister tonight?”

Again, he glanced at the doors, his fury growing. “That her boyfriend has a lot to answer for.”

I was getting nowhere, so I focused on the woman. “Never mind her boyfriend. Your sister is our priority right now. We can help her, but she’ll have to remove her blanket. I can’t let her through the security gate otherwise.”

“Aileen,” Dermott prompted. “It’s okay.”

Aileen did as I requested, letting the blanket drop to the floor. Wearing grey sweatpants and an oversized baseball jersey that looked more like a pajama top than street clothes, she was probably about nineteen or twenty. Her absorbent blue eyes barely flickered as a black bruise formed on her high cheek bone and blood seeped from a split lip. She couldn’t feel the pain. I had seen vacant expressions like hers enough times to know she was coming down from some sort of high that numbed her.

“I don’t want to be here,” she said, hushed.

“Aileen, don’t say that,” Dermott reproached. He turned to me. “She knows she needs help, but she’s a bit out of it at the moment.”

It wasn’t my job to pity the woman, but I couldn’t help it. She was so fragile, as if her skinny bones were made of hollow glass. But I didn’t let my pity stand in the way of my job.

“Aileen, I know tonight has been difficult, but we have procedures here that have to be followed. You’ll spend the evening in the infirmary with Laney, who’ll check you over to make sure you don’t require emergency medical care. In the morning, you’ll be asked to fill out the necessary paperwork to admit you. You’ll be given a brief orientation, including going over the rules of the shelter, and you’ll be assigned a room. We don’t operate the same as other shelters. We like the women here to think of the shelter as their home. You’ll have a lot of freedom here, but the rules have to be followed. Do you understand?”

“I don’t want to be here,” Aileen whispered again, but she nodded her head in acknowledgement, a single tear rolling down her bruised cheek.

Taking her cue, Laney approached her. “I’m going to take you to the infirmary now. Is that okay with you, Aileen?”

She didn’t respond.

“Aileen,” Dermott said. “Go with her.”

Persuaded, Aileen picked the red blanket up off the floor and turned towards Laney, soundlessly offering her compliance.

“I’ll take good care of her,” Laney promised Dermott, and she guided Aileen through the security gate.

“You’ll be okay, sis!” Dermott called out, tight with worry. “If you need anything, I’ll be here!”

Remembering tradition, I pulled out a wolf from the bottom drawer of the desk and passed it to Laney through the gate, knowing she would give it to Aileen when the time was right.

“What now?” Dermott asked when they were out of sight.

“You finally unclench your fists,” I answered. “You were right to bring your sister here. Once Laney has checked her over, if she finds Aileen doesn’t need to go to the hospital, then she’ll let her sleep.”

“That’s good,” Dermott uttered, nodding his head, distracted, only half-involved in the conversation. “It’s probably best she sleeps tonight anyhow.”

I hesitated before speaking again, knowing what I was about to say would bring him no rest. “If she chooses to leave, we can’t stop her.”

He understood. “I know what she said, but she wants to be here. When she was sober, we agreed that she would come here if things got worse. Tonight...” He shuddered, reliving it. “Tonight, I witnessed a new low. He did this to her.”

“You should file a report with the police,” I said. “Whatever happened, they should know.”

“Do you want me to call them?” Carl asked. I had almost forgotten he was here.

I looked at Dermott.

“No,” he determined, running a clumsy, agitated hand through his dark hair. There was a wildness to him, his passion surpassing his wisdom. In situations like this, that was never good. “Thank you for everything,” he told us quickly, his thoughts elsewhere, and he rushed towards the doors, his intentions obvious in the anger he carried. He was going to confront the boyfriend.

“Dermott, wait!” I shouted, but he didn’t stop, so I ran after him, following him out of the manor to the circular drive. With his towering stature, he took long strides, but I was quick and managed to put myself between him and the blue pick-up truck parked sideways in the middle of the drive, the passenger door still open. “You cannot take this into your own hands.”

“I have to,” he contended. “She’s my sister. I’m supposed to protect her. I can’t let him get away with this.”

“You are protecting her,” I pleaded. “You brought her here. Don’t give him a reason to turn the blame around. Don’t let her wake up tomorrow to the news that her brother was arrested. Or worse. She’ll never recover.”

I watched the battle unfold within Dermott, his integrity tearing at his common sense. “I can’t do nothing,” he finally mumbled.

“Then let me help you.” I indicated to the truck. “I’m assuming this is yours?”

“Yeah, bad parking job.”

“I’ve seen worse. Let’s take a seat inside.” Before he could protest, I hopped into the passenger’s side.

“It won’t do no good, darling,” he said, leaning against the open door. “I’ll take you with me if I have to.”

It was an empty threat. There was no way he would put me in harm’s way. He was an old-fashioned rebel, old-fashioned enough to think it his duty to protect a woman. When I sat, I became the anchor holding him down. “Just get in.”

Complying, he joined me from the driver’s side, his leather jacket rustling against the seat.

“Nice ride,” I said, running my hand over the beige interior.

“It’s actually my sister’s truck,” he admitted, flexing his hands against the steering wheel, his anger starting to cool.

“I gathered that from the bunnies on the dashboard. Do you have a car of your own?”

“Just my bike.”

“Cool.”

He barely heard me, once again preoccupied. “Listen, you don’t have to sit here with me. I—”

I stopped him. “I want to. Carl will alert me if they need anything at the desk. I’d give you a room for the night, but it’s against the rules. The only men allowed in are those who need our services.”

“Men?”

“Sometimes.”

“Are girls allowed in, those who aren’t in your services?”

“We screen them first, but yes. It’s not unheard of for us to let another female stay for a few days and offer support. We have a really rounded approach at the shelter.”

“I have another sister. Emer. She’s more grounded than Aileen, even though she’s a year younger. Emer really has it together.”

“Well, she sounds like the perfect person to help Aileen through this. And you too. You can’t stay, but you can still visit. You should visit. As often as you can.”

“It’ll be hard for her,” Dermott foretold. “She’ll go through withdrawals.”

“We’re prepared to help.”

He stared hard at the steering wheel. “I blame myself as much as I blame Brent, her boyfriend. He was a college buddy of mine. I knew he dealt a bit of weed on campus, but he came from a good family and he was doing well in his studies, so I introduced him to Aileen. I thought he was going places. But after graduation, he vested himself into other, bigger enterprises. The more he dealt, the worse Aileen got, as if she was his crash puppet testing the new supply. And then she started showing up at mine with bruises, and I knew he had overstepped his bounds completely.”

“Did you ever go to the police?”

“No. Aileen was in love. She still is. She was willing to pay the price to stay by his side.”

I was sickened. “Why is the debt of love entirely one-sided?”

Dermott shrugged. “I don’t know.” Exhaustion suddenly peeled at his face, and he relaxed into his seat, succumbing to it. “So, Riley—”

“Ronnie.”

“Ronnie. What do you do when you’re not playing gatekeeper to your sisters in need?”

I sleep a restless daytime sleep, and I pretend that I’m not pushing my boyfriend away. I could probably tell Dermott my exact thoughts, and he wouldn’t judge, but I didn’t. He needed a distraction away from boyfriends.

“I listen to Johnny Cash,” I replied truthfully. “When no one is around, I stand on my bed in my studio apartment, and I sing to his music, pretending I’m him on stage.”

This surprised him. “Just Cash?”

“Sometimes I throw in a few Willie Nelson songs.”

He was impressed. “A female Johnny Cash. I like it,” he said. “Ever play any gigs?”

I grunted. “I don’t perform for others. Even if I wasn’t a terrible singer, I would hate it. Unless you’re Johnny Cash, you don’t sing his songs to perform. You sing them to find a way to deal with yourself.”

Dermott fell further into his seat and yawned. “Gotta do what you love, darling, even if it’s all alone, I guess.”

“And what about you?”

“There’s nothing fancy about this boy. I operate a crane down on the freight yard.”

“Do you love it?”

I love life. And it lets me live the life I want. Plus, it’s not so bad with some good tunes. I’ve got Cash on my playlist. Did you ever hear his version of When Irish Eyes are Smiling?”

Johnny Cash wrote Forty Shades of Green, not When Irish Eyes are Smiling, but I didn’t correct him. “Yeah, I don’t sing it, but I know it.”

“Well, are mine smiling?”

His were anything but smiling, carrying the weight of the night, but they did glisten, despite his fatigue.

“So you have Irish ancestry?” I guessed.

“Born there. But I was raised here in Louisiana. My parents, they went back last year where the rest of the family are, after Emer graduated from high school.”

Now I understood why he felt so responsible for his sisters. He was all they had here.

“I don’t want you to worry, Dermott. Aileen will be okay. This will scar her, but it’ll also make her stronger. You’ll have your sister back.”

“I hope so. She’s a good girl, when she’s sober.”

“I don’t doubt it—”

I meant to say more, but he kissed me. I didn’t expect it. There was no warning. There was just his sadness and his regret and his weariness, and suddenly he was kissing me. I let his lips linger on mine, and then I gently pushed him away.

“I can’t,” I said, thinking of Kyle.

“I’m sorry,” he declared, his eyes half-closed and red with deprived sleep. “I shouldn’t have.”

“It’s okay,” I told him, keeping a firm hand on his chest for distance. “Why don’t you get some rest?”

“She rang me,” he said, his thoughts far from sleep. “She kept saying, ‘I’m gone, Dermott. I’m gone. He’s gonna get me.’ The calm in her voice—even though it was drug-induced—that’s what scared the hell outta me. When I got there, Brent was chasing her with an axe. He was high on something, his face twisted. He was enjoying it. I don’t know how I got the axe out of his hand. I can’t really remember. But I knocked him out, threw a blanket over my sister, and told her to lie low so none of his drug buddies would recognize us on the road. We came straight here.”

“You did good. Sleep now, and let the police handle the rest. We’ll call them in the morning.”

Lost and overcome with emotion, Dermott obliged. I waited until I heard his shallow breaths then leaned my head back against the seat. I stayed by his side, afraid he would leave if he woke and I was gone. This Brent guy probably deserved the justice Dermott wanted to deliver, but Dermott didn’t deserve to go to jail.

At some point through the night, Dermott reached out in his sleep and took my hand.

Despite everything, I let him.

Chapter Two
Disappearance


“Don’t let them feds steal yer cigarettes,” Mrs. Fischer croaked from the bus window, a glint in her glassy eyes. “Give the man hell!”

I didn’t smoke, but I humored the old woman, acknowledging her with a nod as the bus rattled and pulled away. Please don’t let that be me when I’m old, I begged inwardly, watching Mrs. Fischer bang the window shut as the bus disappeared down the main road.

I turned towards the shelter. It was evening. A low light settled upon the land, guiding my way up the path, warning me of the dark to come. Breaking through the arch of trees, I looked up at the balcony that wrapped around the second floor of the manor. Aileen stood there. She didn’t notice me. She stared out into the distance like a doll, eternally vacant. I assumed a doll was how the pretty blonde had spent a good portion of her life—painting herself the way she thought the world wanted her to be. Now, there was nothing left.

It unsettled me. Many women had detoxed at the shelter. Usually, there was screaming and tears as abrasive emotions ripped free, but Aileen was a quiet kind of forlorn. There was no fear. There was no hope. There was nothing, just a doll who walked the halls of the shelter like a ghost.

I scanned the drive for her blue pick-up truck, but it wasn’t there. Nor was there a motorcycle. I thought Dermott had said he drove a motorcycle. It was hard to remember. It had been well over a week since he’d brought Aileen in. I hadn’t seen him since. By the time I arrived in the evenings, normal visiting hours were over.

Probably for the best.

I stuck my hands into the pockets of my black hoodie, unsure of how I felt about the stranger in my thoughts, and in my pocket I found a handwritten note from Kyle.

I wish you weren’t going to work. I rarely see you these days. I love you.

I closed my eyes. I should have been happy to receive such gestures, but I felt fenced. Being around Kyle was pleasant, comforting even, like spending time with a good friend, but I no longer felt the boom I had when we were teenagers. My aunt blamed it on the depression and told me to seek counseling, but I refused. Love wasn’t meant to be still. It was meant to be windswept.

Shoving the note back into my pocket, I went inside, and I ran straight into Dermott.

Maybe not straight into him. He stood in the lounge of the foyer, speaking adamantly with a girl who shared his dark hair and tawny eyes. Undeniably, she was his sister. They were too similar not to be related, but unlike Dermott and Aileen, this girl was no rebel. She was straight and prim and creaseless with the demeanor of a school teacher, emphasized by her jeans and cardigan.

I stayed near the doors, knowing my arrival would interrupt their conversation if I went to the desk. It didn’t seem like a conversation that should be interrupted. The girl was upset.

“She’s not the sister we grew up with,” she said to Dermott before pressing her lips together into a firm line.

“Don’t say that, Emer,” Dermott reprimanded. “She’s not well. You know that.”

Emer wasn’t convinced. She smoothed the sleeve of her cardigan, trying to keep her composure even though the pain she felt was evident. “Aileen and I used to be so close. She never would have turned me away.”

“She’s just tired. Detox is difficult.”

Behind the security gate, my boss passed through the hallway into the employee breakroom. As routine, she’d grab a mug of coffee, and then she’d make her rounds, including a stop at the front desk. I had no choice but to go to the desk, which was empty, the daytime assistant already gone. I tried to tiptoe across the marble floor, but my footsteps echoed, announcing my presence.

“Hey, Cuddles,” Dermott called. “Come here for a sec. I want you to meet my sister. Ronnie here is one of the assistants,” he said to Emer. “She admitted Aileen.”

“Thank you,” Emer said briskly when I reached them. She could be mistaken for unfriendly, but she was hurting.

“No thanks needed,” I said. “Dermott was right to bring her to us. Will you be staying tonight?”

Emer flinched. “No,” she stated. “I will not.”

“Aileen would rather be alone,” Dermott explained. “She hasn’t seen any visitors.”

Oh. I should have guessed that’s what Emer meant by Aileen turning her away. It was easy to believe that Aileen didn’t want visitors. She was so detached.

“Give it time,” I encouraged, trying not to let the concern I felt show. “Healing is complex.”

“Healing is complex, but my sister isn’t,” Emer snapped. “She’s always been selfish, but we were close, so I ignored it. We all did. Maybe if we hadn’t, if we’d called her out on her bullshit, then she wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“Emer,” Dermott warned.

“No,” Emer said, holding her ground. “Aileen did this to herself. She chose this life. It’s time she takes responsibility.”

Unable to say more, she stormed out.

Dermott didn’t follow. He watched her go then turned to me. “I’m glad I ran into you again. How have you been?”

“Good,” I answered stiffly, folding my arms across my chest. The guard I put up wasn’t against Dermott; it was to rein myself in.

“Good is good,” he said awkwardly, sensing my standoff. “Any gigs?”

“I told you, I don’t perform.”

“Then what do you do when you’re not standing on your bed pretending to be Johnny Cash?”

“Sleep.”

He smiled, not at all put off by me. It was a charming smile, unrestrained. “And what do you dream about when you sleep?” he asked.

Defeated, I let my guard drop—slightly. “I dream about traveling,” I said honestly. “But not just traveling for the sake of traveling. I want to do something meaningful, like volunteering to teach children in Nepal, or putting together a band of women assassins so we can kill all the evil bastards who oppress women.”

“So you’re one of those saps.”

I glared at him. “You one of those beefed-up rednecks who don’t believe women should have equal rights to men?”

“No, darling. I’m one of those beefed-up biker dudes who believe if you wanna do something big in this world, you gotta go out and do it. Not just sit behind a desk and dream about it. Though, in all fairness, the work you do here is pretty important. You’re saving my sister.”

“You saved her by bringing her to us,” I said. “And now it’s up to her to save herself.”

“I’d say the same to you.”

I looked down, resisting the urge to walk away. “I don’t need saving,” I said coolly, ignoring how much his words resonated within me.

“You sure? Because you don’t seem all that happy.”

“This is a serious place to work. It’s not supposed to be happy.”

“I just heard Carl there making fart jokes,” Dermott pointed out. “It ain’t all graves and blues here, darling. Maybe you outta ditch that lawyer boyfriend of yours.”

I should be outraged, but I wasn’t. “You checking in on me?”

“If a girl sleeps next to me all night then sneaks out the next morning, I ask questions.”

“Well, don’t,” I told him. “I don’t need some wannabe Irish cowboy telling me how to live my life.”

“I ain’t no cowboy,” he said, teasing me. “I own a bike, not a horse. And you’re free to take a ride with me anytime.”

I leaned back, taking him in. “You talk big, boy, but I got you. This whole outlaw getup is just for show. You’re a family man. I see the way you take care of your sisters. You want to settle. You want the family man life. You’d be as happy with ten kids running around your feet as you would be whipping down the highway on your racer.”

“Cruiser,” he corrected, not at all offended by my judgement. “I cruise, baby.”

“Well, you can cruise right on out of here, because I don’t need a man to save me.”

“I never said I was the one to save you,” he reminded me. “I said you had to save yourself.”

A blast from a horn outside interrupted our tug-of-war. “Emer’s about to leave. Gotta go,” he said. “Until next time, babycakes.”

“You can eat your cake, baby,” I called after him as he left, ignoring the part of me that very much wanted him to stay.


***


As I flipped through the latest reports left for me on the desk, I felt the lightest of weights set on my head, as if I’d been crowned with feathers.

No, not feathers. Flowers.

“For the vampire girl,” Laney said, adjusting the crown over the rusty waves of my hair.

“I’m not a vampire,” I muttered, but I was pleased to receive the gift. “Vampires wear corsets. I wear T-shirts. Vampires wear gaudy makeup. I struggle to wash my hair. Vampires—”

“Vampires drink blood. You drink sweet tea. I know,” Laney said, cutting me off. “Maybe if you smiled more, I wouldn’t feel the need to shine a crucifix your way. At least the flowers help. They bring out your freckles.”

“Evil freckles,” I said as I patted the blossoms on my head, uncaring that I was making Laney’s point for her.

It was May Day, a day to devour the warmth without the burn of the sun. I enjoyed May Day. It brought back memories of when I was little and used to leave flowers on my neighbor’s door before knocking and running off. All the kids on my street left flowers for the elderly on May Day, but it was a dying tradition, fading with the years. It sucked when traditions went away. Traditions kept things interesting.

The shelter had its own traditions. On May Day, when the sun went down, the women wore flowers in their hair and went outside to release paper lanterns into the sky. It helped them to reconnect with the beauty of existence—a beauty they were a part of. The women made wishes on their lanterns, and they allowed their hope to finally defeat their fear, if only for the one night.

“Gotta go check on the kiddies asleep in their beds,” Laney said, sighing. “I wish I was outside with the others.”

“Me too,” I echoed as she left.

Part of the daytime staff had stayed late to oversee the May Day events. As the nighttime assistant, I had to manage the desk in case any visitors arrived under a bewildered nightfall, like Aileen had. With longing, I listened to the sprightly rustle beyond the security gate, to the chatter and the awe. I did not like crowds, but I liked traditions. I liked hope.

I was tempted to leave the desk to Carl, who sat in his recliner watching movies on his laptop, laughing loud enough to shake his headphones off. I doubted anyone would come through the doors, not on a night such as this, but I remained seated.

It was good that I did. As it turned out, someone did come.

It was Kyle.

Striding through the doors, he was dressed in his usual navy-blue suit that he wore to the law firm, a telltale sign he’d worked late. Against the navy, his sandy hair seemed more golden than usual. He lit up when he saw me, Buddha greeting destruction.

“What brings you here?” I asked, standing to accept a kiss on my cheek.

“This,” he claimed, removing my phone from his pocket. “You left it at ours this morning.”

Ours. He always called his apartment ours, even though I had my own studio.

“Thanks,” I said dully, unable to match his goodness.

He tapped his hand against the top of the desk, suddenly nervous. “I’d like to pick you up from work in the morning. We can watch the sun rise together. I’ll bring breakfast. It’ll be romantic.”

He knows, I thought. He knows that every day this week, I’ve hoped to see a blue pick-up truck parked out front.

“Thanks for the offer,” I said, forcing myself to be better. Kyle deserved much more than what I was offering him. “But I’ll take the bus. You have a busy day in court tomorrow.”

“I took the day off,” he informed me. “We haven’t spent much time together lately. I’d like that to change. Tomorrow is for you and me. I want the day to be special.”

He spoke fast, and his tapping increased. I studied him closely. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” he said, calming down. “I’m just really looking forward to tomorrow.”

More than ever, I wanted to take the bus home. I did not want the sunrise. I did not want romance. I just wanted the bus.


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