Gabby hated her bike. It was old, small, and embarrassing, and she despised riding it in public. The bent and rusted handlebars sprouted pink tassels plucked down to nubs. The loose chain rattled and fell off at the most inopportune times. And the right pedal squeaked and clicked with every push. Her bike was horrendous and awful and sad. And she missed it terribly.
Emma was too short to reach the lowest branches of the tree where God had parked it, and Gabby’s leg was too injured for her to venture up into the canopy on her own. With no other options, they trudged on foot toward the high school, enduring the growing morning heat, their spirited conversation diminishing as the temperature rose.
With each limp, the pain in Gabby’s leg grew and the cut on her shin bled, dripping down into her sock. “When’s the fun part start?” Gabby asked.
“We’re almost there,” Emma said.
“You’ve been unnaturally quiet since we left the park. What’s going on in that demented mind of yours?”
“You’ll think I’m being stupid.”
“Is that a rhetorical statement?” Gabby joked.
“See what I mean?”
“I’m sorry. What’s up? Trying to figure out how to get me to agree to a mud facial?”
“No. It’s just… I know I joke around about it, but I was scared back there, Gabs. I thought we were going to die.”
“Really? Because you didn’t show it. You never show it. As a matter of fact, you seem to thrive on stuff like that. I’ve known you my entire life, yet you still don’t make any sense to me.”
“I wish I made sense to me, too.”
“That’s such a cop out,” Emma mumbled.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Em. I just try to go wherever I think I’m supposed to be.”
“No matter what could happen?”
“Yes. Unfortunately, I usually don’t figure that out until it’s too late.”
“Well, that’s just stupid. You don’t see it, do you? It’s changing you, Gabs, this devil-may-care thing you’ve embraced.”
“I’m sure the devil isn’t a fan.”
“It makes it hard for me. I miss the Gabby you used to be.”
“I’m pretty much the same girl, Em. I swear.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it.”
As their conversation fell prey to another awkward silence, Gabby winced at the sting of Emma’s words. A few weeks earlier, being in the presence of a murderer intent on watching the life fade from her eyes did change her. Gabby wished she could undo it all. Undo her life. Reset it to when she was a child, before her mom died, before her dad cried alone. She wanted to go back to the last time she was really happy. No worries. No suffering. No Fourth-of-July psychopaths trying to kill everyone. No tornadoes attempting an encore.
She missed running into her parents’ bedroom on Sunday mornings and laying between them. She’d snuggle in tight, her tiny body held by their loving arms. She was never safer than in that bed, in their embrace.
It seemed like a dream now. Or a fantasy. It felt eons away from being a reality. Gabby’s world now included palatable threats and dark forces. Evil seemed to be surrounding her with disconcerting resolve. Maybe they were always there, existing outside of her parents’ bedroom. Maybe going back wouldn’t change Gabby now. After all, the same world spun around the same sun, with people driven by malevolent appetites, unaware or unconcerned about the pain they inflicted on others.
She’d give just about anything to give it a try, just in case she could be the girl Emma missed and the young woman her father hoped she’d become. But time wasn’t that forgiving. It moved on whether you were ready or not.
The closer they got to the school, the more damage lay strewn about the eerily quiet stretches of road. Gabby had walked these streets hundreds of times, but they never looked like this. The neighborhood lay in shambles. She and Emma stopped in the center of the street, trying to take in the destruction.
“Wow… this is the worst neighborhood yet,” Gabby said.
“A hurricane’s never caused this sort of damage in Safety Harbor before, has it?”
“I don’t think so. It’s gotten rain and stuff from the ones that came close, but nothing like this.”
Broken windows were more common than not, and more roof shingles littered the ground than populated the tops of houses. And once-vibrant shrubbery, now stripped of its leaves, had become a sad collection of fragile twigs, bent and broken.
“Do you see anyone?” Gabby asked.
“No,” Emma said. “This place is a ghost town. I guess they all evacuated before the outer band hit.”
“Mother Nature is so sporadic. One neighborhood is fine, the next, torn to shreds.”
“Yeah,” Emma said, looking at the sky. “One minute, there’s a tornado, and the next, the sun comes out and makes you think it’s all over.”
Gabby walked over to a toppled, three-foot-thick tree trunk sprawled across the street, running her hands across its wet bark. “You see this stuff on TV and it looks, I don’t know, like a movie set. In person, it’s so much worse. So real.”
“I know,” Emma said. “We know these people. We’ve played in these streets.”
Gabby slapped the wet bark. “We used to climb this old tree. Remember? When we were younger? Back when Joanne Spindler used to live here.” In front of her, the tree’s roots, loosened by heavy rains and encouraged by a fierce gust, reached up in the air like grasping fingers. Beneath the tall, massive tree laid a crushed compact car.
“That sucks,” Emma said.
“Do you think my dad would by me a new bike if it was mangled like this?” Gabby asked. “Or better yet, splurge for a car?”
“Gabs, he won’t even let you get your permit. I doubt he’ll get you a car.”
“A girl can dream. Then again, the way things are going with the store lately, it’ll remain just that.”
“That bad, huh?”
“Well, it’s not good.”
“Look on the bright side,” Emma said. “We’ve walked through a bunch of neighborhoods with potential future customers. On this street alone, they need new shingles, siding, windows, mailboxes, and fences.”
“That’s true. We could leave flyers with hurricane discounts to lure them to the store,” Gabby said with a smile. “And if we get a windfall of customers, maybe my dad would be in a good enough mood to buy me a ‘69 Mustang.”
“At least you can dream,” Emma said. “My dad wouldn’t buy me a car even if he won the lottery. He said he’s in no hurry to see me drive.” She pointed over the long and thick branches splintered across the road to a three-car accident triggered by the fallen tree. “He thinks I’ll end up in a lot of situations like this, and he says he can’t afford for me to learn on the job.”
“Well, you can be a little rambunctious. And aggressive. Distracted. And scary.”
“Thought about this, have you?” Emma asked. “Wait a minute. Did you say these things to my dad? Is that why he’s so freaked out?”
“No, I didn’t. At least, not all at once.”
“You’re the worst best friend ever.”
Gabby hobbled on top of the horizontal trunk and stood over the accident scene. A grin formed on her lips. What looked like chaos to most conveyed the entire story to her.
“Amazing, huh?” Gabby asked. “I guess no one was injured.” She hopped off the fallen oak with a grunt and peered into the first car. “This guy was lucky to have survived. Must’ve freaked him out to see a tree crashing in front of him.”
She looked over the car, a recent model black sedan with a rental car sticker on the top left of the windshield. The deployed air bag hung from the steering wheel and the front driver’s side door was left open. On the floor, wedged tightly between the front and back seats, was a large, black duffel bag. Sticking out of its torn zipper was nylon rope and, beneath it, a collection of tools, but no blood or bodies.
“Looks like whoever was driving this car got out okay. What about you?” Gabby asked.
Emma placed her foot on the step of a large, late-model pickup with oversized tires whose bumper had crushed the black sedan in front of it. She stretched her arms up, but she couldn’t reach the door handle.
“It’s so high,” Emma said.
“It wasn’t made for vertically challenged girls like you, Em.”
With one last try, she leapt up, snagging the side mirror and hoisting herself onto the step to look into the truck cabin.
“Nobody here, either. Airbag went off, too. Looks like they didn’t stick around to exchange insurance information.”
Gabby hobbled to the third vehicle, a rusty VW Bug with fading red paint. “Check out this old bug, Em. It’s an antique.”
“I don’t like it. Looks like a bubble.”
“It’s a classic. And probably cheap. Maybe I could save up and get one of these.”
“You have a one-track mind.”
“I think about cars,” Gabby said. “You think about boys.”
“And you don’t see anything wrong with that comparison?” Emma asked.
“Boys will always be around, Em. Getting a car… now that’s hard.”
Gabby noticed the damage to the Bug wasn’t as severe as the two vehicles in front of it. College textbooks were strewn about on the backseat. In the front, a basketful of dirty laundry had tipped over, its contents spilling onto the floor.
“Looks like it’s owned by some college student,” Gabby said. “I don’t see any signs of injury, so they’re probably okay. If a college kid can own one, then so could I.” Gabby peered around the back of the VW. “Em, come here. Check this out.”
On the ground was a spaghetti mix of intertwining skid marks from all three cars. Emma approached and stood by her side.
“What am I looking at?” Emma asked.
“This tells the tale of the entire accident.”
“So?” Emma asked.
“So? So, it’s cool! See, these really dark skid marks are from the first car.”
“How do you know that?”
“They’re the darkest, which means the driver panicked. Tires locked when it hydroplaned. And they’re not as wide as these thicker tracks.”
“Why does that matter?”
“Those had to come from the truck. It has big tires. These marks are too wide to come from either car.”
“Why do you even notice stuff like this?” Emma asked.
“How can you not notice it?”
“Because my mind is busy with more important things.”
Gabby laughed. “That’s up for debate. Anyway, see those last set of tracks, those aren’t as thick or as long. The VW is a light car, and the driver probably had a longer time to react.”
“You sound smart, but boring.”
“Better than sounding fun and stupid.”
Emma sighed. “Okay, so why do I care about this?”
“It means the VW wasn’t traveling that fast, so, even though it hit the truck, it wasn’t that bad. The driver probably wasn’t hurt at all.”
“Doesn’t the empty car and a lack of blood tell me that?”
“That’s the last page of the story, Em. These tracks, they tell the whole tale.”
“I sometimes forget how much you need me,” Emma said. “Left to your own devices, no one, and I mean no one, would like being with you.”
Gabby crossed her arms and took in the accident scene one last time. “This could have been serious. Looks like we weren’t the only ones to have a near-death experience today.”
“Ours is still the coolest though.”
“Of course, Em. Because that’s the most important thing right now.”
“It’s not more important, just noteworthy. Ooo! How about The Day Emma Saved Gabby’s Life?”
“Now you’re a fiction writer?”
“It’s not fiction,” Emma said.
“How did you save my life?”
“After the branch crippled you—”
“It didn’t cripple me.”
“Who lifted you to your feet and brought you to safety?”
“That’s not saving me. That’s helping me to a standing position.”
Gabby leaned back against the rounded hood of the Bug, checking her leg wound one more time. “I need to get this cut cleaned out.”
“The high school’s just around the corner,” Emma said. “They’ll have first aid kits there.”
Gabby inhaled the hot, damp air and gently rubbed her leg. Her calf muscle twitched in spasms, exacerbating the pain throbbing from her bloody contusion. She looked up at the darkening sky, hoping for another cool breeze to find its way across her face.
The neighborhood was abnormally quiet. No kids. No television. No radio. It was as silent as a corpse until the peaceful calm was interrupted by the sound of shattering glass.
Tomorrow – Chapter Four
This novel follows up almost immediately after the events which unfolded in Kneel & Prey. If you haven’t read the first novel, download it for free. I hope you’ve enjoyed this free sample and let me know what you think in the comments.