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Don't Look Back

Jennifer L. Armentrout

  Dedicated to every reader and every blogger, big and small, new and old.

  chapter one

  I didn’t recognize the name on the street sign. Nothing about the rural road looked familiar or friendly. Tall, imposing trees and overgrown weeds choked the front of the dilapidated home. Windows were boarded up. There was a gaping hole where the front door had been. I shivered, wanting to be far away from here...wherever here was.

  Walking felt harder than it should be, and I stumbled off the chilly asphalt, wincing as sharp gravel dug into my feet.

  My bare feet?

  I stopped and looked down. Chipped pink nail polish peeked through the dirt...and blood. Mud caked the legs of my pants, leaving the hems stiff. It made sense, seeing as how I wasn’t wearing any shoes, but the blood...I didn’t understand why there was blood staining the knees of my jeans.

  My vision clouded and dulled, as if a gray film had been dropped over my eyes. As I stared at the weathered asphalt under my feet, large, smooth rocks replaced the tiny stones. Something dark and oily seeped over the rocks, slipping through the cracks.

  Sucking in a sharp gasp, I blinked and the image was gone.

  Hands trembling, I raised them. They were covered with dirt and scratches. My nails were broken, bloodied. A silver ring, encased in soil, wrapped around my thumb. Air froze in my chest as my gaze crawled over my arms. The sleeves of my sweater were torn, revealing pale flesh covered in bruises and gashes. My legs started to shake as I swayed forward. I tried to remember how this had happened, but my head was empty—a black void where nothing existed.

  A car drove by, coasting to a stop a few feet in front of me. Somewhere in the trenches of my subconscious, I recognized the flashing red and blue lights as a source of safety. Elegantly scrawled along the black-and-gray side of the cruiser were the words ADAMS COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT.

  Adams County? A flash of familiarity came and went.

  The driver’s door opened, and a deputy stepped out. He said something into the radio on his shoulder before he looked at me.

  “Miss?” He started around the cruiser, taking tentative steps. He looked young for a deputy. Being barely out of high school and able to carry a gun seemed wrong somehow. Was I in high school? I didn’t know. “We’ve received some calls into dispatch concerning you,” he said gently. “Are you okay?”

  I tried to respond, but only a hoarse squeak came out. Clearing my throat, I winced as the motion scratched and pulled. “I...I don’t know.”

  “Okay.” The deputy held up his hands as he approached me, as if I were a skittish deer about to bolt. “My name is Deputy Rhode. I’m here to help you. Do you know what you’re doing out here?”

  “No.” Knots formed in my belly. I didn’t even know where here was.

  His smile strained. “What’s your name?”

  My name? Everyone knew their name, but as I stared at the deputy, I couldn’t answer his question. The knots started twisting more. “I don’t...I don’t know what my name is.”

  He blinked, and the smile was completely gone. “You don’t remember anything?”

  I tried again, concentrating on the empty space between my ears. That was how it felt. And I knew that wasn’t good. My eyes started to tear up.

  “Miss, it’s okay. We’ll get you taken care of.” He reached out, lightly taking hold of my arm. “We’ll get this sorted.”

  Deputy Rhode led me around the back of his cruiser. I didn’t want to sit behind the Plexiglas. Only bad people sat behind the glass in police cruisers. I knew that much. I wanted to object, but before I could say anything, he settled me into the seat and wrapped a coarse blanket around my shoulders.

  Before he locked me in the bad part of the car, he knelt and smiled reassuringly. “Everything’s going to be okay.”

  But I knew he was lying, trying to make me feel better. It didn’t work. How could everything be okay when I didn’t know my own name?

  I didn’t know my name, but I knew I hated hospitals. They were cold and sterile, smelling like disinfectant and desperation. Deputy Rhode left me once the doctors started a battery of tests. My pupils were checked, X-rays were done, and my blood was taken. The nurses bandaged the side of my head and cleaned the numerous wounds. They’d given me a private room, hooking me up to an IV that pumped “fluids that will help you feel better” into me, and left.

  A nurse eventually wheeled in a cart laden with a set of ominous-looking instruments and a camera. Why was there a camera?

  She silently bagged my clothes after giving me a scratchy hospital gown to change into. She smiled when she looked at me, just as the deputy had. False and well practiced.

  I learned I didn’t like those kinds of smiles. They gave me the creeps.

  “We need to do some more tests on you while the X-rays are being run, sweetie.” She gently pushed my shoulders down on the hard mattress. “We also need to take some pictures of your injuries.”

  Staring at the white ceiling, I found it hard to pull enough air into my lungs. It was even worse when she made me scoot down. A surge of embarrassment shocked me. This is so awkward. My breath caught. That thought wasn’t from now, but before...before what?

  “Relax, sweetie.” The nurse moved to stand beside the cart. “The police are contacting neighboring counties for missing person reports. They’ll find your family soon.” She picked up something long and thin that gleamed under the bright, impersonal light.

  After a couple of minutes, tears streaked my cheeks. The nurse seemed used to it because she did her thing and left without saying another word. I curled up under the thin blanket, pulling my knees to my chest. I stayed like that, with my empty thoughts, until I fell asleep.

  I dreamed of falling—falling endlessly into the darkness, over and over again. There were screams—shrill sounds that raised the tiny hairs on my body—and then nothing but a soft, lulling sound I found comforting.

  Upon waking the following morning, I decided to start small. What was my name? I had to have one, but there was nothing I could grasp on to. Rolling onto my back, I yelped as the IV pulled on my hand. Beside me, there was a plastic cup of water. I sat up slowly and grabbed the cup. It shook in my hand, sloshing water over the blanket.

  Water—there was something about water. Dark, oily water.

  The door opened, and the nurse entered with the doctor who’d examined me the night before. I liked him. His smile was genuine, fatherly. “Do you remember my name?” When I didn’t answer immediately, his smile didn’t falter. “I’m Dr. Weston. I just want to ask you a few questions.”

  He asked the same questions everyone else had. Did I remember my name? Did I know how I’d gotten on the road or what I’d been doing before the deputy picked me up? The answer to all his questions was the same: no.

  But when he moved on to other questions, I had answers. “Have you ever read To Kill a Mockingbird?”

  My dry lips cracked when I smiled. I knew that answer! “Yeah, it’s about racial injustice and different kinds of courage.”

  Dr. Weston nodded approvingly. “Good. Do you know what year it is?”

  I arched an eyebrow. “It’s 2014.”

  “Do you know what month it is?” When I didn’t answer immediately, his smile slipped.

  “It’s March.” I moistened my lips, starting to get nervous. “But I don’t know what day.”

  “Today is March twelfth. It’s Wednesday. What is the last day you remember?”

  I picked at the edge of the blanket and took a guess. “Tuesday?”

  Dr. Weston’s lips once more curved into a smile. “It had to be longer than that. You were dehydrated when they brought you in. Can you try again?”

  I could, but what would be the point? “I do
n’t know.”

  He asked some more questions, and when an orderly brought in lunch, I discovered I hated mashed potatoes. Dragging the IV behind me like baggage, I stared at a stranger in the bathroom mirror.

  I’d never seen her face before.

  But it was mine. I leaned forward, inspecting the reflection. Coppery hair hung in clumps around a slightly sharp chin. My cheekbones were high, and my eyes were a cross between brown and green. I had a small nose. That was good news. And I guessed I’d be pretty if it weren’t for the purplish bruise spreading from my hairline and covering my entire right eye. The skin was scuffed on my chin. Like a giant raspberry stain.

  I pushed away from the sink, pulling my IV back into the tiny room. Raised voices outside the closed door halted my attempts to get into the bed.

  “What do you mean, she has no memory of anything?” a woman’s thin voice demanded.

  “She has a complex concussion, which has affected her memory,” Dr. Weston explained patiently. “The memory loss should be temporary, but—”

  “But what, Doctor?” asked a man.

  At the sound of the stranger’s voice, a conversation floated out of the cloudy recesses of my thoughts, like a distant television show you could hear but not see.

  “I really wish you wouldn’t spend so much time with that girl. She’s nothing but trouble, and I don’t like the way you act around her.”

  It was his voice—the man outside—but I didn’t recognize the tenor and there was nothing else associated with it.

  “The memory loss could be permanent. These things are hard to predict. Right now, we just don’t know.” Dr. Weston cleared his throat. “The good news is that the rest of her injuries are superficial. And from what we can gather from additional exams, she wasn’t assaulted.”

  “Oh my god,” cried the woman. “Assaulted? Like in—”

  “Joanna, the doctor said she wasn’t assaulted. You need to calm down.”

  “I have a right to be upset,” she snapped. “Steven, she’s been missing for four days.”

  “The county boys picked her up outside Michaux State Forest.” Dr. Weston paused. “Do you know why she’d be there?”

  “We have a summer home there, but it hasn’t been opened since September. And we checked there. Right, Steven?”

  “But she’s okay, right?” asked the man. “It’s just her memory that’s a problem?”

  “Yes, but it’s not a simple case of amnesia,” the doctor said.

  I backed away from the door and climbed into the bed. My heart was pounding again. Who were these people, and why were they here? I pulled the blanket up to my shoulders. I caught bits and pieces of what the doctor was saying. Something about suffering an extreme shock combined with dehydration and the concussion—a medical perfect storm, where my brain had dissociated from my personal identity. Sounded complicated.

  “I don’t understand,” I heard the woman say.

  “It’s like writing something on your computer and then you save the file, but you can’t remember where you saved it,” the doctor explained. “The file is in there, but you just have to find it. She still has her personal memories. They’re in there, but she can’t access them. She may never find them.”

  I sat back, dismayed. Where did I put the file?

  Then the door swung open, and I shrank back as this woman—this force to be reckoned with—stormed into my room. Her deep russet–colored hair was pulled into an elegant twist, exposing an angular but beautiful face.

  She came to a complete stop, her eyes darting all over me. “Oh, Samantha…”

  I stared. Samantha? The name didn’t do anything for me. I glanced at the doctor. He nodded reassuringly. Sa-man-tha…Nope, still nothing.

  The woman came closer. There wasn’t a single wrinkle in her linen pants or her white blouse. Golden bangles hung from each of her slender wrists, and she reached out, wrapping her arms around me. She smelled like freesia.

  “Baby girl,” she said, her hand smoothing my hair as she looked me in the eyes. “God, I’m so happy you’re okay.”

  I pulled back, clamping my arms to my sides.

  The woman glanced over her shoulder. The strange man looked pale, shaken. His dark hair was a mess. Thick stubble covered his handsome face. Compared to this woman, he was a barely contained disaster. I stared until he turned away, rubbing a shaky hand down his cheek.

  Dr. Weston came to the bedside. “This is Joanna Franco—your mother. And this is Steven Franco, your father.”

  A pressure started building in my chest. “ name is Samantha?”

  “Yes,” the woman answered. “Samantha Jo Franco.”

  My middle name was Jo? Seriously? My gaze darted between the people. I took a deep breath, but it got stuck.

  Joanna—my mom—whoever she was—placed a hand over her mouth as she glanced at the messy man, who was apparently my dad. Then her gaze settled on me. “You really don’t recognize us?”

  I shook my head. “No. I’m...I’m sorry.”

  She stood, backing away from the bed as she looked at Dr. Weston. “How can she not know us?”

  “Mrs. Franco, you just need to give her some time.” Then to me, “You’re doing great.”

  It didn’t seem that way.

  He’d turned back to them—my parents. “We want to keep her under observation for an extra day. Right now, she needs to get a lot of rest and reassurance.”

  I looked at the man again. He was staring at me, sort of dazed-looking. Dad. Father. Complete stranger.

  “Do you really think this could be permanent?” the man asked, rubbing his chin.

  “It’s too soon to tell,” Dr. Weston responded. “But she’s young and otherwise healthy, so the outlook is great.” He started out of the room, stopping by the door. “Remember, she needs to take it easy.”

  My mom turned back to the bed, visibly pulling herself together as she sat down on the edge and took my hand. She turned it over, brushing her fingers over my wrist. “I remember the first and last time we had to take you to the hospital. You were ten. See this?”

  I looked down at my wrist. There was a faint white scar running right under the palm of my hand. Huh. I hadn’t noticed that before.

  “You broke your wrist during gymnastics practice.” She swallowed, looking up. Nothing about her hazel eyes, which were so much like my own, or the perfectly painted lips triggered anything inside me. There was just a vast, empty hole where all my memories, my emotions should’ve been. “It was a pretty bad break. You had to have surgery. Scared the living daylights out of us.”

  “You were showing off on the balance beam,” my father added gruffly. “The instructor told you not to do—what was it?”

  “A back handspring,” my mom said quietly, keeping her gaze trained on me.

  “Yes.” He nodded. “But you did it anyway.” He met my stare then. “Angel, you don’t remember anything?”

  Heaviness spread from my chest to my stomach. “I want to remember—really, I do. But I...” My voice cracked. I pulled my hand free, holding it to my chest. “I don’t remember.”

  My mom forced a smile, clasping her hands together in her lap. “It’s okay. Scott has been really worried. Your brother,” she added when she saw my blank look. “He’s at home right now.”

  I had a brother?

  “And all your friends have been helping with the search party, hanging flyers and holding candlelight vigils,” she continued. “Isn’t that right, Steven?”

  My father nodded, but the look on his face said he was a thousand miles from here. Maybe he was wherever this Samantha Jo was.

  “Del has been beside himself, spending day and night looking for you.” She smoothed back a piece of hair that had escaped her twist. “He wanted to come up with us, but we thought it would be best if he stayed behind.”

  I frowned. “Del?”

  My father cleared his throat, refocusing on us. “Del Leonard. Your boyfriend, angel.”

�My boyfriend?” Oh, sweet baby Jesus. Parents. Brother. And now a boyfriend?

  My mom nodded. “Yes. You two have been together since, well, forever, it seems. You’re planning to go to Yale in the fall with Del, like your fathers.”

  “Yale,” I whispered. I knew what Yale was. “That sounds nice.”

  She glanced at my father pleadingly. He stepped forward, but two deputies entered the room. My mom stood, smoothing out her pants. “Gentlemen?”