DON'T TELL (Jack Ryder Book 7)Willow Rose
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Not a word was spoken in the cold darkness. They didn't have to say anything. The small group of people rushing across the snow all knew they just had to get the job done. Once it was over, they'd go back to living their lives. Nothing would ever be the same after that night; they all knew it wouldn't, but they were going to try. They were all going to try and pretend like it hadn't happened.
The body they were carrying was heavy, and their boots sank deep into the snow because of the weight. It wasn't heavy just because of the guilt it came with, but also because of the size. As they reached the door, they paused as if they were gathering the strength to embark upon this journey.
Getting inside didn't bring warmth and comfort to any of them, only temporary shelter from the biting wind. Nothing could remove the feeling of ice-cold fear that was sliding down their backs.
As they dumped the body, the sound of it hitting the bottom made them want to throw up. The lid was slammed shut, and finally, someone spoke the only two words that were said between them on that fateful night—two words that would haunt them all for the rest of their lives.
The Great Smoky Mountains
January 26th, 2019
"Dad, have you seen Benjamin?"
Penelope Rutherford stood at the top of the stairs looking down at her father in the hallway. As always on Sunday mornings, he had been out to grab the local paper, The Mountaineer, from the driveway and was holding it in his hand as the words fell. He barely looked up from the cover story.
"Did you hear me, Dad?" his daughter said impatiently. “Dad?”
His eyes finally let go of the story of how they were still struggling to raise money to rebuild Ghost Town in the Sky, the old amusement park in their town that used to attract tens of thousands of tourists in the summertime, but had been closed down for decades.
"I am sorry. I was somewhere else. What was that about Benjamin?"
"Is Benjamin downstairs? He's not up here. He's not in his bed."
Pastor Charles Rutherford took a deep breath and glared at his daughter in front of him. Looking at her often filled him with such deep worry. She was almost too beautiful for this cruel world.
"He’s not down here either. Are you sure he’s not still sleeping in his bed? He never usually gets up this early."
Charles threw out his arms. Outside, it was snowing as it had been all night. The roads were packed with cars heading for Cataloochee to ski, even though it was barely dawn yet. Church would be next to empty this morning due to this weather.
"But his bed is empty," she said. "It looks like no one has slept in it at all. I don't think he's been in it all night."
"I don't have time for this; I should be getting ready," the pastor said and shook his head. "Penny, where is your brother if he isn't in his bed?"
"I don't know," Penny replied, whining slightly. "That’s why I’m asking you. I haven't seen him since last night."
"What's going on?"
Beatrice Rutherford came out from the kitchen, bringing the smell of pancakes and coffee with her. "Charles? Penny? Why aren't you dressed yet?"
"Your son isn't in his bed," Charles snapped. "Apparently, he's been out all night."
The Rutherfords had two sons, but Charles didn't have to say which one he was talking about; his wife knew right away that it had to be Benjamin, the youngest of the two.
Beatrice went pale, then lowered her eyes like she was the one who had been disobedient. Her husband pointed the paper at her.
"If that boy of yours isn't in church today, I'll have my way with him."
"Please don't, Dad; I’m sure he's just…sleeping at a friend's house," Penny said and came down the stairs. Charles spotted deep fear in her young eyes as she was probably regretting having told him anything. Being only a year and a half apart, the two siblings usually stuck together and kept each other's secrets.
Her father turned to face her, a small snort leaving him. "He's with her again, isn't he? Isn't he?"
Penelope didn't answer. Charles felt the unmistakable wave of rage rush through him when thinking about the two of them together.
"I’m serious, Beatrice," he said addressed to his wife. "This has to have consequences. I am sick of that boy doing whatever he wants. As long as he lives under my roof, I want him to follow my rules. He knows how important Sunday mornings are to me and having my family there. I am the pastor of this church. How will it look if one of my family members isn't there? It will look like I can't even control my own son. That's what they'll say; you know that."
"I do," she said and locked eyes with her daughter for a brief moment. Penelope came closer and clung to her mother.
Charles looked out the dark window, then thought to himself that maybe the kid had just gotten himself stuck at her place and was unable to come back due to the weather. He'd have to give him a lesson on how to use the expensive cell phone that Charles had bought him for his seventeenth birthday.
"I'll go look for him," Charles said. "I'll just have to skip the pancakes this morning. That boy of yours better have a darn good excuse for me to have to go fetch him in this weather and miss my Sunday pancakes and coffee before church. It better be good; I tell ya."
Charles grabbed his thick winter coat by the door, then put on his boots. Outside the door, he could hear the wind howling as the snowstorm raged. He braced himself for the cold shock when he grabbed the doorknob and realized the door wasn't closed properly and the screen door was unlatched and wavering in the wind. Snow had blown in between the screen and the door, and some of it had even made it into the front hallway, where it had melted and left a small puddle.
Charles pushed the door open and went out on the wooden porch. The sun hadn't risen yet, and he could barely see anything. Snowflakes danced in the porch light, and he could hear the crackling creek that ran through their property.
"Benjamin?" he called out, thinking he should at least search the property before he went to her house. “Are you out here, Benjamin?”
His words never returned to him. They seemed to be swallowed by the quiet that came with the snow.
"Benjamin? Benjamin Rutherford!"
In the dim light from the approaching dawn, he spotted his oldest son, Charles Junior's truck parked in the driveway. Benjamin often used his brother's truck when going somewhere, but apparently not today. There were no footprints in the driveway after the heavy snowfall the night before. No fresh tracks were leading to or from the house. And there was no sign of Benjamin.
"What's going on?"
Charles' brother Douglas had been living in the guesthouse ever since his wife threw him out ten months ago. He came up on the porch.
"I was about to come over for some breakfast when I heard you call. Why are you out here in this weather?"
Charles grunted. "It's Be
njamin. He wasn't in his bed when his sister went in this morning to wake him up."
"And now you think he's with her, am I right?"
Charles nodded. "Maybe."
"I'll go with you," he said.
"You don't have to do that," Charles said. "I know how to deal with my own son."
"Oh, I know you do. If anyone does, it's you. Still, you might need an extra set of eyes in this weather. Not a lot of visibility right now."
Charles looked out at the snow, then up at the dark skies above. It was getting lighter out now, but the thick cover of clouds made it seem like the night would never end.
Before leaving, they went around the back and looked inside the shed; they peeked under the porch and walked through the backyard, calling his name to make sure he wasn't still there. When they came back, Beatrice and Penny were looking at them from the window, clinging onto each other, worried eyes lingering on the men.
Charles walked up to the door, then rushed inside, worry beginning to eat at him.
"Penny. When did you see him last?"
Penelope bit her lip. She barely looked at her father as she spoke. "Just before midnight. We were sitting in the living room, watching a movie when Savannah texted him and asked to talk to him out on the porch. He grabbed his jacket and went outside where they met. They had a fight and were talking loudly, sometimes yelling at each other."
Penelope looked up at her mother briefly, then continued.
"Before he went out on the porch, I reminded him to lock up when he came back inside."
"But he never came back inside," Charles said. "The door wasn't locked. He must have gone with her. That is the only reasonable explanation."
“His phone is still on the table inside,” Penny said. “In the living room.”
“Maybe he forgot it,” Charles said.
"Let's go see if he is at her place,” Doug said. The tip of his nose was turning red in the cold or maybe it was from drinking the night before. It seemed to Charles that his brother's nose was always a little red.
"Let's go fetch that unruly son of yours at his girlfriend's place.”
Doug put his hands in his pockets to hide how badly they were shaking.
Charles wrinkled his nose as they approached the garage. "Don't call her that, please."
Doug shrugged. "I know you don't like her, but it's what she is, and the more you don't approve of her, the more you're pushing him into her arms; you do realize that, right? Just because he's the son of a preacher doesn't mean he's not going to get himself in trouble. He's a boy. It's what they do. Don't you remember your own teenage years, huh? Or do I need to remind you?"
"Let's just go, shall we? And no talking, please," he said as the engine of his pick-up roared to life, while he wondered if he had heard a tremor in his daughter's voice when she spoke, or it was just his imagination. It sounded very similar to all the times when she had covered for her brother earlier in life.
Savannah Kelsey lived half a mile away. Her mother owned and ran Smoky Mountain Trailer Park, a campground for tourists located in downtown Maggie Valley, and they lived in a camper on the property. Savannah and her mother were new in town and had only arrived two years ago when they bought the campground using the money that they had received from selling their house back in Newark after Savannah's dad had died from lung cancer.
Charles parked the car in front of their trailer, then ran out through the intense snow and wind toward their door and knocked, his brother coming up behind him, covering his face from the snow with the hoodie of his jacket. A second later, the knocking turned to pounding before a light was turned on in one of the windows and Charles could hear movement inside. The door was opened, and a woman looked at him.
Charles looked into her eyes, then swallowed. "I’m sorry to wake you up, Susan, but I need to talk to Savannah, please."
"I’m sorry, Susan. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't important. Can we come in?"
Susan Kelsey stared at him, then at his brother. She lifted her nose slightly. "I'd rather you stayed outside. What is this about?"
"It's about Benjamin,” Charles said, finally able to get the words through his lips. "We need him to come home with us."
Susan looked at him, then tilted her head. "He's not here if that's what you think. You know I would never let him spend the night here. My daughter is seventeen; I am not letting some boy ruin her."
Charles swallowed. That was what he feared she might say. He knew Susan wouldn't let Benjamin spend the night, but he had hoped she might have changed her mind with the heavy snowfall and the danger of the boy hurting himself when driving home.
"Can we talk to Savannah, then? We’d like to ask her if she knows where he might be."
Susan sighed. "I’m not sure why I would let you."
"Please," Charles said, clenching his fist in restraint. "It'll be just for a minute."
Susan watched him, scrutinized him, then let her shoulders come down. "All right. One minute then. I can have her come to the door."
He nodded, barely looking at the woman in front of him. "Okay. Do that. Please."
She left, and they could hear murmuring from the back of the trailer, then more voices, and soon Susan reappeared, followed by Savannah. She was a beauty and Charles couldn't deny that he understood why his son had fallen for the girl.
'"What's going on?" Savannah asked, sleep still in her eyes.
"We're looking for Benjamin. He talked to you last night on our porch, and we haven't seen him since. He's not answering his phone. Could you please tell me where he might be?"
Savannah blinked those gorgeous blue eyes behind the brown curls. Charles wrinkled his forehead and looked briefly at her mother standing behind her, then back at the girl.
"I…I haven't seen him since last night. I left him outside on your porch."
"So…he didn't go with you?" Charles asked. “Because he never walked back inside the house.”
Savannah shook her head. "No. We…the thing is, I broke up with him and then I left. Last time I saw him, he was standing on the porch looking after me as I backed out of the driveway. I remember looking at the clock in the car; it was 11:50."
"So…so you don't know where he is?" Charles asked again even though he had heard her the first time. "And you left him there. After breaking up with him, you left him standing there in his most fragile state of mind?"
As the flood of thoughts tore through his mind, Charles grew worried and suddenly restless. Panic was spreading through his body like cancer, and it refused to let him go. As Charles stared at the young girl in front of him, he could hear nothing but the tormenting sound of his own heartbeat. In his pocket, his phone buzzed, and he grabbed it and saw a text from his wife asking:
HAVE YOU FOUND HIM?
Charles stared at the display, the phone shaking in his hand, then put it back in his pocket and looked at his brother.
"Let's keep looking. He's got to be here somewhere."
Three weeks later
The key was smeared in blood as she turned it in the ignition. Eliza Reuben felt the stickiness between her fingers and tried to rub it off on a towel she had in the car for the dog to lie on when she was wet from running in the snow after their long walks. But the blood wouldn't come off, no matter how much she rubbed. Eliza whimpered, then decided it had to wait. She had no time to waste. She threw the bloody towel on the floor, then backed out of the driveway and drove into the street, looking frantically in her mirrors.
She turned the car onto the big road, then hit the accelerator and rushed out of the neighborhood. She muttered little prayers under her breath while she drove down the street, looking into the rearview mirror, the sticky blood smearing her steering wheel.
Flashes of the dead body with those blank
staring eyes, the pool of blood on the floor beneath him, kept blinking in front of her eyes. She was gasping for breath as she kept seeing the body bounce underneath her hands, while her own screams echoed off the walls.
As Eliza hit Soco Road, she turned the wheel, and the car skidded sideways on the icy road and ended up in the snow. She shrieked and managed to get the car back onto the asphalt, then floored the pedal once again and the car jolted forward. As she did, a car came up behind her, the driver honking his horn as it barely avoided smashing into her.
Eliza's heart hammered against her ribs as she watched the car pass her, followed by a big truck that also honked at her.
You've got to get out of here. You've got to get away.
Eliza floored the accelerator once again, and the car jumped forward at full speed. As she moved forward again, she glanced at the passenger seat next to her, which held her laptop. Heart pounding in her chest, she wondered about her old mother, about her alcoholic brother, and especially about Paige, her beloved golden retriever. Who was going to take care of all of them when she was gone? How would they get by? Her mother needed her to grocery shop for her and would miss her at their Sunday night dinners. Where would her brother crash when he got too drunk to drive home? Would he drive anyway and kill himself? Or maybe run into some nice family on their way home and destroy their lives just like his had been destroyed when a motorcyclist had run into his pregnant wife and killed her on the spot? And Paige? Who was going to take her running in the mountains in the spring? Who would make sure she got her medicine? Her mother couldn't take care of a dog, and neither could her brother, who could be gone for days on one of his benders. She would end up in some shelter, wouldn't she? Would they know how to take care of her? Was she too old to be rescued? Or would they have to put her down?