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Willow Rose

  If I lie, I lose it all. If I stand or if I fall, I've got to lay it all on the line.

  Adrenaline Mob

  Part I

  Dispatch: 9-1-1 what’s your emergency?

  Caller: She’s dead.

  Dispatch: Excuse me? Who is?

  Caller: The woman.

  Dispatch: What woman, sir?

  Caller: (breathing heavily) She’s dead.

  Dispatch: I need you to calm down and try to talk to me. What’s your name?

  Caller: It doesn’t matter. Just send someone; she’s dead.

  Dispatch: Who is dead? Is it someone you know?

  Caller: Just send someone, please.

  Dispatch: What’s the address?

  Caller: 13 Mountain Creek, Bryson City, North Carolina.

  Dispatch: Okay, got it. And, sir, I need you to stay with me for a little while. Sir?

  Caller: Just send someone, please.

  Dispatch: I’m working on it. But tell me, what happened?

  Caller: She was killed.

  Dispatch: (pauses) Did you kill her, sir?

  Caller: Yes.

  Dispatch: And you’re sure she’s dead?

  Caller: (Breathes heavily) She will be.

  Dispatch: (pauses, breathes jaggedly) What do you mean, she will be? Is she still alive? Sir? Sir? Sir?

  Chapter 1

  The woman in the hospital bed is barely moving. She is lying eerily still, looking like she’s staring into the ceiling, reminding him mostly of a porcelain doll. Only her chest heaving up and down in a rhythmic motion reveals that she is, in fact, alive—that and the beeping monitor next to her, counting her every heartbeat. Her eyes are half-closed, and the big bruise on her cheek hasn’t healed yet. It’s still purple and swollen. Her arm and shoulder are bandaged, and blood has seeped through the gauze in patches. Her shoulder-length hair is spread out on the white pillow, looking like a red halo surrounding her.

  “Has she said anything so far?”

  FBI Special Agent Jonathan Caine looks at the small woman standing next to him by the window in the ICU. She belongs to the local law enforcement in the mountain town where they have sent him.

  Bryson City, North Carolina.

  In the heart of the Great Smokey Mountains—it’s known for its wildflowers, streams, and the gateway to the Appalachian Trail.

  Jonathan had never even heard of this town before his boss called him with this assignment. He’s still exhausted from the drive there, and his back is killing him, but there is no time to rest. They need this woman’s testimony in the books, while it is still fresh in her memory. Before coming to the hospital, Jonathan drove by the scene up by the cabin where they found the body, and it wasn’t pretty. The woman behind the glass is the only one who can tell him exactly what happened. She’s the lone survivor.

  “Not yet,” the local law enforcement officer, who goes by the name Victoria Grande says. Jonathan can’t stop smiling when she talks because of the irony of her name compared with the actual size of her body. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

  “And you say she was found inside the cabin when you arrived?” he asks. “That’s what I was told.”

  Victoria Grande nods. He wonders if she has children or if she’s married, then looks at her finger and spots a ring. It looks new. It’s still shiny, and she keeps touching it like she isn’t used to wearing it yet. It doesn’t surprise him that she’s married, even though she is young. Victoria Grande is pretty, and a girl like her should be married. He just hopes he’s a nice guy. He hopes she found a guy that prioritizes her. He hopes he’s nothing like himself, who messed up his chance at happiness and marriage by letting work get in the way. No woman deserves a man like that.

  “She was sitting in the chair in the living room, her face beat up, blood running from the gunshot wound in her shoulder. She was barely conscious when they brought her to the hospital.”

  He nods. That’s what the report said. It’s been three days since she was found in the cabin up there. She is originally from Florida. She was vacationing in the mountains when the incident happened. That’s all he knows about her.

  Grande hands him a wallet, or rather a small purse, one of those many women have today, carrying both their credit cards and a phone. He opens it and takes out the driver’s license. The phone isn’t there, naturally, since it will be with the techs, who will be doing to it what they do best. Jonathan barely recognizes the woman from the other side of the glass when he looks at the photo on the card. The red hair tells him it is her, but the beat-up face on the woman in the bed doesn’t look much like the woman in the photo.

  At least not anymore.

  She sits up when they enter. Her eyes are barely open. The right one seems not to be able to open properly, as the lid refuses to lift, and decides to dangle in front of her eye instead. Her upper lip is swollen and cracked, and it looks like it hurts as she opens her mouth. She’s about to say something, but pain holds her back.

  “Laurie Davis?” Jonathan says, and she tries to nod, but groans in pain, then leans back on her pillow.

  It rubs him the wrong way, seeing a woman like this. In his time on the force, he has seen his share of beaten-up women, and it never becomes something you just get used to seeing. It stirs him up every time in a way he can’t always control. Whether it is because his own mother was subjected to his father’s rage, he doesn’t know. But he suspects it is. He has seen first-hand what a terrorizing father can do, how much damage he can provide, not just to the woman he beats, but also to the children.

  “Yes,” Laurie answers. “And you are?”

  He reaches out his hand, and they shake, her using her left hand since the right is in a sling, so she won’t rip out the newly stitched gunshot wound in her shoulder.

  “FBI Special Agent Jonathan Caine and this is Detective Victoria Grande. I think the last part of her name refers to her big heart, not the size of her body,” he says and winks at her.

  That makes Laurie chuckle. Not a happy chuckle, but it is more than would be expected in a situation like this. Jonathan is known for making people feel relaxed in his company, and when they are comfortable, they talk. The words seem simply to flow easier.

  “Nice to meet you both,” she says.

  “Wish it could have been under different circumstances, huh?” he says and grabs a chair. Victoria Grande does the same. They sit next to her bedside.

  Laurie closes her eyes with a deep breath. “I guess there’s no use postponing it anymore, huh?”

  Jonathan shakes his head. “We need you to tell us what happened up there. And do take your time. We want all the details; we want the entire story. Also, what went before this. If anything seems too small and insignificant, tell it anyway. We can always eat the meat and spit out the bones, afterward, as my dear mother used to say. We have all the time in the world. I’m not retiring till later this year.”

  He says the last part with a small laugh and hopes the two women don’t detect the fear in his voice—because it is there. There is nothing Jonathan fears more right now than being retired—old and with nothing else to do. He recently turned fifty-six but feels like he’s still in his forties. He can live with the age. It doesn’t bother him. In most jobs, he would still be considered young, just not in the eyes of the bureau. The thought of being out of a job is what scares him. What is he supposed to do all day? Just stay at home with absolutely nothing to do? No one needing him? To Jonathan, that is the most terrifying thing in the world, and he has seen his share of atrocities in his line of work. But there’s no way around it. Agency policy declares he must retire at fifty-seven if he’s had more than twenty years in service. He can scr
eam and fight it all he wants to, but it is coming. Now, he just needs to figure out what to do with the rest of his life.

  He doesn’t even like to fish.

  Laurie leans back on her pillow, then uses the remote to raise her headrest to make herself comfortable. She looks at Jonathan with her left eye, then takes a deep breath through her nose, opens her cracked lips, and says:

  “All right, then. I guess it all started with Cheerios.”

  “Cheerios?” he says and looks up from his pad, where he was getting ready to write his notes. He is also recording everything through the app on his phone, but he likes to write down key points as well. It helps him to get a better overview.

  She nods.

  “Yes, Cheerios.”

  Chapter 2

  The thing is, I didn’t buy the darn Cheerios, and that’s what we were fighting about on our way back home in the car—the kids and me. That’s my son, Damian, and my daughter, Isabella. Now, when I say fighting, I mean my youngest, Damian, who is six years old, is having a raging fit. He is screaming at the top of his lungs inside the car, and there is nothing that can calm him. Damian loves his Cheerios, and more than that, he needs things to be the way they used to be. He doesn’t do well with changes, and there have been a lot of those recently. Too many for such a young heart to carry. I should have known that was what it was all about, but I was so frustrated, so worn out, I didn’t have the strength to deal with his fit. So, I yelled back. I yelled at him and told him to eat something else for once—that it won’t harm him.

  “But there is nothing I like,” he screams back at me. “It all tastes bad.”

  “Just do it for me, okay? Just this once?” I say.


  I look at my son in the rearview mirror. He crosses his arms in front of his chest and pouts. His sister, who is fourteen, rolls her eyes at him and looks out the window just as I drive up the street. We live on base—Ambridge Air Force base near Dundee Beach, Florida. My husband is a pilot in the Air Force. My kids go to the local school outside of base and come home by bus when I don’t pick them up on my way back from Publix. I prefer to shop at Publix outside of the base since I can get more organic groceries that way, and I try to keep my family healthy. It’s funny how you try to control the little things when everything else is out of control, right? I mean, it’s absurd; here I am, not knowing if my husband will have killed himself, and all I worry about is whether my children are eating organic or not. As if it even matters. They don’t really know that it is better, do they? All the experts, I mean. Do they even have proof that organic is better for you? I didn’t eat organic food when growing up, nor was I gluten-free or dairy-free or any of that stuff, and I’m still alive, right? But I guess it makes me feel in control when I make sure the kids stay healthy. It’s probably why I also tend to go to the gym constantly when Ryan is overseas. I do cross-fit, and it makes me feel stronger, so I tend to do that a lot when he is away for a longer time. This was his fifth deployment, and he had just returned about a month earlier. I say returned, but the thing is, I wasn’t sure he ever returned from this trip. I know a part of him didn’t; that’s for sure. He came back changed. It’s hard to explain…he was just not the same man. Anyhow, I’m getting off track here. Where was I…? Oh, yes. I turn onto our street on the base, where we live. It’s all government housing, our street, a row of two-story gray houses squeezed onto a small strip of land between the river and the ocean. The houses are all the same; I’m talking completely identical, and more than once, I’ve parked in front of the wrong house, thinking it was ours, ha-ha, but that was mostly in the beginning, in the first years we lived there. Now, after eight years, I’m somewhat of an expert at telling the houses apart.

  What I am not an expert in is dealing with my husband’s PTSD. Do you know how many of them come back with PTSD? No, neither do I, but it’s a lot more than you’d think. And after four trips over there, I was pretty certain it wouldn’t happen to him, that he knew what he was dealing with by now, so it wouldn’t happen. Not to my Ryan. But it did. And we realized it too late. It’s not like there’s a sign to look for, like a rash or a fever, or that he’s even aware of it himself; it just sort of happens, you know? The little things he can’t deal with all of a sudden.

  “Is that Dad?” my daughter says as I drive up toward the house. Both my children shriek when they see him. He is sitting outside on the doorstep, looking dashingly handsome as always. My heart skips a beat as I lay my eyes on him.

  “It is; it’s Daddy,” Damian yells, while the groceries in the back clank and scramble as I turn the minivan into the driveway and stop.

  “It is him!”

  Damian jumps out the minute the car stands still and runs to his father. Isabella follows him, but she is more cautious.

  “Hi there, peaches,” he says to her as she approaches him, Damian already hanging around his neck.


  He pulls her into a hug. I fight my tears as they well up in my eyes. I am overwhelmed with so many emotions right now; it’s unbearable. I can’t contain it. He sends me a feeble smile like he knows he has screwed up.

  “Where have you been, Daddy? Where have you been?” Damian says. “I got a new bunny. Do you want to see it, Daddy? Do you?”

  “Really? You got a new one, buddy? That’s amazing,” Ryan says and looks up at me, his eyes questioning. We had agreed no more pets, but that was before he left. Things are different now. Rules and agreements are being broken in the name of survival.

  Damian rushes inside to get the new bunny.

  “If Mom keeps giving him bunnies every time you’re not home, we’re gonna need to go live on a farm,” Isabella says.

  “Yeah, well, he needed a distraction,” I say as Isabella goes inside, ignoring my excuses. She has heard them numerous times before and still doesn’t believe them. She knows I gave him that bunny to make him stop whining and moping, so I could catch a break.

  I grab the groceries and slam the back of the van shut, then walk up toward Ryan. He grabs one of the bags from me and carries it inside when Damian comes running with his new pet, the black angora rabbit called Tigger. It’s named after Damian’s favorite character in Winnie the Pooh, and since they could both jump, it was the right name for it, he argued. He already has two other bunnies, Ollie and Wanda, and the last thing we need is one more mouth to feed, but it seemed like a good thing at the time. It was the only thing that cheered the boy up when he realized his dad had left again after only one month home, and we didn’t know when he was coming back.

  “How have you been?”

  Ryan helps me put the groceries away. I have a jug of milk in my hand and have it halfway into the fridge when he asks the question. I pause, then close my eyes for just a second before placing the jug on the shelf and closing the door to the fridge a little harder than I intend to.

  Ryan looks up from a paper bag, a pack of Annie’s Organic Mac and Cheese Deluxe in his hand.

  “How have I been?” I ask with a light scoff. “How have I been? Well, let’s see. Ever since you ran out on us and decided to stay away for the past week, I’ve pretty much been trying to keep everything together. I feed the kids; I help with their homework, I arrange playdates, I go to parent-teacher conferences, and I nod and smile and tell them everything is fine. I tell my parents, using my calmest possible voice, that you’ll be back, not to worry, and then I cry secretly in the bathroom, praying the children won’t hear it. I build Legos with Damian, hoping he won’t ask for you; I do math with Isabella, praying I know what I’m doing. I answer their questions, and I take their fits of rage as they turn their anger and blame on me. I tuck them in at night; I get them up in the morning, I wash their clothes while they’re in school and make sure they’re folded and that none of my tears hit their dinner as I serve it. I can’t stop eating, and I think I’ve gained about ten pounds just this past week because I worry; I worry like crazy about you and when we’ll see you again. And once we do,
how long will you stay this time? You leave without a word, and we don’t know when or if we’ll ever see you again. I don’t know where you are, where you’re sleeping at night. You don’t even freaking call them and say goodnight. At least you did that when you were deployed, Ryan. At least you’d call us. The kids need you, you know? They finally got their dad back, and now you’re gone again without a word, without even a goodbye or an explanation. What do you want me to tell them? They’re trying so hard to be brave, and then…then I forget one thing like those freaking Cheerios, and suddenly everything breaks down. I try to convince them—along with myself—that their dad hasn’t left for good. That you’ll be back one of these days, maybe tomorrow, while the hope dwindles inside me. And I feel so abandoned. You might as well have died in that war over there. Maybe the pain would have been less invasive. That’s how I’ve been. How’s your day going so far?”

  The minute I say all this, I regret it. I can tell by the look in his eyes that he is embarrassed. I blush with guilt. I have made him feel worse. That wasn’t my intention. I guess I just needed to get it off my chest.

  “I’m sorry,” he says. He is rubbing his eyes and hair excessively, and I can tell he isn’t feeling well. The last thing I need right now is to scare him off, to make him run away again now that he is finally home.

  No. I’m sorry, Ryan. I know you can’t help it. You’re not well. It’s just so…I will behave. You’re the one who’s in pain here. You’re the one suffering.

  Those are the words I want to say. But I can’t seem to get them across my lips. Instead, I wipe the sweat off my brow and keep unpacking, putting cereal boxes away, annoyed that I’d forgotten those stupid Honey Nut Cheerios. The thing is, I had done it on purpose. I meant not to buy them—to cut down on the boy’s sugar intake. It's all he ever eats, sometimes straight from the box. It can’t be healthy. The kids are supposed to be eating healthier; the therapist told me, especially my daughter. Sugar isn’t good for her anxiety, which often torments her during tests in school. But who am I kidding? I’m not going to be Super-Mom of the year anyway. I just want to get past this week, heck even this day would be nice.